5 Ways to Experience One of the West’s Newest Dark Sky Parks
In 2019, Dinosaur National Monument, situated along the Utah-Colorado border, became one of the newest Dark Sky Parks in the U.S. Granted by the International Dark Sky Association, this designation means the monument is now among the best places in the world for stargazing. Of course, as its name would suggest, there’s more to this under-the-radar park than its impressive night skies, including a collection of more than 1,500 dinosaur bones on display for visitors in the renowned Carnegie Exhibit Hall.
Whether you have one day or several to spend in Dinosaur National Monument, here are some of the best ways to experience everything this red rock wonderland has to offer.
Plan Your Visit: What to do in Dinosaur National Monument
1) Hike past dinosaurs.
It may be the obvious choice, since the monument literally has Dinosaur in its name, but the easy hike along the Fossil Discovery Trail is a must-do for any visitor. The 1.2-mile trail, which links the Quarry Visitor Center and the Quarry Exhibit Hall, is an out-and-back hike, but you can also plan to do it one-way and then take the park shuttle back to where you started. Along the way, you’ll travel through three different fossil areas where you can hunt for various dinosaur fragments and even some large bones that are embedded in the rock layers just as they were discovered.
2) Raft through the heart of the park.
Not one, but two world-class whitewater rivers converge in Dinosaur National Monument. If you have 3 to 5 days to commit to the area, there may be no better way to dive into the park’s incredible canyon scenery, wildlife viewing, petroglyphs, and stargazing (of course) than on a Gates of Lodore or Yampa River rafting trip which give you prime access to the park’s remote canyons. A trip down the Green River through the Gates of Lodore offers fun, Class III whitewater, scenery that rivals Grand Canyon and beach camping at its best (perfect for stargazing). Meanwhile, the legendary Yampa River is no less stunning when it comes to scenery, and provides the chance to paddle a wild and free stretch of river that comes to life in the spring and early summer with exciting Class III-IV whitewater. Guided trips are typically available May – September on the Green River and May – mid-July on the Yampa.
3) Soak under a waterfall.
It’s a bit of a drive, approximately 1-hour from the Quarry Visitor Center, but the 8-mile round-trip hike along the Jones Hole Trail is one of the best in the monument if you love water and fishing. Though a decent trek in terms of mileage, the trail is relatively flat as it follows along Jones Hole Creek to the Green River. The impressive canyon views once you reach the river are worth it, but the real gems of this trail are the Fremont petroglyphs and pictographs (about 1.5 miles down the trail from the Fish Hatchery), the trout fishing in Jones Hole Creek, as well as the waterfall affectionately known to rafters as “Butt Dam Falls.” To reach the waterfall, take a slight .2-mile detour along the Island Park Trail which follows Ely Creek to the waterfall. You won’t be able to resist standing under it for a refreshing shower.
4) Camp at Echo Park.
If you want to feel like you’re sleeping under the stars in a remote wilderness area, but still have the amenities of a developed campsite, snag a spot at Echo Park Campground near the confluence of the Green and Yampa Rivers. You’ll have to navigate a fairly rough road, which can become impassable during the winter/wet conditions, but those who make the trek are treated to an unforgettable backdrop—iconic Steamboat Rock. You can marvel at the fact that if it weren’t for the efforts of a fierce group of environmentalists who stopped a pair of proposed dams at Echo Park and Split Mountain in the mid-1950s, this spectacular place would now be under water. Sites are first-come, first-serve, but the campground is rarely full unless it’s a holiday weekend. From this area of the park, you can explore some of the more off-the-beaten path areas of Dino, including Mitten Park and Lower Sand Canyon, which requires good navigation skills and perfect weather if you’re planning to hike into the canyon.
5) Set your sights on sweeping canyon views.
There’s no shortage of breathtaking views in Dinosaur National Monument, but for one of the best in the park, the 9.5-mile round-trip Ruple Point Trail delivers. The relatively flat trails meanders over a wide open juniper- and sagebrush-scattered plateau before descending slightly and opening up to a sweeping view of the Green River and Split Mountain Canyon. Look closely and you might be able to catch a glimpse of rafters splashing through rapids below. The stretch of river is a popular 1-day rafting trip from Vernal, Utah and another fun way to experience the monument, especially on hot summer days.
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Photos: International Dark Sky Park Dinosaur National Monument – Justin Bailie; Quarry Visitor Center – Daveynin CC BY 2.0; Yampa River rafting – Collen Miniuk; Ely Creek Falls – Stacey Fulkerson; Echo Park – Matthew Dillon CC BY 2.0; Split Mountain Canyon view from Ruple Point Trail in Dinosaur National Monument – Clerk-Maxwell CC Share Alike 4.0