A Real-Life Jurassic Park

Iconic Communities, On the Road, Travel Destinations
on September 7, 2003

Amid a labyrinth of twisting canyons and winding rivers, prehistory slowly gives way to the present in the wilds of northwest Colorado. Few trails venture into this rugged country, where bighorn sheep amble among cliffsides and the relics of century-old homesteader cabins endure alongside ancient Indian petroglyphs and the scattered bones of dinosaurs that roamed this land 150 million years ago.

In the age of dinosaurs, this rugged desert landscape was a vast plain, like an African savannah, crisscrossed with rivers where the prehistoric lizards gathered. The dinosaurs are long gone, but hardly forgotten. Inside Dinosaur National Monument’s 210,844 acres of hardscrabble canyons lies one of the densest concentrations of dinosaur fossils known. The monument is most famous for its quarry, where paleontologist Earl Douglass cut into a cliff after finding the first bones here in 1909. Today, the unused quarry is housed in a steel and glass visitor center, where guests stand in awe of 1,500 fossilized dinosaur bones that litter the rock face like exhibits on a museum wall, offering a rare glimpse into a world long gone.

“It’s probably the most complete window into the Jurassic Age,” says Donna Breslin, a staff member at the vast monument that straddles the Utah-Colorado border. The monument has its headquarters in nearby Dinosaur, Colo. The town of 319 is a sort of real-life Jurassic Park, where you won’t see dinosaurs roaming the streets, but the street signs carry their names.

Route 40 heads into town, but once inside the town limits, drivers can cruise Brontosaurus Boulevard, where a spiky-headed triceratops stands guard over the town park. Just three miles east of the Utah border, the town is part of the Dinosaur Diamond, a 460-mile loop through the canyon country of western Colorado and eastern Utah famous for its treasure trove of Jurassic fossils.

This town used to be called Artesia, for its many natural springs. In 1965, residents changed the name because of the proximity to the national monument, and they moved the headquarters to the outskirts of town to attract more visitors. Today, tourists come in search of fossils, or to ramble the meandering canyons, boat the Green and Yampa rivers that course through the monument, hunt for deer and elk, and hang glide the desert breeze.

Some love it so much, they can’t leave. “You can hear the quiet,” says Leona Hemmerich, director of the Colorado Welcome Center in Dinosaur. She and her husband Robert moved to nearby Blue Mountain from the mountains west of Denver in 1995. Since then, she has become an avid explorer of the hidden crags and secret canyons of the monument.

“I have a love affair with the monument,” she confesses, and her office windowsill is covered with sculptured rocks she’s gathered from her journeys scrambling through secret caves and unknown arches.

“When you get to a place like that, you just go, ‘There’s something special, something different about this place,’” she says.

When the visitors are gone, Dinosaur is quiet. The oil industry that once fueled this town, like many in western Colorado, has slacked. Set amid broad sagebrush meadows where the snowcapped peaks of the Rocky Mountains can be seen rising in the distance, Dinosaur once had some 1,200 residents.

“There isn’t a heck of a lot going on, but there isn’t a heck of a lot of crime either,” says Vivian Gabrielson, who with her husband Charlie runs the Terrace Motel. Vivian’s a former town council member. Charlie is a former mayor who came to town in the 1950s to work in the nearby oil fields, like many here.

“I wouldn’t mind having more people around here, but I wouldn’t want to have a big town,” Gabrielson says. “The only thing we’re missing here is enough people to play bridge. You’re lucky to be able to find a foursome now.”