Looking to escape the congestion and crowds typically associated with Utah and Colorado? Sure you know “The Four Corners”, but did you know about “The Tripoint”? To be fair there are many tripoints in the United States, but the point where Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming meet reigns supreme.
With smaller crowds, astounding scenery, and big natural history, the area around Dinosaur National Monument and Flaming Gorge Reservoir is a must visit for anyone who loves rivers, red rocks, reservoirs, and rafting.
Dinosaur National Monument – A Blast From The Past
Dinosaur National Monument is about 4 hours from Denver or Salt Lake City. Visitors from either city will find the distance is just enough to thin out the crowds they’ve come to expect closer to home. Dinosaur National Monument was established in 1915 and later expanded in 1938. Currently the monument encompasses 210,000 acres, and is surrounded by thousands more acres in BLM and state lands. Given its descriptive name, most people might expect the monument to be Dinosaurs, Dinosaurs, and more Dinosaurs. While Dinosaur fossils are a main attraction, Dinosaur National Monument offers a wide variety of sights and activities. From high plateaus to steep canyons, historic ranches to prehistoric petroglyphs, hiking, biking and everything in-between, Dinosaur has got it.
First Things First – The Quarry Exhibit Hall
While Dinosaur National Monument isn’t all about dinosaurs, no trip would be complete without spending at least a few hours in the Quarry Exhibit Hall. In 1909 Paleontologist Earl Douglass uncovered the first of what would become a treasure trove of jumbled Dinosaur Bones in a sandstone cliff. In 1951 a rudimentary metal structure was built over the wall of fossils, and was later expanded into what is now the Quarry Exhibit Hall. Visitors to the quarry can now view (and even touch) over 1500 dinosaur bones preserved just as they were deposited.
To see the exhibit hall, start at the Quarry Visitors Center near the main park entrance in Vernal Utah. Visitors have the option of hiking a short trail to the Quarry or hitch a ride on the shuttle bus. If kids are involved, don’t forget to grab your Junior Ranger books before heading to the quarry. Traffic in the exhibit hall is one way, starting at the entrance on the top level. As you move along you’ll find displays that tell the story of the park and its history.
The view from the top floor is spectacular and gives visitors an idea of the tremendous scale of the quarry. After getting the birds eye view, a stairway guides visitors to the lower level where they can get up close and personal with the ancient rocks. There are more displays as well as some standalone fossils on the lower level. There’s even an opportunity to touch a few of the fossils lodged in the quarry wall. After exiting, it’s time to hike or ride back to the visitors center. Be sure to stamp your passports before moving on to the next adventure!
Cub Creek Road – Petroglyphs Galore
Cub Creek Road would probably be considered the “main area” of the park. It extends about 10 miles past the Quarry visitors center, following the Green River along the way. Along the road are a few river access points where you can launch a boat or just splash around. The river provides an oasis in the desert, much appreciated during the sweltering summer months. There are also a number of hiking trails accessible via Cub Creek Road. These include the Fossil Discovery Trail, the Sound of Silence Trail, and the Desert Voices Trail.
Along the road there are several great locations for viewing Petroglyphs and Pictographs created by the Fremont culture. The Swelter Shelter petroglyph site sits just next to the road about 1/2 a mile from the visitors center. The shelter features both pictographs and petroglyphs and is an easy walk from the parking area. The Cub Creek petroglyph site lies about 9 miles from the visitors center, near the end of Cub Creek Road.
The hike to these petroglyphs is moderately strenuous, but some petroglyphs can be seen from the road (binoculars recommended). The Cub Creek petroglyph site features the famous “Lizard Petroglyphs” seen in much of the park’s brochures and literature. Most petroglyphs in the area are estimated to be over 1000 years old.
