Dinosaurs are Back!

Jensen, Utah


Dinosaurs are back! Well, maybe not from the Cretaceous Age 150 million years ago, but they’ve returned again on display at Dinosaur National Monument in Jensen, Utah. Actually, the large lizard bones never left, but the quarry exhibit building had been closed for five years because it had broken free of its foundation on betonite soil and was sliding downhill.

The quarry has re-opened and exhibits are better than ever. Chief of Interpretation and Visitor Services Dan Johnson explains, “The key thing was trying to protect the bone wall. We don’t climate control it to an exact temperature but we do moderate it,” which is important with outside temperature swings from 110 degrees in the summer to -30 degrees in winter.

So if you went to Dinosaur National Monument years ago, it’s time to bring your children or grandchildren and return. We’ve learned a lot more about sharp-toothed reptiles in the last twenty years. The new exhibits are stunning and this time the dinosaurs travel in herds and even have stripes!

While the National Park Service was repairing the quarry building, staff updated and renovated the Jensen visitor center with new exhibits on ancient Native American cultures, pictographs, petroglyphs and area homesteaders. Fish are featured too, especially the four endangered fish of the Upper Colorado River system: the razorback sucker, Colorado pikeminnow, humpback chub and bonytail chub.

Exhibits tout Dinosaur’s Green and Yampa Rivers and exploration of the arid west. New labels explain that “Powell is as important to the monument’s rivers as Earl Douglass is to its fossils. He identified water as the primary issue in the development of the West.” In his era Maj. John Wesley Powell was not listened to as a prophet on western water, and in the 1950s Congress almost flooded rapids that Powell ran on the Green including Hell’s Half Mile, Disaster Falls, and Triplet. But conservationists, soon to become environmentalists, stopped the damn dam at Echo Park.


In addition to comments from uniformed National Park Service rangers, children can now touch screens and learn from “the electronic ranger.” They’ll understand about the monument’s diverse landscapes including montane forest, semi-desert shrubland, riparian woodlands, and plants like dinosaur milkvetch, dwarf lupine and arrowleaf balsamroot.

After a quick spin through the visitor center it’s on to the open-seated roofless tram for the ride up to the quarry or bone wall to see the most complete skeleton of a young Stegosaurus ever found and to touch real dinosaur bones. Just don’t climb on them.

Visitors come from all over the world to see the quarry made famous by Earl Douglass who on April 17, 1900 wrote in his journal, “At last, in the top of the ledge . . . I saw eight of the tail bones of a Brontosaurus in exact position. It was a beautiful sight.” Since that initial discovery, paleontologists have collected bones from 400 different dinosaurs, but 1,500 bones remain on the quarry wall from 100 creatures.

Douglass wrote the Smithsonian Institution in 1923 and suggested, “I hope that the government, for the benefit of science and the people, will uncover a large area, leave the bones and skeletons in relief, and house them in. It would make one of the most astonishing and instructive sights imaginable.” That’s what happened.

The quarry building itself is also impressive. Constructed in 1958 as modernist architecture, within nine years the columns and walls began to crack. In 2001 the building became officially listed as a National Historic Landmark but by 2006 it was at risk of collapsing. Opened again in 2011, the $8 million renovation included new columns sunk 20, 40, even 60 feet into bedrock with micro-pylons of metal and injected concrete. No water enters the building. No faucets or toilets are near the dinosaur wall. All are outside to prevent any hazards from leaks.

The quarry wall, except for excavations, has been the same for millions of years. However, some of the bones in display cases are in casts with originals like the Apatosaurus skull at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. At least a dozen universities investigate science at Dinosaur National Monument, including new research on ancient dinosaur paths or trackways. Chief of Interpretation Johnson explains, “23 rock or geological formations in the monument give you plenty of areas to explore. We are trying to help people connect with these resources, enjoy and protect them.”

Having visited last year, I plan to return. I can’t get enough of the photo-realistic murals and the new concepts of dinosaurs with racing stripes and colored skin. I especially like the Camarasaurus, black with gray stripes. The juveniles were 1.5 tons, but the hefty adults weighed 25 tons. Renovations to the building include better spotlights and an eight-foot wide second story mezzanine “so you’re closer to the bones,” said Ron Litton, of the Intermountain Natural History Association. The new floor is made of rubber pavers, in case anything shifts, and on the lower level children can now run their hands along 20 feet of exposed bone wall. And they do, laughing, playing, and posing for pictures.

In an age of modern science and DNA, I wondered if dinosaurs could be re-created. NPS Ranger Erin Cahill responds, “We have no soft tissue here on the wall, which is fine with me. I don’t want dinosaurs following me to work or the big plant eaters sitting on me.” She added, “We’re not looking for DNA.” That might be true, but children’s imaginations run wild, and they would love to see real dinosaurs. In the visitor center children get to draw any kind of dinosaur they want and have their creation posted on a bulletin board. I saw some fantastic artwork and very appealing lizards.

The latest research proposes that dinosaurs developed feathers to attract mates. Dinosaurs with feathers?  Dinosaurs with colored skin? That might be new research for graduate students, but based on drawings I saw in the visitor center, children have known that all along.

 Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and Environmental Studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at gulliford_a@fortlewis.edu

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