Dinosaur National Monument: When Giants Walked the Earth

Dinosaurvertical73Most visitors to Dinosaur National Monument arrive with kids in tow. After a fifth grade science project devoted to dinosaurs, there’s no better vacation than a journey to see the real thing. And there’s no greater collection of bones unearthed than is found here. But spend a day on site and you’ll bump into human history, too. Just down the gravel road are exquisite pictographs, etched into the rock surface 1,000 years ago by earlier residents. Not far away is the collapsing cabin of a rugged settler—a woman who married five times. Eventually she lived alone and survived by her wits until her death at the age of 90 in 1964.

DinosaurDavid063Each site, so closely linked, reveals a land that has sheltered huge beasts, tribes on the move and one stubbornly self-sufficient recluse. These could be pieces of movie sets in a Hollywood studio jumbled together, but Dinosaur National Monument, as David Whitman, Chief of Interpretation, tells an audience, is the real thing. “I get asked a lot of questions and the most common is: ‘are these bones real?’ Yes, these are real and you won’t find many sites like this.”

In summer, the Monument is hot and crowded. When autumn arrives, most visitors have returned home and the landscape is blissfully serene. Secluded in a high desert canyon, the Monument is dotted with sagebrush and pinyon pines, juniper and mountain mahogany shrubs. Small springs sprout near Josephine Bassett’s broken down cabin, creating a lush oasis where she raised a vegetable garden and tended cattle. The draw to all creatures, over millions of years, has been the wide rivers. Here the Yampa feeds into the Green River, languorous and nearly turquoise in color. Our rivers today are dammed, except for the Yampa, which makes them well behaved. But in earlier times, rivers carved the magnificent red and gold canyons that shelter the Monument.

Dinosaurskull056The semi-arid conditions are perfect for preserving the remains of prehistory. That’s what paleontologist Earl Douglass believed when he arrived from Carnegie-Mellon University in 1909. The area proved to be a spectacular find in the Morrison Formation, a band of red earth that contains remnants of the Jurassic age 150 million years ago. Animals of all kinds were drawn to the swampy river areas. Even more arrived when the region suffered a severe drought. As dinosaurs congregated to slurp the last of the river bottom water, they died, bodies piled upon bodies, so that the frieze of unearthed bones in the Dinosaur Quarry reads like a wall of bones, nature’s own book.

Dinosaurwall044Children are awed by the bones, even if some see a few things that don’t exist. “I see the bunny’s ears,” one small girl exclaims to her mother. David says adults often have approached him with a stunned look on their faces. One man accused the government of concocting the bones, as a kind of conspiracy to trick the American public. Another admitted that he had not believed that dinosaurs really existed, but now was convinced. Others, David, says believe they are looking at the debris from Noah’s biblical flood, although no human walked the earth at the time these great beasts were dying in a mass grave. “For some people, it is a religious experience,” David says, as he has heard the chattering and excitement just outside his office door.

The Dinosaur Quarry, where the frieze of bones lies, is no longer the center of research. “We could dig on, but we’d find more of the same,” David says. Instead, he says that since 1990, the emphasis has been on researching what kind of plants and animals lived here with the dinosaurs—the frogs, lizards, mammals and insects. Of course it’s not only dinosaurs that died here. The outline of giant clams indicates that dinner for other creatures could be found in these rivers. There were at least 400 kinds of plants, mostly ferns. “We now have a pretty good idea of the ecosystem,” he says. The Morrison Formation, named after Morrison, Colorado, where it was first identified, was an ecosystem of warmth and humidity, a tropical paradise that can hardly be imagined today.

There was good reason to shift into researching plant life. Most of the dinosaur bones discovered were of herbivores. “It takes so many more herbivores to be the food of the carnivores,” he explains. To study this wider group of dinosaurs, you’d have to discover what they ate and how much. Perhaps that will explain the changes a massive drought caused.

