Treasures of Dinosaur National Monument


People are fascinated with dinosaurs. I’m one of them. Like for most people, it all started out when I was a kid. I learned all I could about T-Rex, triceratops, stegosaurus, brontosaurus, diplodocus. When Life magazine published its groundbreaking illustrations that appeared in an early 1950s issue, they grabbed my attention from the start. With time, my interest waned, but never went extinct.

For the longest time, I wanted to go to Dinosaur National Monument, but because of its location in Utah’s remote northeast corner, I could never fit in a visit as part of a logical Southwest itinerary, in 2008 or 2011. Neither was the monument a part of the plans my wife and I made to visit Glacier (in Montana) and Grand Teton (in Wyoming) national parks last month. But, as we were about to leave Jackson, Wyoming, a week remaining to get back home to the Seattle area, I studied a map and realized we could drop in on DNM with time to spare.

The monument features a treasure trove of in situ fossilized dinosaur bones, approximately 1,500 of them, in the Dinosaur Quarry. Never completely excavated, the fossils were left in place partially exposed along a hillside, called the Wall of Bones, that is now completely enclosed in a modern, air-conditioned building where visitors can admire specimens up close.

Dinosaur Quarry (aka Carnegie Quarry)

Without trained eyes, it’s impossible to tell what you’re looking at. The exhibit is a jumble of bones embedded in an 80-foot wall of bedrock. Interpretive panels and publications help. The disorder immediately suggests some sort of catastrophe entombed the animals, maybe suddenly. The current theory is that raging waters swept many down to a river bed where they got covered by sand and mud, which later lithified. Considering the size of the park, 200,000 acres spread over two states (Utah and Colorado), I got the feeling that many more of these fossil mother lodes have yet to be discovered. Amazingly, the monument already has some 800 paleontological sites.

The specimens here are Mesozoic era, lodged in a depositional layer known as the Morrison Formation, about 150 million years old and characterized by very colorful rock strata. The nastiest dinosaur unearthed was allosaurus; the biggest were sauropods, like diplodocus and recently discovered abydosaurus. Studies have shown that they and other creatures lived in a moderate savanna environment with several rivers, but this is hardly the case now. If they were to awaken this minute, the animals would not recognize where nature (geological forces) has put them today, thousands of feet higher in conditions they would find inhospitable.

Reassembled Allosaurus in front of an artist’s concept

Embedded dinosaur skull

The fossils are what attract visitors but Dinosaur National Monument is important in another respect. It has a significant number of Fremont culture petroglyphs, which I hadn’t realized until I got here. After visiting the quarry, we hopped in the car to go see them.

Rock carvings for public viewing are found in five areas of the park. Many more sites are not publicized to protect them from vandalism. It’s a sad state of affairs that this is necessary. The pre-Columbian Fremont peoples, who for a thousand years inhabited parts of what are now Utah, Nevada, Idaho and Colorado, used vertical rock faces, particularly those stained by desert varnish, as their palette on which they chiseled representational figures of humans and animals, and abstract designs. Their culture disappeared around 1200 CE suddenly and mysteriously.

Petroglyphs, Dinosaur Quarry

Petroglyphs, Cub Creek site

Petroglyphs of lizards

As if dinosaurs and rock carvings weren’t enough, DNM also has another noteworthy distinction. Of all lands under National Park Service jurisdiction, it contains the most complete geologic record, spanning 1.2 billion years. All the rock layers known to science except three are represented here. I was amazed at the stratigraphic variety even in the small section of the park we visited. More dramatic than that, many layers were contorted, folded, broken or tilted. Continental drift and the upheaval that caused the creation of the Rockies, known as the Laramide orogeny, did a number on the landscape.

Tilted rock layers laid bare through erosion

I don’t know if I’ll ever come back here. It’s not for the lack of significance, spectacle or things to do, but for the same reason that I hadn’t come before. I was glad— overwhelmed actually when it comes right down to it—that I finally did visit. It’s worth a stop at least once even if you think paleontology, anthropology or geology holds no particular interest for you.

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