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Park History: Dinosaur National Monument


Dinosaur National Monument: It's more than just fossils. NPS photo.

If it were designated part of the National Park System today, what would we call Dinosaur National Monument?

True, it offers a treasure trove of fossilized dinosaur remains, one that continues to be studied. But there's also the riverine component, mountains, and high desert that all offer outstanding experiences befitting a national park setting. And would we call it a "national monument," or is it worthy of "national park" status?

Hugging the Green and Yampa rivers and overlapping parts of Utah and Colorado, Dinosaur is a 210,000-acre slab of Western landscape. Those two rivers, with rapids named Upper Disaster Falls, Moonshine, SOB, and Hell's Half Mile, as well as towering cliffs that tightly frame the setting, lure river runners from across the country, while backcountry solitude and discovery await those who venture into Zenobia Basin or through Hells Canyon towards Castle Park.

There are a number of hiking trails that lead you into the landscape. Among them are Jones Hole Trail, Island Park Trail, and Gates of Lodore Nature Trail. These range in length from but three-quarters of a mile to 16 miles. Each unveils some of the monument's wonders: Jones Hole leads to a small waterfall, an oddity in this arid landscape, and showcases some Native American rock art; the Island Park Trail, which is not maintained and so could require some route-finding skills, roams through sandstone knobs, past cliffs, and through canyons under the pounding sun (in summer) so commonplace in the West's high desert landscapes, and; the Gates of Lodore Nature Trail runs a short distance along the Green River and provides stunning views of the Gates of Lodore.

Some of the more popular trails include the 1.5-mile-long Sounds of Silence Nature Trail, the Harpers Corner Trail, which runs 3 miles, and the 8-mile-long Ruple Point Trail. You also can find a number of other nature trails and routes by exploring this site.

Experienced backcountry travelers can explore deeper into the monument, (most of which is managed as proposed wilderness) though they best carry plenty of water and good navigation skills.

But you don't need to walk or float to experience Dinosaur. The Yampa Bench Road -- which the park's website says requires a four-wheel-drive rig with reasonable clearance -- slices through a large segment of the monument, running 38 miles west to east from its junction with the Echo Park Road and on past views of Castle Park, Harding Hole, and Schoonover Buttes before tying into Colorado 14 and continuing on to Elk Springs, Colorado.

Another nice ride is 32 miles up the Harpers Corner Road, which is paved, to the Echo Park Overlook, where you'll find gorgeous views down into the maw of Echo Park where the Green and Yampa converge. (Note: Although park maps indicate a picnic ground at the overlook, officials tell me that's not so.)

While it was the abundance of dinosaur fossils that led President Woodrow Wilson on October 4, 1915, to sign the paperwork necessary to set aside 80 acres surrounding the Dinosaur Quarry as Dinosaur National Monument, viewing the monument's fossilized dinosaur remains is a tad tough these days.

While the Visitor Center that was built in 1957 offered a stunning view of a cliff-side holding an estimated 1,500 fossils, it was condemned back in July 2006 for structural and safety reasons. Construction on a new facility isn't expected to begin before 2011. That said, at the Temporary Visitor Center near the Quarry Visitor Center you can see some real fossils and exhibits. You also can take the Fossil Discovery Hike (roughly 1.5 miles round trip) and see a variety of fossils still embedded in rock.

Monument Superintendent Mary Risser says design work on the new facilities will begin in November. Officials plan to retain and rehabilitate the shelter that now protects the fossil-studded cliffside so visitors can continue to walk past the fossils. The rest of the facility, however, will be torn down and its offices and labs relocated into a new facility down near where the temporary center currently can be found. The National Park Service also plans to make the new facility a showcase for sustainable construction and operation.

Now, getting back to the question that opened this post, what would you call the monument if it were established today? Does "Dinosaur" still fit when you consider all that this place encompasses? Perhaps "Yampa National Park," or "Green River National Park"? Or even "Gates of Lodore National Park."

Beyond the name, would this new entity carry the "monument" designation, or be known as a "national park." True, there's no discernible difference in how either designation would be managed on the ground, but the "national park" status does carry substantial cachet and seems a little easier to attract funds when needed. And, sadly, Dinosaur does need a better revenue stream. Shortages forced the superintendent earlier this year to trim two-thirds of her paleontological staff so she could meet law enforcement, maintenance, and interpretation needs.

Perhaps if Dinosaur carried the "national park" moniker, and if the congressional delegations from Utah and Colorado took notice of how tarnished this jewel has become in terms of its paleontological mission, things would be different.

Dinosaur National Monument factoid:
On July 14, 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a presidential proclamation that expanded the monument by approximately 200,000 acres to include the canyons of the Green and Yampa rivers


Of all our NPS-managed national monuments, Dinosaur most deserves to be elevated to national park status. Dinosaur, as you elucidate above, is an amazing place, an oft-overlooked gem of a park full of opportunities for adventure. It even features one of the top 10 largest natural arches in the world, Outlaw Arch, discovered in 2006 in a side canyon of the Yampa River. If Black Canyon of the Gunnison is worthy of its national park status (and it is!), then Dinosaur is doubly so. Trying to convince the locals of that, however, is a different story.

While I can think of a dozen different names for the park, "Dinosaur" inspires a sense of wonder and intrigue that "Yampa Naitonal Park," or "Green River National Park," simply don't, even though "Dinosaur" only describes a small part of what this park is all about. I say keep the name, make it a national park, and inspire the public to give this park a visit and the respect it deserves.

The proposal for national park status for Dinosaur National Monument has been on the table for at least twenty years. Perceived conflict with the interests of the oil and gas industry in the nearby Uinta Basin has been the main reason legislation has stalled, even though former Colorado Rep. Ben Nighthorse Campbell supported park designation in 1989. To my knowledge, no one has suggested a name change-- the proposal has always been for Dinosaur National Park.

More info:

I just had a friend telling me about seeing two grizzlies in Dinosaur N.M., Colorado side. Honestly I did not think there were any grizzlies in or around that area. I think thats great !

The proposals to make Dinosaur a national park began in the mid- to late-1950s after defeat of the dam proposals for Split Mountain and Echo Park. Locals fought the idea fiercely, more or less as revenge for the success of the conservation movement in blocking the dams. The anti-dam coalition decided to declare victory and move on to other projects.

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