At the end of Cub Creek Road lies the Josie Bassett Morris Ranch. A self guided tour tells the story of Josie Bassett Morris. Morris was an adventurous and eccentric frontierswoman, who began independently homesteading in Cub Creek in 1913. Josie spent the next 50 years enjoying self sufficiency while raising livestock, hosting outlaws, ignoring prohibition, and (allegedly) rustling cattle. Josie’s log cabin still stands today, along with some rundown chicken coups and other remnants from the past.
Canyon Country – The Colorado Side Of Dinosaur National Monument
You’ve seen the bones, but what else is there to do in Dinosaur National Monument? Our next stop is the Canyon Visitor Center, the gateway to the rugged and varied landscape on the Colorado side of the park. It is located near the town of Dinosaur, but you won’t find any fossils here. You will however find plenty to do. There’s not much to the visitor center, but it’s always a good idea to stop in to ask about road conditions. In this remote area, roads can become impassable, even with the slightest amount of precipitation. After verifying conditions, grab a map and head up towards Harper’s Corner.
As Harper’s Corner Road climbs the high plateau, the monument is just a thin strip of land. Cattle ranches have dominated the area since the 1800s and still surround the monument today. The topography is as varied as it is beautiful and there are several pullouts to take in the scenery. The first landmark you’ll run across is Plug Hat Butte where there’s also a short hike.
Continuing on, there are several pullouts that overlook the park’s canyons. The most dramatic views can be found at the Echo Park Overlook near the end of Harper’s Corner Road. There are a couple picnic tables available and this is a great spot to stop for lunch or a snack. The overlook offers spectacular views of Echo Park, where the Green and Yampa rivers meet.
The Echo Park area is accessible via the Harper’s Corner road weather permitting. Echo Park road is not for the faint of heart due to its hairpin turns and steep switchbacks. Follow its 13 miles of solitude and you’ll eventually find a campground and boat launch. Near the campground is the trailhead for the Echo Park / Sand Canyon trail. This easy trail follows the river for about a mile.
For the more adventurous 4×4 enthusiasts, the Yampa Bench Road is a 27 mile offshoot from the Echo Park Road. The Yampa Bench Road sits on a plateau above the Yampa and roughly follows the course of the river. There are numerous hiking trails accessible from Yampa Bench Road including Red Rock Canyon, Castle Park, Wagon Wheel, Bull Canyon, and Baker Spring. High clearance vehicles are recommended, and the road will be impassable when wet. An emergency extraction from either road will put a significant dent in your vacation budget.
At the end of Harper’s Corner road is Harper’s Corner Trail, one of the most popular routes in the park. The trail is relatively easy at 1.5 mile (one way) and offers amazing views of the canyons below. Keep an eye out for river rafters, especially during spring runoff season. At the end of the trail you may see fossilized sea creatures including clams, crinoids, and ancient starfish. Sorry no dinosaur fossils here.
Rainbow Park and Island Park
The Rainbow and Island Park area of the park is a great alternative for those not quite adventurous enough for Echo Park or Yampa Bench roads. The Island Park Road can be accessed via the Brush Creek Road off of the Quarry Entrance Road. Island Park Road should be accessible to most vehicles as long as the road is dry.
The road travels through some interesting high desert geology on it’s way towards the Green River at Island Park. Along the way you’ll see some of the best petroglyphs in the park. For an added bonus, these petroglyphs will see a fraction of the crowds compared to the petroglyphs at Cub Creek. The McKee Springs Petroglyph site houses examples of large human like figures just a few hundred feet off the road.
Besides the short hiking trail at McKee Springs, there are no official hiking trails in the Rainbow Park area. There is however, the Ruple to Ely trail which starts near Ruple Ranch and travels all the way to the Jones Hole Trail. The Ruple to Ely trail isn’t officially maintained and may be difficult to follow in some areas.
Near the head of Split Mountain Canyon is the Rainbow Park Campground, where there is also a boat ramp. The campground has 4 first come first served spots and is a steal at just $6.00 per night. There are also some picnic tables, which makes Rainbow Park a convenient place to stop for bite.
