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.

The Great Idleberry Pie in Brigham City

The idleberry pie ranks as one of America’s great pies. It’s served deliciously warm at Idle Isle Cafe in Brigham City, Utah, a dessert for which I’d deliberately hold back on the main course to make room for it. A la mode, with scoops of their excellent vanilla ice cream, it serves henceforth as a reason to make a detour here every time I drive through the Salt Lake City area.

And what is idleberry exactly? Originally created as a combination of blueberry, blackberry and boysenberry, our waitress a few days ago said it’s a mixture of blueberries and marionberries. If the recipe did change, it hasn’t missed a beat since I had it last six years ago.

The cafe is not a one pony show either. It has been dishing up comfort foods to locals daily ever since the Idle Cafe, originally opened in 1921 to sell ice cream and candy, became a full-service restaurant.

But, it’s their side orders that deserve special mention. Their homemade rolls, fresh out of the oven, are a yeasty masterpiece, especially slathered with butter and the cafe’s incomparable apricot jam. No one makes better rolls, period.

Idle Isle Cafe’s rolls

And think twice before skipping the french fries, which you might inadvisedly do for health-related reasons. They’re so perfectly made and addictive that it took all my will power not to polish them off to make room for THAT PIE. 

French fries

Idle Isle Cafe
24 S Main St
Brigham City, UT 84302

Antica Forma: Neapolitan Magic in Vernal (Utah)

What do dinosaurs, pizza and Israel have it common?

Trick question. The city of Vernal is close to Dinosaur National Monument, located in the little visited corner of northeastern Utah, the state with the most bang for the National Park Service buck. The monument has 1,500 dinosaur bone fossils on display in situ, making it a destination for paleontologists and tourists. Vernal also attracted the talents of chef Israel Hernandez, who learned the art of Neapolitan pizza-making in New York City under the tutelage of masters Don Antonio Starita, a third-generation pizzaiolo from Naples, and Roberto Caporuscio (Keste Pizza & Vino). In 2015, Hernandez even won third place in the USA Caputo Cup, the pizza world’s annual cook-off. Somehow, he was lured out of NYC to open Antica Forma (with a business partner Jody), a Neapolitan pizzeria in Vernal (population 10,000).

To have such a place in town, let alone a few blocks from the motel, was totally unexpected for me and my wife. A quick look at TripAdvisor and Yelp made me aware of it.

We started off with an arugula salad mixed with house-grown grape tomatoes, micro-planed Parmesan and a balsamic vinaigrette glaze. Excellent.

Fresca salad

The pistacchio pizza impressed us with its masterful crust, thin, chewy, crispy on the outside, nicely blistered in spots. This is a hallmark of an excellent dough, likely “00” flour, and mastery over a blisteringly hot pizza oven. The pistachio pesto was a sleight of hand; it was hard to tell the ground nuts from the finely ground Italian sausage. A cream sauce with house-made mozzarella cheese, basil and EVOO completed the delicious surprise (top image).

We were ready to pay the bill when the waitress mentioned that one of the dessert specials was peach pie. Fond memories of Marie Callendar danced in our heads. What arrived was a fresh peach pie with the lightest, barely sweet glaze, topped with whipped cream. And, oh, that crust—so incredibly light. The desserts, it turns out, is made by Jody, the business partner. He also makes gelati. The waitress encouraged us to try the banana cream pie the next time we come back. Come back? Now, that’s a thought.

Fresh peach pie

Our return. How could we not enjoy one last meal here? For the second night in a row, we ate at Antica Forma.

Salad: the Primavera—baby mixed greens, candied pecans, sliced Granny Smith apples, shredded Havarti, roasted tomato vinaigrette. Very good.

Primavera salad

Pizza: the Funghi—tomato sauce, house-made mozzarella, minced mushrooms, basil, EVOO. The same superb crust, a fresh tomato sauce. Excellent.

Funghi pizza

Our waitress last night informed us that Antica Forma will be opening a branch in Moab (in February 2018). Edward Abbey fans, rejoice.

