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Alhtough Jurassic Park might be in your VCR, the real action is happening in a remote corner of northeastern Utah, better known as Dinosaurland.
No, you won't have to worry about T-rex flattening your car with one misstep. The behemoths that roamed this area 150 million years ago are now extinct. But their fossilized presence is everywhere.
The central hot spot is Dinosaur National Monument. It's here that you'll find the world's largest dinosaur bone quarry of the Jurassic period, real-life footprints of the eight-foot tall Dilophosaurs, and museums that bring this ancient world back to life.
After you've seen the real Jurassic Park, head to nearby Vernal, UT for the sideshow. Big, small, stuffed, fried, or framed: If it's about dinosaurs, you'll find it here, right down to the dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets at the 7-11 Ranch Restaurant on Main Street. And if you're not careful, your kids will be begging to take home dino T-shirts, stuffed animals, and even T-rex on a stick (pull the trigger and a hungry "T" snaps its jaws).
First, bone up on local geology, natural history, and paleontology at The Utah Field House of Natural History Museum in Vernal. But don't miss the real attraction outside in the Dinosaur Gardens -- 18 life-size dinosaurs.
Relax! They're not real.
Besides the usual Jurassic "headliners" -- Tyrannosaurus rex (better known as T-rex), Stegosaurus, and Protoceratops -- Dino Gardens also features some up-and-comers: the petite Coelophysis (SEE-loh-FYE-sis), a Triassic carnivore; the Diplodocus (di-PLOD-I-cus), one of the longest Jurassic dinosaurs; and the state's most ferocious creature, the Utahraptor (u-TAH-rap-tore), complete with sickle-like claws.
Now that you've seen these giants "in the flesh," check out the footprints they left behind. At Red Fleet State Park, 10 miles north of town, take the three-quarter-mile-long Triassic Period Dinosaur Trackway that leads you to actual prints of a Dilophosaurus (dil-LAUF-o-sore-us). The dinosaur was a fast-paced, two-footed creature that stood eight-feet high. Its back feet had powerful claws that left hundreds of tracks in the area's Navajo sandstone.
Talk about pet cemeteries! Dinosaur Quarry in Dinosaur National Monument is home to the world's largest collection of Jurassic dinosaur bones in the world. Paleontologist Earl Douglass first discovered this booty in an ancient riverbed back in 1909. By 1929, his digs turned up 20 complete skeletons, now on display in museums throughout the country.
More than 1,600 dinosaur fossils have since been excavated and shipped around the world. But there are plenty more to see. Some 2,000 bones are still protruding from the 160-foot river bed wall. Covered mostly by a glass shield, they're easy to see -- and touch! How many people do you know who have felt a real dino bone?
A driving tour is another great way to see ancient artifacts in the National Monument. Here are two favorites:
Tour of the Tilted Rocks On the self-guided "Tour of the Tilted Rocks," you'll get scenic views of Split Mountain and the Green River, as well as some great close-ups of petroglyphs (prehistoric rock art). Budget about 1.5 hours.
Journey Through Time Thirty minutes west in Dinosaur, CO, you'll pick up the 62-mile-long auto tour. Get your camera ready for the spectacular photo ops of mountains and canyons. This four-hour round-trip drive wends through diverse and scenic Dinosaur territory. At the end of the road is the Harpers Corner Trail, a two-mile, round-trip, self-guided nature trail. The turnaround point is breathtaking -- an overlook that's 2,300 feet above the river. Budget one full day for the drive.
Humans left their mark in Dinosaurland too...as rock art. You can view their 1,000-year-old handiwork throughout the region. Here are our favorite places:
Type of trip: Outdoor, educational
Best ages: 7 and up
Ideal trip length: Long weekend
Distance: Grand Junction, CO (148 miles), Salt Lake City, UT (175 miles), Moab, UT (232 miles)
Best time to go: Spring and fall. Summer is high season and crowds are at their peak.
Weather: 83/46 degrees in June, 90/52 in July and 87/50 in August, 78/41 in September. Don't worry about rain; this area gets very little precipitation.
Lodging: Prices remain pretty steady year-round. For a real bargain, camp.
Squirm factor: None. Dinosaurs, dirt, and bones mesmerize kids.
Dinosaur National Monument (and Quarry) Hwy 149, Jensen, UT Phone: 435-789-2115 Directions: To get to the quarry, turn north on Hwy 149 in Jensen, then follow signs for seven miles.
Camping: Typically, you won't need to worry about sites filling up, except Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends. Most of the campsites are open year-round and are first come, first served. Fees vary by season and facilities.
Utah Field House of Natural History and Dinosaur Gardens 235 East Main St., Vernal, UT Phone: 435-789-3799
Red Fleet State Park -- Triassic Period Dinosaur Trackway Hwy 191, 10 miles north of Vernal, UT Phone: 435-789-4432Petroglyphs:
Contact: Dinosaurland Travel Region Phone: 800-477-5558
Ashley Valley Community Park At the intersection of 500 North St. and 900 West St., Vernal Phone: 435-781-0982 Note: This 35-acre park is the local hangout, and a great place for kids to play. It has four baseball diamonds, three softball diamonds, three sand volleyball pits, and several horse shoe pits. The youngest in your crew will enjoy two large playgrounds with swings, slides, and other kid activities.
7-11 Ranch Restaurant 77 East Main St., Vernal Phone: 435-789-1170 Note: This is the place for those tasty dino chicken nuggets.
Best souvenir: It's a toss-up between the "coprolite," a polite term for petrified dinosaur dung, and the Dinosaur Hunting License that you can pick up for free at the information centers around Dinosaurland. The license allows the bearer to "hunt for, pursue, shoot, kill, and remove" a variety of pterodactyls from the Dinosaur Control Area of Northeastern Utah.Annual events:
Traffic alert: Unpaved roads can become impassable after rains, especially for RVs and trailers. US 191 heading north out of Vernal has 10 switchbacks that can make it difficult for passage with RV or vehicles towing trailers.
Cool off with a boat trip on Flaming Gorge reservoir, a 91-mile lake on the Utah/Wyoming border. Or take a scenic drive in this gorgeous land of cool ancient formations and colorful landscapes, situated halfway between Yellowstone and Canyonlands National Parks. Most of the highways are designated scenic byways, backways, and loop tours. Located 41 miles north of Vernal, UT. Dinosaurland Travel Region Phone: 800-477-5558
Reviewed April 2004.