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Descending on dinosaurs

National Monument enticing visitors since 2011 reopening

A skull of an Allosaurus, a meat-eating predator of the sauropod species discovered at Dinosaur National Monument, is on display in the Quarry Exhibit Hall in Jensen, Utah. The quarry reopened in October 2011, six years after monument officials closed it because of structural issues. More than 64,000 people have visited the monument since it reopened last year.

There’s a phrase common among those who visit Colorado — they "came for the winter, but stayed for the summer."

Similar things can be said about visitors to Dinosaur National Monument, who sometimes travel long distances to view the prehistoric remains, for which the park is named, and are drawn back by the scenic landscapes in and around the area.

For a while, no one was allowed inside the Quarry Exhibit Hall to view the "wall of bones" — the monument's famous bone jam featuring the remains of hundreds of animals representing 10 different sauropod species.

In 2006, monument officials closed the Quarry Exhibit Hall because it lacked a foundation and unsteady soil conditions were causing structural damage.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 allowed monument officials to spend federal stimulus money on a $9 million project to rehabilitate the Quarry Exhibit Hall and construct a state-of-the-art visitor's center nine miles north of Jensen, Utah, on Uintah County Road 149.

Two years later, in September 2011, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar participated in the grand opening of the Quarry Visitor's Center.

More than 64,000 people have visited the quarry since its reopening, many traveling from distant parts of the globe to view Dinosaur's crown jewel — the skull of a long-necked, plant-eating sauropod known as Camarasaurus.

"The Camarasaurus is popular because its eyes and teeth are so well-defined," said Dan Johnson, the monument’s chief of interpretation and visitor services. "People have a tendency to gravitate to it."

Camarasaurus is believed to have grown to 60 feet long, with a weight up to 25 tons.

It is one of the most distinct fossils in the “wall of bones,” and there is a colorful representation of the animal in a mural painted along the back wall of the exhibit hall.

It's the artist renditions of Camarasaurus, and other prehistoric sauropods, that coax the most questions from quarry visitors, Johnson said.

"In the past, artists always painted dinosaurs in a greenish or grayish color with the idea being they would have wanted to blend into their environment," Johnson said. "The thinking now is once an animal reaches 100 feet long, it no longer needs to hide itself from predators even if it is a plant eater.

"Do we know what the dinosaurs’ colors were? No. It's purely imagination and we based the colors off of current examples in the animal kingdom for a similar environment."

If the Quarry Exhibit Hall is what attracts people to the monument, it's the rugged canyons, wilderness scenery and confluence of the Yampa and Green rivers that entices out-of-town visitors to return.

Christine Hansen, of Sacramento, Calif., was in the midst of a week-long road trip when she arrived at the Canyon Visitor Center two miles east of the Town of Dinosaur in Moffat County.

Hansen visited Dinosaur National Monument as a child about 50 years ago during a family vacation when the Quarry Exhibit Hall was "just a little metal shed with some bones in it."

Although interested in viewing the fossils with a level of appreciation that only comes with age, Hansen stopped in Moffat County first to explore potential campsites for another trip she has planned for the future.

"The quarry is fun because it's interesting to imagine this area as being a wetland or marine environment," Hansen said. "I stopped here because this is really just a short trip to scout camping spots for when I can come back and spend more time in the canyon."

Johnson said stories like Hansen's are common among returning visitors.

"Dinosaur Monument is known first for its dinosaur remains, but Harper's Corner and Echo Park are a couple of spots I send people looking for scenery and wildlife," Johnson said.

Ironically, most visitors do not realize Dinosaur National Monument stretches beyond the Utah/Colorado border and that the most scenic sights are located in Moffat County, Johnson said.

"It's interesting because unless you know we're here, the monument may seem kind of abstract and remote," Johnson said. "We don't quite get the same visitation numbers as some of the bigger parks like Rocky Mountain (National Park), so we're still kind of this undiscovered spot, which provides solitude and a sense of being out in the wilderness."

That isolated feeling suits Rick and Alison Fisher's backcountry style.

The Fisher's didn't have an agenda when they set out six weeks ago from their home in Gainesville, Fla., for a cross-country road trip.

The couple decided instead to fly by the seat of their pants, not worrying about where the road might take them.

Dinosaur National Monument therefore was not a scheduled visit.

But overlooking Harper’s Corner following an uninspiring 32-mile drive through fields of sagebrush, Pinion Junipers and native grasses, the Fishers said the views were well worth the effort.

So much so, the couple decided to break one of their own rules and spend the night at a public campsite.

"We're into the hills, the valleys and the backcountry," Rick said. "Usually we stay away from campgrounds, but I think Echo Park may be one of the exceptions."

"It's fantastic," Alison said about the views of Harper's Corner. "It's just incredible."

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