Visit if you dare.
Turns out kids aren’t the only ones fascinated by dinosaurs. According to Uintah County Travel and Tourism Director Lesha Coltharp, 50 percent of the visitors to Utah’s Dinosaurland are young families, but the other 50 percent are highly educated adults age 40 and older.
The tourism office took advantage of this information when it placed trailers advertising “the real thing” in nine theaters in Utah and Colorado before the 2015 blockbuster movie “Jurassic World.” The 30-second ad ended by challenging people to “Visit Utah’s Dinosaurland if you dare.”
With tourism to Dinosaurland up 17 percent in 2015, it would seem the ad and movie that broke box office records its opening weekend effectively motivated people to visit. “We think the ad played a big part in the increase but it was also Dinosaur National Monument’s 100-year anniversary,” Coltharp says. Visitor numbers are expected to rise even higher this year.
Following is a brief tutorial on what to expect should you decide to see this intriguing landscape 149 million years in the making.
Dinosaur National Monument
You might be wondering exactly what the 200,000-acre Dinosaur National Monument is. According to its website (dinoland.com), it’s the only place in the world that provides an interactive experience with more than 1,500 dinosaur bones and fossils, many in their original resting place.
“You don’t have to love dinosaurs to be amazed,” Coltharp says. After visiting the Dinosaur Quarry Exhibit Hall for close-up views of a dinosaur bone bed and more, stop at the visitors center before heading out for a scenic drive through the monument. Allow plenty of time to stop along the way to enjoy its many hikes and beautiful overlooks. And don’t miss the Josie Bassett Morris homestead with its crumbling cabin, chicken coop, pond and the Hog Canyon hike. The short, flat trail leads into Box Canyon, which Josie Morris used as a natural corral. To get to the Dinosaur National Monument Visitors Center head to 11625 East 1500 South in Jensen, Utah.
Other Things to Do
The Dinosaur National Monument is the reason most people come to the area, according to Coltharp, but there’s also camping, hiking, biking, boating, swimming, rafting, and exploring petroglyphs and museums. Dinosaurland is home to three State Parks — Steinaker, Red Fleet Reservoirs and the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum. About 40 miles south of Vernal is Fantasy Canyon, featuring bizarre and fantastical rock formations.
Where to Stay
Incredible as it seems given its small size, Vernal is home to 22 hotels and motels built to house workers in the area’s formerly booming oil and gas industry. Occupancy rates used to average 90 percent. With the current downturn in that industry, there are an abundance of quality, economical places to stay while visiting this fascinating part of Utah. We stayed in a nice two-bedroom suite at TownePlace Suites by Marriott for $129 a night in April, which included a free buffet breakfast, indoor pool and welcoming desk clerks. The room featured a granite kitchen, big windows, living room and comfy king beds.
Places to Eat
The often-packed Quarry Steakhouse and Brew Pub serves up great steaks, salads and burgers, not to mention Grandma Karen’s Fudge Brownie Sundae. According to owner Kathleen Hacking, the fudgy, dense, moist brownies are made from scratch by her mom who is a fantastic baker. “I opened the restaurant because Vernal needed someplace good to eat,” says Hacking, who’s owned the Quarry for seven years. Coltharp says she eats there at least once a week, if not more, and likes everything on the menu. Another excellent spot to eat is Vernal Brewing Company (vernalbrewingco.com). Don’t miss the Fried Brussels Sprouts With Candied Bacon followed by a bowl of Beer Cheese Soup With House-made Italian Sausage.
When to Go
According to Coltharp, the foliage in the area is three weeks behind that in the Salt Lake area, so if greenery is important to you, keep this in mind when planning a trip in the spring. If you’re traveling sans kids and like it that way, head to Vernal in September or later when the little ones are back in school.
Just for Fun
Pull over when you spot the huge statue of a Native American on 236 E. Main St. in Vernal for some seriously fun browsing at the Ashley Trading Post — not your usual kitschy tourist stop. The array of authentic Native American rugs, jewelry, pottery, beadwork, blankets, Painted Pony collection and headdresses is mind blowing. You won’t want to leave.
The 175-mile (less than three-hour drive) from Salt Lake City to Vernal is surprisingly scenic during the warmer months, beginning with a pass through beautiful Parleys Canyon. Next on the route is Jordanelle Reservoir, pastoral Heber Valley, Uinta Basin forestland, Strawberry Reservoir, Starvation Reservoir and then Vernal. From Jackson, Wyoming, or Moab, Utah, the drive to Dinosaurland is four hours.
Photos by Mary Harper