Yabba Dabba Doo in Utah
The first thing you'll notice when you arrive in Vernal, the home base for most visitors to Dinosaurland, is the 30-foot-tall pink brontosaurus. Her name is Dinah. She has a welcoming smile and long eyelashes and can be seen from miles away. Farther down Main Street you'll encounter three dinosaurs engaged in battle and a painting of a cuddly brontosaurus in a two-piece bathing suit. Then there's Campground Dina and the Dinosaur Inn. And the gift shops hawking dinosaur-themed toys. Oh, and be sure to stop by the visitor center, too, to pick up your license to hunt pterodactyls.
This oversize, Flintstones-style kitsch can certainly be a shock to the senses. But if you visit Dinosaurland, you'll have to get used to it. Not so much the kitsch, which is largely centered in Vernal, but having your senses shocked. Like the gargantuan reptiles that once reigned over this northeastern corner of Utah, Dinosaurland is simply larger than life—a region of towering rock formations, time-chiseled cliffs, tumultuous rivers, and prehistoric giants. Some of the world's finest fossilized specimens have been pulled from this desert. Hundreds still remain, offering dinosaur lovers old and young the chance to come face-to-face with these awe-inspiring monsters of the past.
Before you set out into this Lost World, get a thorough introduction at Vernal's Utah Field House of Natural History. The prehistory wing covers the area's Anasazi, Fremont, and Ute tribes; the geology exhibit features rocks that glow like kryptonite under ultraviolet bulbs. The highlight, however, is the dinosaurs. Look up as soon as you enter the museum: That's the long-necked skeleton of Diplodocus carnegiei looming above your head. Outside you'll find 18 life-size dinosaur models, some of which, particularly the sharp-toothed Tyrannosaurus rex and the many-clawed Utahraptor, seem quite real. Frightened visitors can try hiding in the "little paleontologists" pit, a sandbox where kids can excavate bones.
Twenty miles east of Vernal lies a vastly more impressive excavation: the Dinosaur Quarry in Dinosaur National Monument. Since digging began in 1909, more than 340 tons of dinosaur bones have been exhumed from this ancient riverbed—a paleontological bounty that visitors can experience firsthand inside the quarry's airy, two-level structure. Here, within a 150-foot-long slab of rock, scientists have carefully exposed more than 1,600 Jurassic period dinosaur bones, providing a graphic picture of how these behemoths were entombed for eternity. Check the diagram to find your favorites: The spiny-backed Stegosaurus and the fern-munching Dryosaurus are in here. For a sense of scale, look at how the femur of a 34-ton brontosaurus dwarfs the excited 8-year-olds in Jurassic Park T-shirts.
While the skeletons are the monument's main draw, the park's rugged desert terrain is equally impressive. Scenic drives weave past weathered mesas and precarious outcroppings, while a handful of trails offer an opportunity to spot local wildlife. For a short trek, hit the Desert Voices Trail, a moderate 2-mile trek that begins near the overhanging rock face at Split Mountain Campground and winds gradually uphill through patches of grass and burnt-red rock. Both the Green and Yampa rivers snake through the monument as well, offering rafters the opportunity to experience the park's wildest sections. Several operators lead white-water and float trips; if you opt for a white-water excursion, be prepared for a wild ride: These are the waters that swallowed a couple of John Wesley Powell's boats during his scientific explorations in the 1860s and '70s.
If you're looking for a combination of hiking and water activities, two state parks are just a short drive from Vernal. Steinaker State Park's 2-mile-wide reservoir attracts water-skiers, swimmers, and even scuba divers; hikers can wander the lonely slot canyons or make the quick jaunt to Moonshine Arch. Nearby Red Fleet State Park is known for fishing and sandstone scenery. The highlight, however, is a 2.4-mile round-trip hike to the Triassic Period Dinosaur Trackway, where delicate, three-toed dinosaur footprints have been frozen in the landscape for some 200 million years.
Humans have also left their mark on the landscape. Deep within the monument, near McKee Spring, lies a series of intricate petroglyphs presumably created between 800 and 2,000 years ago by the Fremont Indians. Even more stunning examples can be found in the orange-brown sandstone cliffs above McConkie Ranch, 10 miles northwest of Vernal. After a 20-minute hike in, you'll reach the Dry Fork Petroglyphs—a collection of rock art world famous for its quantity, quality, and size. Many of the painted figures are decorated with elaborate head wear. Some are more than 8 feet tall.
Visitors willing to wander further afield can enjoy one of the area's most scenic drives—the "Drive Through the Ages"—en route to Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area. North of Vernal, Highway 191 rises through 19 different geological periods marked by signs reading "Mowry Formation" or "Home of Fossilized Squid." Most of the time the land announces the changes itself: Faded brown rock turns to deep red or whitewashed gray; low shrubs become a thick green forest that, near the 8,428-foot summit, diminishes into spindly trees. At drive's end you'll reach the national recreation area and the 502-foot-high Flaming Gorge Dam. If you have time, take a guided tour of the imposing structure, or try water-skiing, fishing, swimming, or sailing on the swollen, 66-square-mile Flaming Gorge Reservoir that backs up behind it.
If time is limited, head back to Vernal and explore the town's Wild West past. The Daughters of the Utah Pioneers Museum showcases artifacts from pioneer life; the Western Pioneer Museum features a gun that was used by Gunsmoke's Matt Dillon, a.k.a. James Arness.
When you've had your fill of local color, climb into bed at the Landmark Inn Bed and Breakfast, which occupies a renovated church, or any of the chain hotels that dominate Main Street. Of course, you can always spend a quiet night at Split Mountain or any of the many other secluded area campgrounds. But be sure to bring your dinosaur hunting license. You might think you've seen it all, but you never know what else could be lurking out there.
Photos by Scott T. Smith/Corbis Images, Tom Till, and Frank Jensen
This article was first published in May 2000. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.