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2013 Family Travel: Discover Dinosaurs in Utah

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To Vernal and Back in Time

Three hours east of Salt Lake, the small town of Vernal puts visitors smack-dab in the heart of the Green River Formation where dinosaurs lived in great abundance millions of years ago.  In town, you have to stop at the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum, aka the Dinosaur Museum to locals, a mini-me version of Salt Lake City’s Natural History Museum where you can get a quick overview of the fossils that have been recovered from the area and see how scientists work in the field.

Kids have plenty of places to play. Areas are set up for children to search in the rocks and sand pits to find pretend-fossils. Science is fun and there are park rangers at the museum who will happily answer questions about the plants and animals that flourished in the Late Jurassic Period (150-145 million years ago), the Eocene Epoch (55-34 million years ago) and the Cenozoic Era (65 million years ago to today).

Dinosaur National Park

At the small farming community of Jensen, a turn off leads visitors alongside the Green River into Dinosaur National Park. The cost is $10 per vehicle  to enter. The chief attraction at the park is the Quarry Exhibit Center or the wall of bones. Access to this protected area is by the shuttle which runs every fifteen minutes, leaving from the Visitor’s Center where you can purchase the “Tour of the Tilted Rocks,” a helpful guide about the park with directions to scenic spots.

The big fossil discovery in the area happened in 1909 when paleontologist Earl Douglass stumbled upon a vast deposit of bones. The area called Split Mountain has the remains of animals and plants that died hundreds of millions of years ago and were deposited near the surface by a combination of earthquakes and erosion.

Douglass used dynamite and pick axes to tear away at the earth, uncovering thousands upon thousands of specimens. As he carted away the fossils he realized he should preserve the site itself because it was as remarkable as the bones.

He ordered that a rich trove of fossils embedded in a rock wall almost as long as a football field and towering five stories be left untouched. Recently, the National Park Service rebuilt the two-story gallery protecting the wall of bones.

In that wall, hundreds upon hundreds of dinosaurs, some small, some mammoth are scrambled together in death, their bones deposited in easy reach of even the littlest of kids.

Visiting Dinosaur National Park from Salt Lake City can certainly be done in a long day trip, but if you have more time, base your stay in Vernal with half a dozen comfortable, affordable motels, or at camp sites and cabins in the collection of parks stretching from Vernal to Flaming Gorge, 45 minutes away.

For more adventures for future paleontologists, check out:

By David Latt for Latt is a television producer, world traveler and foodie who indulges in copious amounts of “cooking therapy.” See more of his musings on food, family and travel at