By the time humans arrived, many of the same animals today were present. Along the highway to the Monument, you’ll see pronghorn antelope edge their way into cattle herds, perhaps to escape hunters. The sleek tan and white bodies look like tufts of cotton in the shrubby land. River otters, bats, porcupines and badgers may be more difficult to spot, but birds abound, their voices high and far away, but piercing in the desert air.

Dinosaurman176Along the Cub Creek Road are stops that indicate a trailhead or pictographs. Many of the most famous images often reproduced in books come from this Monument, the images etched into the soft sandstone canyon walls. Stippled figures and animals are scratched into the surface. They’re faint today, almost ghostly, but must have appeared bright and gleaming 1,000 years ago. Exactly what they mean is a puzzle. But the human figure is obvious, and appears beautifully arrayed. These early communicators could embellish a person or animal with just a few strokes.

“We assume these were sacred sites,” David says. “It takes a fair amount of time to make them. There are hunting scenes as well as concentric circles and spirals. Some of those symbols can be found in Africa, Australia and California.” Early people have left us with cryptic messages that only they can explain, he says, although our imaginations lend mystery to their meanings.

Higher up, early people chipped into blackened areas of the cliffs, choosing patches called desert varnish, a natural stain, to produce images of lizards, a human figure playing a flute and bighorn sheep. They’re not easy to spot, but once you do see them, they jump out, clear and recognizable, even after a thousand or more years.

Dinosaurlizard95The valley is filled with paintings and scratched images, but most are too remote to be seen. It’s just as well because vandals have defaced some that are accessible to visitors. These thousand-year-old messages, too, like the dinosaur bones, read like a book of images whose language we can only guess at today.

At the end of the road sits the Josephine Bassett cabin. Josie, as she was called, lived there during the original excavations of the Dinosaur Quarry. And remnants of her life remain. A grapevine, unattended, clings to an old fence. Josephine established her homestead here in 1914 when she lost an earlier homestead in Brown’s Park. She fenced off box canyons to keep cattle, canned the vegetables from her garden, and created small channels to allow spring water to flow wherever she needed it to be.

Dinosaurjosie120At the age of 90, she fell, broke a hip and died from the complications of that fall. A couple of picnic tables face her small cabin, alongside what once was a fruit orchard. The grasses she planted for her horse still grow along wetter areas, small sheds for storing tack are crumbling and a narrow path leads to the box canyons. All along the paths small creeks flow, creating lush environments for willows, columbines and mosses amid a desert landscape. Like the dinosaurs and tribes before her arrival, Josie survived by her wits and the gift of water, even if it was only a few cold springs on her homestead.

Dinosaurwater087Today the Chew family continues to farm, growing alfalfa and corn in a wide circle of green on the canyon floor. They are part of the Monument that stretches across 210,844 acres, often surrounding ranches and farms. The area is vast enough to straddle both Colorado and Utah, with one entrance to a scenic canyon only, Harpers Corner, in Colorado. The entrance to the Dinosaur Quarry, the major draw, is in Utah.

Dinosaurjosiecabin119And while the closest city is Vernal, Utah, has the usual motels and chain restaurants, camping in the Monument is worthwhile. A flat campsite alongside the Green River, sequestered within a canyon is a peaceful respite from the hustle and bustle of the outside world. Here, prehistory joins human history, all within a few yards. The close proximity feels sacred, and must lead to the emotional intensity that David often witnesses as he strolls among his visitors.

“If there is one word I could use to describe the Monument, that would be diversity–of cultural, geologic and biological study. It’s outstanding yet unknown,” he says. In a part of the country where long stretches of road roll along empty spaces, Dinosaur National Monument is a destination where giants once walked the earth and congregated, at one time in a busy dino metropolis. Now they have left their bones, and ghosts, behind.

Dinosaur National Monument, 4545 E. Highway 40, Dinosaur, Colorado, 81610-9724, 970-374-3000;www.nps.gov./dino