Dinosaur National Monument + Rocky Mountain National Park: Trail Ridge Road

Let me come right out and say it: Dinosaur National Monument was not a destination high on our travel list. Like Mesa Verde, it was an afterthought of the we’re passing through, so why not? variety. Honestly? My expectations were embarrassingly low.

Oh, we of little faith! Because National Monument and Park status is not something so glibly conferred. Still, it took a Dinosaur National Monument visit to eradicate my heretical leanings once and for all. Spoiler alert: this unassuming park delivered in big and unexpected ways!

Salt Lake City

Summer 2015 began with a six-hour red-eye to Salt Lake City that sounded good in theory–cheap tickets with an early-morning arrival, allowing for a full day of SLC exploration. Turns out a 3 am (Hawaii time) touchdown makes for some very grouchy kids–and testy parents. Oops! Oh well, at least we got the cheap tickets part right. Luckily, the kids caught their second wind at Park Cafe. Trip Advisor nailed this SLC breakfast recommendation right: thick-cut slab bacon, in-house strawberry jam, and homemade hash that delivered beautifully in the surface area to crisp edges ratio department. Bountiful portions kept our hungry brood plenty satisfied.

From Park Cafe, we headed to Temple Square for a glimpse into the heart and history of the LDS organization. Regardless of religious affiliation, Temple Square represents a triumph of both architecture and the human spirit. It is easy to appreciate the immaculate grounds and reverent beauty found here. We spent the better part of the afternoon wandering Salt Lake Temple, the Family History Library, and LDS Conference Center. The Tabernacle, in particular, harkened back to childhood memories of watching the Mormon Tabernacle Choir perform around an old rotary-knobbed Magnavox on Christmas Eve (Whew, dating myself big time here. Anyone else remember standing up to change the TV dial? Bueller?).

Afternoon walking tour through SLC

Melt-in-your-mouth pastrami burgers and creamy fry-dipping sauce from Crown Burgers made for a tasty early evening pick-me-up before a 3-hour drive east to Vernal. If you like pastrami, you’ll love this SLC institution! Vernal is a fun little town–a quirky, kitschy mishmash of dinosaur-themed memorabilia and potted flower-lined streets. Even the gas stations sport fun dinosaur statues. With two weeks of camping ahead of us, we happily splurged on a motel and settled in for the night.

Crown Burgers with special fry sauce (It’s probably just mayo and ketchup, but I swear the stuff is like crack with that pastrami burger!)

Dinosaur National Monument

Dinosaur National Monument straddles the border of Utah and Colorado, sheltering a dinosaur fossil hotbed in Vernal and winding through dramatic canyon country in Colorado. Both regions are stunning. Unfortunately, we only had time for half a day in Vernal but earmarked both ends of the park for a return visit.

A quick stop at the Quarry Visitor Center gave us time to view the park film, pick up Junior Ranger booklets, and hop on the summer shuttle to Quarry Exhibit Hall a quarter mile away. Recently renovated, the Quarry Exhibit Hall was truly magnificent! The structure itself contains glass-paneled walls that allow you to see for miles into the quarry, but what is even more impressive is the fact that the building houses over 1,500 dinosaur fossils in relief. In the early 1900s, paleontologist Eric Douglass envisioned housing the exposed bones in relief, suggesting that such a site would inspire more awe than excavating the fossils. He couldn’t have been more right. With skeletons left untouched and exactly as they’d been discovered over a hundred years ago, we felt like paleontologists discovering this quarry for the first time. True, we were a small and biased sample, but the wonder and awe we felt walking through the display seemed to confirm Douglass’ vision. This was not some hodgepodge of bones, either; we were able to make out entire articulated vertebral columns, skulls, and Stegosaurus plates. We purchased a one-dollar guide that was invaluable in helping us identify the fossils and decipher what we were seeing; between the guide and the quarry, our youngest was in dinosaur heaven.

Dinosaur National Monument, Utah 2015
Riding the shuttle tram from Quarry Visitor Center in Vernal
Quarry Exhibit Hall
Quarry Exhibit Hall houses skeletons in relief
Vertebrae in relief
Comparing fossils against our reference guide

The Quarry Exhibit Hall also houses many reassembled fossil skeletons, among them a Camarasaurus discovered in Dinosaur. An interactive Junior Ranger Talk gave the kids an opportunity to touch dinosaur bones, test their knowledge of Jurassic trivia, and emulate dinosaur gaseous emissions with balloons–a hilarious activity that proved you’re never too old to find balloon flatulence amusing. 😀

Dinosaur National Monument
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After striking out on fossils at California Academy of Science, he was so happy to see assembled dinosaur skeletons here
Informing the vision behind Quarry Exhibit Hall
Blowing balloons to emulate dinosaur flatulence
Flatulent balloons never get old

In a state that boasts the Mighty Five, it’s easy to see how a park like Dinosaur might get overlooked for top billing. But perhaps it’s precisely Dinosaur’s quieter nature that makes it feel like such a find. We only had time to hike 1.2-mile Fossil Discovery Trail before our shuttle arrived, which is a shame because Dinosaur National Monument looks to have some incredible trails. We’d love to tackle more hikes as well as camp or river raft through the park someday. Kids or no, I suspect we all harbor some secret seven-year-old dinosaur zealot deep within. Call me corny, but there’s something nostalgic about reigniting that dormant zest at Dinosaur National Monument.

Rocky Mountain National Park: Grand Lake to Estes Park via Trail Ridge Road

From Quarry Visitor Center, we drove four hours east to Kawuneeche Visitor Center in Grand Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park. Coming from triple digit temps in Dinosaur, we found ourselves reaching for jackets to stave off the cold in Grand Lake. With a quick stop to view the park film, admire elk, and play with roadside snow, we ascended Trail Ridge Road.