Vernal Dinosaur Museum
Since most people visit Dinosaur National Monument to see dinosaurs, the Vernal Dinosaur Museum (otherwise known as the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum) is a popular stop. The museum features fossils predominantly from within an 80 mile radius of Vernal. This area is known to be one of the richest fossil areas in the world, and features fossils from nearly every era.
There’s a free visitor center and gift shop inside, and outside is a garden featuring life sized dinosaur statues. Across the street is Vernal Brewing Company where you can enjoy a selection of low gravity beers Monday through Saturday.
Where To Stay When Visiting Dinosaur National Monument
There are some great camping options in Dinosaur National Monument. For tent campers and river rats, the Deerpark Lodge, Gates of Lodore, Echo Park, and Rainbow Park campgrounds offer affordable accommodations. For group camping there’s the Split Mountain Campground near the Split Mountain Boat Ramp. The campground offers 4 group campsites and there is drinking water available.
The Green River campground is the largest in the park, and is probably the best bet for most visitors. Green River has 27 reservation sites and 52 first come first served sites. Numerous sites in the Green River campground offer direct river access, and drinking water is available.
There are also a number of options to stay outside the park. The closest option is currently the Outlaw Trail RV Park in Jenson, UT offering full hookup RV sites, hot showers, and a nice playground for the kids. There are also numerous hotels and campgrounds in Vernal, a bit further from the park but offering a wider selection of lodging and dining options.
Flaming Gorge Recreation Area, An Oasis In The Desert
The Green River starts in the Wind River Mountains of Western Wyoming. The river snakes its way through Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado, before ending at the confluence with the Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park. Flaming Gorge is a manmade lake built in the 1960s as part of the Colorado River Storage Project. The lake is only about an hour’s drive from Dinosaur, so the two destinations are often combined into one trip.
If you’re coming from the north, Flaming Gorge is a nice appetizer to what awaits at Dinosaur. If you’re coming from the south, the cool mountain air and clear waters of Flaming Gorge will be much appreciated. While the entire lake is nice, this guide will focus on the southern portion bordering the Uintah Mountains.
Flaming Gorge Dam
No trip to Flaming Gorge Reservoir would be complete without at least stopping by the Dam visitor center. The visitor center features a large parking lot that can accommodate nearly any size vehicle. Facilities are modern, with flush toilets, picnic tables, and beautiful lake views. Inside you’ll find exhibits about the dam and it’s construction. A large scale 3D terrain map gives a clear view of the reservoir and surrounding terrain. A nicely appointed gift shop offers plenty of reading material about the area.
The visitor center features an elevated viewing area with views of both sides of the dam. To the right, the Green River swirls hundreds of feet below. To the left, the blue waters of Flaming Gorge contrast with the earth tones of the surrounding hills.
Just below the dam you’ll find the Spillway Boat Launch and parking lot. A steep trail leads down to the river where you can drop a line, take a hike, or just enjoy nature. The dam has upset the natural ecosystem of the Green River, which would naturally be much warmer and siltier. While this is mostly bad, it has transformed the area below the dam into a premier fly fishing destination. Float trips typically start at Spillway Boat Launch and travel all the way to Little Hole Recreation area. Along the way, the scenery is mind-blowing and the fishing divine.
About 4 miles north of Flaming Gorge Dam is the town of Dutch John. Dutch John is the only town in the immediate area, and was originally built to house dam construction workers. During peak construction the town’s population was around 3500. After the dam’s completion the population dropped dramatically. What remains is a small community of about 150 people, most of whom support the tourist industry. If you’re staying near the dam and need provisions, Dutch John is the place to go. There are a couple convenience stores and a few hole-in-the-wall restaurants and not much else.
Little Hole Recreation Area
About 5 miles east of Dutch John is Little Hole Recreation Area. Little Hole is typically the end point for trips that start at the Spillway Boat Launch. It can also be the starting point for trips that continue on towards Browns Park near Dinosaur National Monument. Along with a boat ramp, Little Hole features picnic tables and restrooms with flush toilets.
