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Road Trip: Life Finds a Way Along the Dinosaur Diamond

By: Bridget Clerkin July 5, 2017
Mather's Hole in Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado.

There’s something undeniably mystical about the high desert.

There’s beauty in its barren stretches and tenacity in its strange flora.

There are wisps of yellows, oranges, and reds, swirling and unfurling like ribbons across the ground, stacked on top of one another in sedimentary color-blocks, or climbing up the tall rocks that have weathered so many storms.

Then there are the monoliths themselves, dotted across the landscape like sentries guarding the slow passage of time.

If you know how to listen, they’ll tell you all about the history they’ve seen. And along a 480-mile route through the Southwest, that tale features the rise and fall of one of the planet’s most awesome creatures: Dinosaurs.

The “Dinosaur Diamond” loop circling Utah and Colorado is a venerable time machine, offering fascinating glimpses into our prehistoric past—and all the outdoor fun that can be had in our present.

Just be careful: If you decide to traverse the trail, some of the roads you’ll take are unpaved, and their conditions are subject to the sometimes extreme weather of the high-altitude environment. Check the weather reports when planning your trip.

Dinosaur, Colorado

A fossilized Allosaurus skull at Dinosaur National Monument.
A fossilized Allosaurus skull at Dinosaur National Monument.

Where else would a trip along the prehistoric highway start?

The charming Colorado town took its name from its position at the gates of Dinosaur National Monument, which is a must-see destination for any dino-lover. Straddling the Utah-Colorado border, the national monument is home to more than 800 paleontological sites and a treasure trove of fossilized dinosaur bones from a range of different animals and eras.

Many of those specimens can be seen at Dinosaur Quarry, which houses the national monument’s visitor center—along with thousands of fossils.

Dinosaur also makes the perfect jumping-off point to take the Harper’s Corner Drive—a 32-mile route leading through the beautiful Green and Yampa river canyons offering a number of stop- offs for hiking, biking, picnicking, and looking out for even more fossils. Wintertime travelers can also cross-country ski some trails.

Vernal, Utah

After you’ve had your fill of fossils in Dinosaur, check out what the bones look like when they’re all assembled in Vernal, Utah.

The town is just a short ride away, along Route 40 west, and home to a number of prehistoric thunder lizards—including 18 life-sized models found in the “Dinosaur Garden” outside of the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum. The building’s interior also houses plenty of bones and exhibits.

18 life-sized models of dinosaurs stalk the premises of Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum.
18 life-sized models of dinosaurs stalk the premises of Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum.

If you’re looking for extra recreation in the area, the Dinosaur Diamond route will lead you from Vernal through Ashley National Forest as you continue traveling west, along U.S. Route 191. The picturesque road climbs 9,100 feet, passing by plenty of campgrounds, trailheads, and vistas.

You’ll also have time to take in the beautiful coniferous forest of Indian Creek before catching up with the Price River, which will lead you to your next destination.

Price, Utah

Dinosaur tracks.
Dinosaur tracks.

Named after the river flowing through it, Price is home to the Utah State University Eastern Prehistoric Museum, which showcases not only fossils of dinosaurs, but a woolly mammoth skeleton as well.

Just a short jaunt south of Price is the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry, which has the highest density of Jurassic-era bones known anywhere in the world.

The town could also make a great place to stop before hitting the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Trail—a somewhat out-of-the-way but must-see stop about 100 miles farther along the loop, via Route 191 south and Route 70 east. There, you can find the remains of swampy Jurassic-era plants and the behemoth creatures that ate them in the arid desert of Utah, on a self-guided expedition.

While there, check out the Morrison Formation, the park’s most famous area that includes fossils from such dinosaur favorites as stegosaurus and allosaurus.

Frutia, Colorado

Finally, you’ll hop back over the Colorado state border, winding up very close to where you started. Frutia is home to the Dinosaur Journey Museum, which has robotic models of the massive lizards, as well as a number of exhibits and interactive displays.

Just a mile away from the museum is Dinosaur Hill. Climb to the top to take in not just the memories of your journey, but the view of a number of past excavation sites, where many of the bones you’ve just seen were unearthed.

If you’re still feeling like the road is calling your name, you can continue driving through Frutia to Rim Rock Drive, part of the Colorado National Monument. The 23-mile journey includes amazing vistas of the area’s unique rock formations and gorges.

The view from Rim Rock Drive.
The view from Rim Rock Drive.

And if you want to close off the loop, you’ll be able to drive along the 8,240-foot Douglas Pass, which—aside from offering its own astonishing viewpoints—will lead you through a complex of painted canyons. And the term isn’t just used to describe the desert colors streaking the rocks: The area is filled with Native American pictographs, depicting the literal end to a “prehistoric” time.

Bonus Stops

If the high desert speaks to your soul—or if you just have some extra time and want to see more of the area—there are several other stops along the route showcasing some of the Southwest’s most stunning vistas.

There may not be dinosaurs involved, but the landscape is just as monumental, unique, and beautiful as any thunder lizard.

Moab, Utah

Located between Price and Frutia, along Route 191, this storied town rests outside of Arches National Park, a red rock dreamscape that’s home to more than 2,000 arch rock formations as well as a number of other intriguing natural shapes.

Moab itself is known for its nearly endless outdoor recreation options, including hiking, camping, ziplining, and rafting.

And Arches isn’t the only park in town. The area is also home to Dead Horse Point State Park, a stretch of canyonland that, despite its grisly name, offers stunning views and is far easier place to find camping than the popular national park next door.

 

Canyonlands National Park

Also found along Route 191, not far from the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Trail, is another stunning national park filled with unique views and experiences.

Canyonlands offers more than 330,000 acres of open space that includes a full spectrum of desert geology, including canyons, arches, spires, buttes, and mesas.

Warning: do your research before you go. Some of the park’s best attractions are remote, and require some backcountry hiking or a four-wheel-drive vehicle to access.

Newspaper Rock

About 50 miles south of Moab, and not far from Canyonlands, Newspaper Rock features one of the largest concentration of Native American petroglyphs in the world, some dating as far back as 2,000 years.

Carved into a 200-square-foot rock, the inscriptions are from a number of different tribes—including the Anasazi, Navajo, and Pueblo cultures—making the national monument a veritable Rosetta Stone of native language.

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