Trail Ridge Road is a spectacular 48-mile stretch of highway spanning the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park and linking Grand Lake in the west with Estes Park in the east. Crossing the Continental Divide, Trail Ridge Road traverses alpine tundra at dizzying elevations of over 12,000 feet. The drive begins like any other in the Rockies–evergreens and forest views–but within minutes, Trail Ridge Road redefines itself as something else entirely. Pine forests yield to wind-sheared firs and then barren sky as you climb above the clouds–a literal expression, not a figurative one. Here in the vast alpine tundra, clouds mist across the road, cloaking snowy peaks below. Devoid of trees, the Rockies seem to go on forever, just one immense fourteen-footer after another. It is impossible not to be moved by the enormity of it all.

Spotting a herd of elk grazing amid the clouds, we felt certain we were at the top of the world. It wouldn’t have been such a stretch given the rising altitude and thinning oxygen. Where else but at the top of the world could you find startlingly stark beauty like this?

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The ascent…climbing into the clouds
The views keep getting better and better
From up in the clouds, those 14-ers look like little hills
Turning a curve to see this herd in the clouds was amazing
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We sat here for quite a while admiring these beautiful elk
Trail Ridge Road, 2015

With daylight fleeting, we were disappointed to make a hasty descent to Estes Park and Jellystone Campground, our home for two nights. With the beauty of Trail Ridge Road still fresh in our minds, we were excited to see what Rocky Mountain National Park held in store for us at Emerald Lake and Mount Ida the next day. For now, though, it was on to more pressing matters, like dinner and s’mores and the adorable bunny who so graciously allowed us to share his charming home.

The adorable bunny who shared his campsite with us for two days, Jellystone Estes Park


22 thoughts on “Dinosaur National Monument + Rocky Mountain National Park: Trail Ridge Road”

  1. Re-creating dinosaur flatulence, wow, if you don’t get parents’ of the year for that one. My son would have been so into that (actually, he’d probably enjoy it even now). Dinosaur National Monument looks great and your experience reminds me of a trip we took a long time ago to the Canadian version at Dinosaur Provincial Park in Drumheller, Alberta. We thought Alex would get a kick out of it but didn’t expect we’d all enjoy it so much. Your photos of Rocky Mountain NP are gorgeous…a park that I hardly ever hear of.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The hubby and I were the worst offenders, laughing more than the kids at the flatulence, lol! Lucky for us, the ranger didn’t add a whoopie cushion into the mix or we would’ve been goners. Love that you can relate to the Dinosaur experience. We felt the same way about it being a stop for the kids, never expecting to enjoy it so much. I’m learning so much about Canadian parks from you–such diversity and breadth. I’m hoping we can explore a few next year!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I always get so hungry after reading your posts! That pastrami burger, omg! Dinosaur Monument looks like such a find, so interesting with great exhibits (wow, Quarry Exhibit Hall). You got some amazing pictures of Rocky Mountain NP, and with wildlife in them as well. That Trail Ridge Road looks pretty awesome, a great start to the 2015 summer trip!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not even kidding–we timed a SLC drive-through this summer especially for Crown Burgers! It was exciting to see so much wildlife in RMNP, especially since the year before had been mostly desert. We spent way too much time obsessing over whether the elk were moose ( um, no, but we’re HI hicks, lol). There may have even been a Google search about ‘do moose have white rumps’ to settle that one 😀

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  3. We haven’t been to this park yet, and like you I wasn’t sure if it’s worth it, but after reading about your experience I think we should make an effort to get there. And I also remember having to get up to change the tv channel. Sometimes someone would even need to stand at the tv holding the rabbit ears antenna to keep the channel in tune. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lol, I remember those rabbit ear antennae well! Ours were wrapped in tin foil. 😀 Dinosaur is fantastic–I bet your boys would have so much fun there! We didn’t get to camp at Dinosaur, but the park campgrounds looked nice and spacious with great views. Summer was really hot, though–spring or fall might be more temperate. With all the traveling you guys do, I’m sure you’ll make it there soon!

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  4. Thanks to you, today I learned about Dinosaur National Monument. Never heard about it until now. This is a great example of why I love reading blogs like yours. It expands my horizon when it comes to looking for places to explore.

    Your pictures of RMNP brought back our good memory in RMNP. The elks were always fascinating. Some of them were so huge. Looking forward to reading what you guys did there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This means so much to me–thank you! I love finding new places through blogs, too, and I’ve learned about (and bookmarked) so many parks and hikes through your posts, especially. We’d only seen female elk prior to RMNP, so it was exciting to see those huge antlers for the first time. Loved RMNP–our time there went by way too fast. We’ll have to plan a return visit soon!

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  5. RMNP was the very first National Park we visited on our road trip in 2015 and we loved every minute of it. Wish we had stopped by Dinosaur, it looks amazing. I’m sure it would’ve brought back my childhood love of dinosaurs!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. RMNP was the first National Park on our road trip in 2015, too–we might’ve been there at the same time! We loved it, too; only wish we’d budgeted more time to explore. Dinosaur was so much more than we expected. I know what you mean about childhood dino obsessions–it definitely rekindled dino fever for us!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. We missed Dinosaur NM last summer but it sounds like it needs added to a future trip agenda. 2015 was the summer my son and I were in RMNP on our fly fishing trip. We were there the first week of August. Funny if we would have been in the park at the same time. I need to explore that west side on my next trip.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I remember reading about your trip–fly fishing is something I’ve always wanted to try. Fishing here is almost exclusively ocean fishing, so fly fishing is something we don’t get to see/do. How fun that we were in RMNP the same year! We were there late June, so it sounds like we just missed you. Would love to spend a week or more in RMNP someday (fingers crossed!).

      Liked by 1 person

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