Antica Forma Pizzeria
251 E Main St
Vernal, UT 84078

Canyon Overlook Trail, Zion NP

The Canyon Overlook Trail is a nice, moderately difficult hike, but it’s so easy to miss. The trailhead doesn’t start from the valley floor but rather from just east of the Zion-Mt. Carmel tunnel, 600ft above the valley floor. Entering or exiting Zion will also treat you to spectacular vistas as you take the winding road to reach the valley or tunnel.

The Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway ascends 600ft from the valley floor

The Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway ascends 600ft from the valley floor

The trail, which is only one-mile long, skirts a narrow ridge winding over and past slickrock that forms all sorts of strange, eroded rock shapes, which are previews to even stranger shapes that we’ll see later on our trip. The dominant geologic layer visible all around is Navajo sandstone showing off banded streaks of various shades of orange. The whitish areas were long ago removed of iron oxide that gives this rock its reddish color. Along the way, the trail ducks under impressive natural excavations.

The trail briefly passes under overhangs

The trail briefly passes under overhangs

From the trail, some examples of blind arches can be seen, formed from sections of rock that millions of years ago fell away to produce these arch-like excavations. The most spectacular one is The Great Arch of Zion that you can see from the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway. At the end of the trail is a breathtaking overlook of the Zion Canyon looking west. In fact, this overlook sits atop The Great Arch.

Great Arch of Zion

Great Arch of Zion

Probably the most interesting and bizarre sights in the Southwest are the strange, sculpted rock formations called hoodoos, prominently featured at Bryce. But the handiwork of wind and water erosion is everywhere to be seen, taking on various, sometimes fantastical shapes depending on the sandstone material with which natural forces had to work. Even here at Zion, consisting mostly of the very hard Navajo sandstone, these outcroppings, shaped vaguely like mushrooms, are thought to have been created when a stupendous geologic force lifted up the plateau and gave water a faster, more forceful route to lower elevations. Smoothed over millions of years, these formations are a wonder to behold.

Aside from the spectacular geology, we also came across local flora and fauna.

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Zion Pizza & Noodle Company (Springdale, UT)

Combo Pizza

This is our second time at Zion Pizza & Noodle Company; the first time was in 2008. Pizzas here are pretty good, the dough thicker than we prefer. Our Combo Pizza of tomato sauce, pepperoni, black olives, onions, mushrooms, Canadian bacon, and two kinds of cheese really hit the spot after a long day. You can have your pizza in the Beer Garden in back.

And there are plenty of brewskis, both on tap and in bottles. Utah beers, a term that invites oxymoronic humor, are featured. I still love Polygamy Porter if for no other reason than its motto that offends some people, “Why just have one?” It’s pretty good beer.

Zion Pizza & Noodle Company
868 Zion Park Boulevard
Springdale, UT 84767
Link to menus

Virgin River Narrows, Zion NP

We’d been looking forward with some trepidation to this hike. Last time we were here in April 2008, it wasn’t possible because the currents were too strong and water levels too high. The Narrows at Zion National Park is not a hike in the traditional sense because it involves wading in the Virgin River virtually the entire length (save for a few sandbars here and there), in spots chest-deep. Most people do The Narrows in summertime when it’s a lot warmer. The intense Southwest heat gets considerably tempered by the water and high canyon walls that don’t admit as much sunshine.

Today, we finally got to hike The Narrows. First, we rented equipment from a local outfitter in Springdale, which included wooden hiking poles, waterproof boots and neoprene socks. The day didn’t start off so promisingly. A light drizzle was beginning to fall. Sucking it up, we decided to go ahead. The first step into the river took some adjustment, getting our feet entirely wet since the shoes and socks would do little to keep water out. The next mental and physical adjustment was getting used to walking on smooth, slippery rocks, most bigger than your feet, which meant that often we were struggling to keep our ankles straight. Hiking poles helped. I was certain that even the light precipitation overhead was accumulating in the river with thin sheets of water cascading down the canyon walls to raise the water level and boost the power of the current.