You’ll also find the trailhead for the Little Hole Trail, a 14 mile out and back hike that leads you back to the Spillway Boat Launch. The Little Hole Trail follows the Green River and provides the perfect opportunity to combine hiking and fly fishing into the same outing. As you look around you’ll notice burn scars from the 2002 Mustang Ridge Fire which burned approximately 22,000 acres. The charred trees are a good reminder to always be fire aware in this dry climate.
Red Canyon Overlook and Sheep Creek Scenic Byway
From the dam visitor center, the Red Canyon Visitor Center and overlook is a scenic 20 minute drive through the forests of the Uinta foothills. As you approach the visitor center, the view opens up to reveal the 700 foot wide, 1400 foot deep canyon and the white capped Uinta Range in the distance. The overlook provides some of the best views in the area.
The visitor center features exhibits about the people and animals that have called this land home. From native peoples who arrived thousands of years ago, to the Europeans that arrived much later, the stories are fascinating. There’s a short hiking trail around the rim of the canyon where you can take in the views and maybe even see a resident Bighorn Sheep.
Just a few miles up the road from the Red Canyon turnoff is the Sheep Creek Scenic Byway, a 13 mile loop off the main highway that showcases some striking geology. As you drive the loop (about half of which follows Sheep Creek) you’ll see stacked and folded rock from various geologic eras, explained by Utah’s helpful roadside geologic signs.
Sheep Creek is home to a species of freshwater salmon called Kokanee that use the creek to spawn. The hatchlings swim downstream to the reservoir where they eat, live, and grow before eventually swimming back up the creek to continue the circle of life. Near the middle of the loop is a turnoff where you can access miles of national forest roads perfect for Jeeping, Biking, or ATVing. Before leaving, be sure to stop and take some pictures at Sheep Creek Overlook, where you’ll get some spectacular views of the lake and the surrounding geology.
Where to Stay Around Flaming Gorge
Lodging options in the Flaming Gorge area are fairly limited, and besides a few Air B&Bs and small resorts around Dutch John, campgrounds are pretty much the way to go. If you have the option to plan ahead, do yourself a favor and make a reservation at the Mustang Ridge Campground, where several spots have lake views, and most spots are blissfully private. The topography of Mustang Ridge consists of rocky hills and cliffs dotted with Pinion and Juniper. Elevation is around 6800 feet and there is swimming beach and a boat ramp.
The swimming beach is a great place to launch a kayak or paddle board, but can be extremely muddy depending on the level of the lake. Speaking of paddle boarding, its clear water and mazelike coves and canyons make Flaming Gorge one of the top paddling destinations in the mountain west.
Another option for camping just a few miles north of Mustang Ridge is the Antelope Flats Campground. While not as scenic as Mustang Ridge, Antelope Flats offers an arguably better swim beach, and access to a wider part of the lake for boating. There isn’t much shade at Antelope Flats, and it sits about 800 feet lower in elevation than mustang ridge, so it can get quite hot in the summer. Each site is equipped with a shade shelter over the picnic table, which does help with the heat.
If you don’t care too much about lake access or are looking to get more into the forest, either Firefighters Memorial Campground or Canyon Rim Campground are excellent choices. Both of these campgrounds are located near Greendale Junction where US Highway 191 and State Highway 44 meet. If you are in the area to fish on the Green River below the dam, the Dripping Springs Campground, on the road to Little Hole Recreation Area just might hit the spot. There are a plethora of other camping options in the area including dispersed national forest camping, so just pick a place that suits your camping style and enjoy.
Anyone looking for a remote outdoor experience with rich natural history and plenty of things to do will find Dinosaur National Park and Flaming Gorge to be an excellent choice. The area’s isolation provides peace and serenity not normally found in Colorado or Utah. Summers in this high desert can be scorching, so fall, spring, or even winter can be great times to take the trip. With something for everyone, the Tri-Point region is sure to please.