Up close with the fossils (and weather) at Dinosaur National Park

Shanti Berman runs past an allosaurus skeleton and an 80-foot-long mural telling the story behind the massive fossil collection at the Carnegie Quarry in Dinosaur National Monument in northeastern Utah. (Joshua Berman, Special to The Denver Post)

Shanti Berman runs past an allosaurus skeleton and an 80-foot-long mural telling the story behind the massive fossil collection at the Carnegie Quarry in

Shanti Berman runs past an allosaurus skeleton and an 80-foot-long mural telling the story behind the massive fossil collection at the Carnegie Quarry in Dinosaur National Monument in northeastern Utah. (Photo by Joshua Berman)

By Joshua Berman
Special to The Denver Post

DINOSAUR NATIONAL MONUMENT — “Everybody out of the river!” I shouted the moment I saw the lightning-driven cold front headed straight toward us. My daughters, wife and I scrambled up the sandy bank. We were camping in Dinosaur National Monument, a 210,000-acre swath of protected desert and canyonlands, spanning northwest Colorado and northeast Utah.

The park, which turned 100 on Oct. 4, is about a six-hour drive from Denver, and because it’s so remote, is little-known beyond a few adventure-seeking boaters — and roadtripping, fossil-seeking families like us.

Rafting groups and kayakers come to float the upper stretches of the Green River. The fossil folks come to see dinosaur bones at the Quarry Exhibit Hall, specifically the Carnegie Quarry, an extraordinary Jurassic-period fossil bed containing roughly 1,500 fossils.

We were in the middle of a month-long family discovery trip around Colorado, visiting most of the state’s National Parks and Monuments. Dinosaur is so far removed that we nearly skipped it, but we decided to make the push after running into an excited eastbound-family in Steamboat Springs.

“They let you touch the bones!” exclaimed one of their children, referring to the 149-million-year-old specimens on display at the Carnegie Quarry. The fossil bed was discovered in 1909 and contains “the most ecologically complete assemblage of Late Jurassic dinosaurs in the entire world,” according to  CarnegieQuarry.com, where you can take a virtual tour the “wall of bones.”

The quarry is so huge and unique that the National Park Service built a soaring two-story, air-conditioned structure around the site in 2011. Visitors can explore the high rock wall, bone by bone, through interpretative plaques across its length. An 80-foot mural tells the story of how this place came to be. My daughters ran back and forth in excitement and received several short lessons in paleontology from on-site interpretive rangers.

We came, we saw, and we did indeed have a memorable visit to the quarry that morning. But later, as we raced back through the willows to our campsite, we had a different adventure.

The temperature plummeted as a terrific squall collapsed half our tent and attempted to toss our shade structure into the river. My wife and I clung to it with all our strength as our camp was blown apart and the kids scrambled into the car.

Then it passed as quickly as it came. Not quite what we had bargained for, but such things happen when you are camping in the desert.

Everything was soaked, the sky began to clear, and as the girls climbed out of the car and we all picked up the pieces of our camp, I realized we have one more story to tell about the day we touched real dinosaur fossils.

Joshua Berman is the author of the upcoming fifth edition of “Colorado Camping,” which will be released in the spring. JoshuaBerman.net and twitter.com/tranquilotravel

If you go

The weather in Dinosaur National Monument is calmer in late October and early November than it was during my visit. Plus you’ll find changing leaf colors and cooler temperatures, and possibly hear a bugling elk or spot some migrating birds. To go to the Quarry Visitor Center, enter on the Utah side, just north of Jensen. Open daily, closed only Thanksgiving Day, Dec. 25 and Jan. 1. $10 entrance fee per vehicle. Check on seasonal closures of roads and campgrounds during the late fall and winter at 435-781-7700 or nps.gov/dino.

This article originally appeared in The Denver Post Sunday Travel Section on Oct. 25, 2015.

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