After we hiked a short distance upriver, we confronted our first test. A large depression in the river, like a bowl, made the water a lot deeper so that we had to wade chest-deep to get to the other side. At this point, you have to lift your belongings up in the air to keep them above water level, all the while maneuvering against the current. Oh, to be a little taller.

Most people hike to an area called Wall Street which is the deepest slot canyon in the world. Our attempt to reach Wall Street was thwarted by constant heavy drizzle which chilled us to the bone, almost to the point of hypothermia. We would have gone on if not for my wife’s sore ankle and my sore knee. Our lack of conditioning took its toll. We decided to turn back and had to retrace our steps in mild pain. The hike was definitely an experience.

The weather was much better on the following day (sunny with few clouds) so we thought it might have been better to have taken the hike then. But, we learned from a cashier in the Zion Lodge gift shop that, because of yesterday’s rains, the water level was higher and the flow rate stronger. Bottom line: you can never predict hiking conditions just by looking at the weather.

Word to the wise. Keep your electronics in a waterproof bag. I rented one from the outfitter. Dutifully, I took it out as needed when snapping photographs and put it back in when done. As you can imagine, this removes photographic spontaneity. At one point, I decided to chance it by hooking the camera strap over my neck and under one arm and proceeded to wade across the river. Bad idea. I slipped backward and the camera got submerged, though briefly. I yanked it out and hoped for the best. I wound up having to send the camera in for repairs. Human error like this is not covered under warranty. I repeat, keep electronics in a waterproof bag.

Check out this YouTube video of the Narrows hike (photographed by Amazing Places on Our Planet) taken only three weeks after ours. The water appears to be a lot calmer than when we went. Makes me envious.

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Cedar Breaks National Monument (UT)

Indian paintbrush

Situated in the middle of Dixie National Forest, Cedar Breaks National Monument is a testament to the forces of uplift and erosion. It shares the visual splendor of Bryce Canyon National Park not too far away, but it stands 2,000 ft higher in elevation at over a breathtaking 10,000 ft above sea level. Although both places were linked at one time, a gigantic fault separated them millions of years ago. Hiking at this altitude, even over mild elevation changes, is an exercise in breathing labor. Along certain sections, we were forced to stop, huffing and puffing, to catch our breath almost every 20 steps or so. If you haven’t acclimatized over a few days, you could suffer headaches and nausea.

From the rim trail, the only established one in the monument, you can get spectacular views, not only from the viewpoints but along the trail as well, of the hoodoos, fins, columns and spires in variegated pastel colors that are the hallmark of these unique formations.

Juniper roots itself over rock


Idle Isle Cafe (Brigham City, UT)

Idle Isle Cafe’s idleberry pie (a la mode)

Michael and Jane Stern’s 500 Things to Eat Before It’s Too Late lists Idle Isle Cafe’s idleberry pie as one of them. Idleberry is a trade name of theirs and consists of a combination of blueberries, blackberries and boysenberries, a worthy competitor of Springdale’s bumbleberry pie. Located in Brigham City, the cafe also serves other scrumptious entrées. We had a very nice lunch here. The pan-fried mountain trout was very good, served with superb french fries. The rolls are homemade, very yeasty and chewy. Spread with butter and the cafe’s excellent apricot jam, the rolls were gone in no time. We ordered our idleberry pie a la mode, of course.

Pan-fried trout with fries

Homemade rolls with butter and apricot jam

Idle Isle Cafe
24 S Main St
Brigham City, UT 84302

Natural Bridges National Monument (UT)

Sipapu Bridge

Sipapu Bridge

Many travelers going through the Southwest skip Natural Bridges National Monument because it’s tucked out of the way and maybe because the small park features only three natural stone bridges. But a visit is well worth the time.

Bridges are rock spans that are carved out by a river. They typically form where a river meanders and undercuts the base of a fin that eventually collapses. This is in contrast to a natural arch, which does not require the agency of a river to create it.

