Exploring Dinosaur National Park

I've grown up in Colorado and have been fairly fortunate to spend many weekends and family camping trips exploring the various mountainous wild areas in the state.  But, just like many families, we tend to have the familiar areas of forest or lakes that we like to visit and tend to return to the same or nearby areas year after year.  I have been looking for new areas to explore and yes, they are new to me, certainly not undiscovered. 

Recently I was looking through some photos online and saw an amazing cliff face with stars above it.  I dug into the location a little more and discovered that the towering cliff face was Steamboat Rock in Dinosaur National Monument.  I had certainly heard of Dinosaur National Monument, but realized I had never actually visited the park and I really didn't even know much about it.

Steamboat Rock at sunset from Echo Park
Sunrise above Steamboat Rock in Dinosaur National Monument.
I started using Google to research the park more and planning out how to get to Steamboat Rock to get some sunrise and sunset photos.  I was even hoping to get some cool star photos, but unfortunately the moon was almost full during the weekend I had available and it would be up pretty much the entire night, rising just before sunset and setting just before sunrise.

Through the research I was impressed at just how large and remote the monument is.  Most of the area is only accessed from a select few roads that go into the interior of the park.  And of those roads that do go closer to the Green and Yampa rivers, some are dirt roads where 4x4 or high clearance vehicles are recommended.  

In order to get close to Steamboat Rock, you have to enter the canyon area of Dinosaur National Monument from the edge of the small town of Dinosaur, Colorado.  From there, it was about a 30 minute drive on paved roads, then another hour of high clearance dirt road to drop down to the river.  The road travels through two very steep canyons and when it gets wet they say that the road is the consistency of peanut butter and impassable.  The roads were dry when we went through, but I could definitely see how it would be difficult when wet.

As the road gets closer to Steamboat Rock and the confluence of the Green River and Yampa River, it travels through a narrow canyon and drops into Echo Park.  This area is a large basin surrounded by cliffs.  There is a small first-come first-serve campground that was only about half full on the weekend we visited.  There is a place to launch or retrieve rafts if you have a permit and a ranger house.  There are also trails that go along the river in either direction from the road.  Those trails skirt the edge of the rivers and are not well marked.

My son and I tried some fly fishing along the Yampa river, but despite seeing a handful of fish surface for bugs, I couldn't entice any to take a fly.  Since we were there in June, the water was flowing fast and cold thanks to the typical melting of the snowpack.  Although my son briefly waded in a sheltered, slower section of the river, it was a little too cold for him to spend much time in the water.

View from Harper's Corner Trail, Dinosaur National Monument

We spent two nights at the Echo Park campground at the base of the impressive cliffs.  There were a few other campers, but the adjacent sites remained empty.  The second night we went up to Harper's Corner and hiked out to get an impressive view from above Steamboat Rock.  As the sun set behind us, the impressive rock formation was lit with a range of orange, red, purple and blue as the last light faded into darkness.  

As the name implies, Dinosaur National Monument is known for Dinosaur fossils that were discovered on the west side of the park.  Those fossils were located in the area of an ancient river that resulted in  thousands of bones being deposited in a very concentrated area.  The fossils that have been recovered from that site have been sent to museums all over the world, including the Smithsonian. 

Earl Douglass discovered the fossils in 1909 and led the efforts to excavate and preserve the fossils.  He ultimately had the vision of leaving a section of the fossil bed intact in a way that visitors could come and actually view the fossils still in place in the rock and soil that they were discovered in.  Today visitors can come and see hundreds of bones still in the rock, even touching some of the larger fossils that can handle it.

While we only had a short weekend to explore this remote national monument, I have already decided this is a place I will have to return to.  It also goes to show some of the amazing parts of Colorado that can be missed if you stick to only exploring the parts that you are familiar with.


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