How to Go Fossil Hunting in America’s Dinosaur Country

Meet at the corner of Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming to view ancient fossils and natural wonders and to sleep under star-studded skies.

Red Fleet State Park as seen from above.

At Red Fleet State Park, you can hike to a collection of preserved dinosaur tracks, said to be more than 200 million years old.

Photo By DFrost/Shutterstock

Jurassic World aside, the best U.S. destination for dinosaur lovers can be found about three hours east of Salt Lake City and five west of Denver at the confluence of Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming, home to some of the greatest opportunities for peeking into the country’s prehistoric past.

Fossils, footprints, and geological marvels abound and are made highly accessible thanks to the region’s many well-maintained parks, monuments, and trails, with no shortage of camping and outdoor adventure to be had while you’re there. It’s a region of vast desert expanses and spectacular rock formations, so for those who have a passion for nature and history, it’s well worth a week’s exploration.

The area we’re focusing on starts in the northwest corner of Colorado, follows Highway 40 into Utah, cuts north at Vernal into Wyoming, then winds further west to the Fossil Butte National Monument. Along the way you’ll encounter Dinosaur National Monument, the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, and more. While these parks are high in renown, they’re also somewhat off the beaten path, so if you’re looking for a less-crowded alternative to Moab or Yellowstone, this stretch, more or less located right between the two, is ideal.

There are many parks and protected outdoor spaces in the region, but we’re spotlighting three.

You'll see 1,000-year-old petroglyphs and pictographs at Dinosaur National Monument.

You’ll see 1,000-year-old petroglyphs and pictographs at Dinosaur National Monument.

Photo By IrinaK/Shutterstock

Dinosaur National Monument

The 210,000-acre Dinosaur National Monument spans Colorado and Utah; its main attraction is a carefully protected cliff face boasting some 1,500 exposed dinosaur bones—including fossils from species we all know and love, like the stegosaurus, allosaurus, and apatosaurus. The park is also home to 1,000-year-old petroglyphs and pictographs created by the Fremont people, as well as 220,000 acres of trails, campgrounds, and scenic drives.

You should use this spot as the base of your trip, so be sure to verify that the sections of the park that you most want to see will be open when you intend to go. “Planning ahead before you arrive definitely helps,” advises Park Ranger Molly Swindle, who notes that while the Wall of Bones is open year-round, the Harpers Corner Scenic Drive is usually closed in winter. In other words, if dino bones are your main goal, then you can visit any time of year, but if you want the full park experience, you’ll want to consider your timing.

No matter when you’re there, be sure to look up when the stars are out, as Dinosaur National Monument is an International Dark Sky Place. That means you can spot the Milky Way year-round, particularly in the summer when park rangers offer stargazing programs at a designated viewing spot where you can view the cosmos via telescope or binoculars.

Where to stay

Dinosaur’s Green River Campground is a mere five miles from the Quarry Exhibit Hall and provides sweeping, high desert views of the surrounding river and mountains. Ample trees and shrubbery ensure decent site privacy, and it has potable water, bathrooms, picnic tables, and fire pits. It tends to fill up during the spring, summer, and early fall seasons, so book a couple of months in advance. Sites cost $18 nightly.

Flaming Gorge canyon and reservoir

Flaming Gorge is a landscape photographer’s dream.

Photo By Tim Peterson

Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area

After a couple of days at Dinosaur, head about an hour north to the gorgeous Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, a section of the Ashley National Forest. While dinosaur tracks and petroglyphs have been discovered in Flaming Gorge, these aren’t accessible to the public. But you’re not coming here for those; you’re coming for the stunning vistas: Geological wonders carved into the landscape over the course of millennia are the big attraction. The reservoir is particularly popular among water sport enthusiasts who want to boating, fish, water-ski, and Jet-Ski here. It’s also a landscape photographer’s dream, thanks to its diverse geographical features, from canyons and layered cliffs to unique rock formations, plus spectacular sunsets.

“Highlights of the forest are certainly Flaming Gorge Dam, with its associated recreation on the 91-mile-long reservoir, and the steep red cliffs of Red Canyon,” notes Ashley National Forest Service Officer Don Jaques. “The Red Canyon Visitor Center and Overlook is a special treat for visitors traveling through the area, as you can look down into the 1,400-foot-deep Red Canyon that frames the reservoir below.” The area, he adds, is home to some of the most diverse geological formations exposed through earthquakes, erosion, and the power of wind and water.

Where to stay

The Flaming Gorge area is thick with campgrounds of widely varying quality, with Canyon Rim campground checking all the right boxes. First, it sits on the edge of the canyon, so if you manage to get one of the rim-side sites, you’ll be waking up to some truly fantastic scenery. The campground offers all the essential facilities: tables, water, fire rings, and pit toilets. As an added bonus, it’s near the Red Canyon Lodge Restaurant, where visitors can dine on American fare like bison burgers and grilled trout, and through the lodge they can ride horses and rent bikes and canoes.

Fossil Butte National Monument

Another 90 minutes west of Flaming Gorge, you’ll find Fossil Butte National Monument, or what’s referred to as “America’s Aquarium in Stone.” It’s where the fossil record shifts toward the aquatic residents of a lake that existed some 50 million years ago during the Eocene, and it’s home to incredibly well-preserved remains of fish, insects, reptiles, birds, plants, and mammals. At the on-site museum, browse some 2,000 fossils grouped by type in educational display cases, and create fossil rubbings to take with you as a keepsake. The surrounding park is also crisscrossed by trails that provide expansive views of Wyoming’s sagebrush desert landscapes.

Make time for a stop at Red Fleet State Park, between Dinosaur and Flaming Gorge, where you can hike a trail that will bring you to a smattering of dinosaur tracks believed to be more than 200 million years old—preserved in Nugget Sandstone (a geologic rock formation composed of hematite-stained siltstone and thin beds of sandstone) and measuring up to 17 inches long. To reach the trailhead, look for signs for Red Fleet Reservoir about 15 minutes north of Vernal. The trail has roadside parking, and it’s an easy to moderate 1.7-mile hike out and back. As of this writing, the park is closed for extensive renovations, but it is projected to reopen for the Summer 2024 camping season. No opening date has been announced, so be sure to check in advance.

Where to stay

Established campgrounds become somewhat scarce once you reach the Fossil Butte area, but as it straddles the Wyoming/Idaho border, there’s plenty of boondocking to be had. If you would like a proper site, we have two suggestions you can choose from, depending on your intentions: North Eden Campground on Bear Lake is a good pick if you’re into a more lively atmosphere, particularly regarding water sports. For a more laid-back vibe, dip a bit south to Little Creek Campground near Randolph, where you’ll find plenty of peace and quiet under wide-open skies.

This story is part of our Meet Me in the Middle series, which celebrates the singular towns, cities, and outdoor spaces that lie in wait for travelers between America’s well-trodden coasts. Read more from Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Wisconsin and the Midwest.

Nick Hilden is a travel, arts, and culture writer whose work has appeared in Esquire, the Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Popular Science, the Daily Beast, and more. You can follow his travels on Instagram or Twitter.
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