To get good views of the bridges, you need to hike down the canyons to the river beds. The trails are generally very steep, easier to get down than returning. The main road (Bridge View Drive) lies on the mesa composed of Cedar Mesa sandstone. We were able to reach the base of all three bridges in one day.

Sipapu Bridge is the largest of the three bridges and second largest in the world. The trail requires negotiating steep sections, bridges, ladders and some stairs. This is decidedly the toughest bridge trail hike. But, the effort is worth it. Once you reach the bridge, its size overwhelms. An even greater experience is to walk directly underneath it and look up, something we couldn’t do at Landscape Bridge in Arches National Park. Sipapu is 220 feet high, 268 feet across, and 31 feet wide.

Kachina Bridge is the youngest bridge as evidenced by the relatively small size of its opening (or the relative thickness of the span). In 1992, 4,000 tons of rock fell from underneath. The rubble can still be seen below. The bridge rises 210 feet high, is 204 feet across and 44 feet wide.

Kachina Bridge

Kachina Bridge

Owachomo Bridge is thought to be the oldest bridge. One sign of this is the relative thinness of the span (see below). The bridge is 106 feet high, 180 feet across, and 27 feet wide.

Owachomo Bridge

Owachomo Bridge

An additional attraction is that Natural Bridges is a certified dark-sky park which means that there is no light pollution to prevent your being able to see the Milky Way in all its splendor. It’s unfortunate that even in small towns, we are unable to make out the vastness of our galaxy and wonder about our place in the  universe.

Hovenweep National Monument (UT)

Hovenweep Castle

Hovenweep Castle

Not too far from Mesa Verde is a complex of ancient communities that was built at the headwaters of box canyons and situated in a remote area stretching across both Colorado and Utah—Hovenweep National Monument. We set aside a few hours to visit the monument en route to Blanding. We would have been able to spend more time here were it not for bogus directions by our GPS unit that led us to a back road far from the park entrance. While our Garmin guided us flawlessly throughout most of our trip, the lesson is not to rely solely on technology. After backtracking through Cortez, we got to Hovenweep the old-fashioned way — using a map.

With little time left in the day, the ranger at the visitors’ center recommended that we visit the Holly group of towers. But, to get there, with ranger-provided directions in hand, we had to find the correct unimproved road off Route 10 and drive in over 8 miles of rutted, washboarded dirt road to reach the trailhead.

Much of what remains in Hovenweep National Monument are multi-storied towers, similar to those on display at Mesa Verde. Like all ancient ruins throughout the Southwest, their placement on sites normally unsuitable for habitation puzzles archaeologists. They speculate that they served defensive purposes based on the small sizes of their windows (almost like peepholes) and tight entry portals. A curious architectural variation here is that many towers have a “D”-shaped cross-section for reasons unknown. It seems logical that because these complexes were built next to seeps or natural springs in this generally arid environment, it would be reason enough to defend them against competitors at a time when an extended drought plagued the region.

A few towers were built on the most inexplicable foundations, such as on top of huge boulders or irregular rock slabs. Boulder House is one example. In fact, one tower was erected on an immense boulder that probably fell eons ago.

Structure built on top of fallen boulder

Structure built on top of fallen boulder

The trail connects to the one featuring the Horseshoe and Hackberry groups. The Twin Towers are notable for their elaborate masonry and respective shapes, one like a “D” and the other an oval.

Twin Towers constructed in different shapes

Twin Towers constructed in different shapes

Of all the beautiful flora we saw in the wild, the most spectacular had to be the claret cup cactus (also known as the hedgehog cactus). It is the most photographed cactus in the Southwest for its splendid scarlet color that can easily be spotted along the trails. Hummingbirds, primary pollinators of the claret cup, get their heads covered with pollen when reaching the nectar deep inside the flower. The finest example we came across was here in Hovenweep, a single cluster that immediately caught our eye. Since the flowers only last for a few days, we were lucky to have seen a few.

Claret cup cactus

Claret cup cactus