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Diggin' For Dinosaurs - Dinosaur National Monument, Part 2

Updated on March 30, 2010

Except for a cast of the new Allosaurus, still curled in its death pose, the compact exhibits at the public fossil quarry do not reflect the latest finds from these or other new fossil sites within the monument. But there's still much to hold your attention should you avert your gaze from the massive bone bas-relief. Scale models of each of the quarry's dinosaurs, with a relatively sized ranger model for comparison, give a quick gauge of these beasts' dimensions. A beautifully complete, real Allosaurus skull can be seen, along with a jaw fragment from this top-of-the-food-chain carnivore that reveals an erupting sharp tooth about to replace a worn, chipped one. Casts of the limb bones, pelvis, and ribs from the most complete juvenile Stegosaurus ever found, and a few bones from a Camptosaurus embryo, make unusual displays. You can see a growth series of sauropod ankle bones, or compare the thigh bones of Diplodocus and Camarasaurus. Although Camarasaurus had a shorter neck and tail, its denser, bulkier bones made it weigh around 30 tons, more than twice the mass of the larger Diplodocus.

On the quarry face, you can spot a pair of Camarasaurus skeletons. One has an arc of tail vertebrae curled above bones of the neck and an intact skull. The ribs, some limb bones, the pelvis, and a few foot bones are scattered across the wall. The second specimen has an eerily protruding skull and neck suspended above a fully articulated leg. Including these two, only 14 complete dinosaur skulls have been excavated from the quarry, so most of what's left in place are sauropod femurs, other limb bones, ribs, vertebrae, and shoulder blades. Instead of hounding a ranger for a bone-by-bone breakdown, consult the illustrated booklet "What Kind of Bone Is That?" available at the visitor center.

Not to diminish the poignant power of so many fossils in one place, but there's more to Dinosaur than dinosaurs. The fossil wall is literally and figuratively just the tip of the monument. Since roads are few and far between, seeing more of the park requires rafting, backpacking, or a lot of driving. But Dinosaur rewards what time you can give it. At least follow the 10-mile, mostly paved road past Split Mountain (after obtaining a "Tour of the Tilted Rocks" brochure). Prairie dogs pop up from roadside burrows. Fremont petroglyphs depicting lizards, bighorn sheep, and people in ceremonial dress adorn the rocks. In late afternoon, golden light emanates from the Entrada sandstone cliffs.

The four-mile Jones Creek Trail offers a respite from recreational vehicles and a break from the monument's heat, as a steady breeze blows through the canyon formed by towering red Cambrian rocks on one side and pale sandstone on the other. For a shorter, spectacular hike, head to the monument's visitor center outside Dinosaur, Colorado, and follow the 31-mile paved road to Harpers Corner. There, a moderate, mile-long trail offers jaw-dropping vistas of the monument's canyon country, including the serpentine meanders of the Yampa River canyon and monolithic Steamboat Rock, where the Yampa and Green Rivers converge. Had a proposed dam for this site not been thwarted in one of the environmental movement's earliest victories, both river canyons would now be inundated.

Continued in: Diggin' For Dinosaurs - Mill Canyon Dinosaur Trail

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