My brother Andrew insisted that he had discovered a dinosaur bone, and I wasn’t buying it. Granted, we were standing on the crumbly slope of Dinosaur Hill, where an almost-complete skeleton of Apatosaurus (colloquially but incorrectly known by the name Brontosaurus) was discovered in 1901. But Dinosaur Hill was a well frequented stop on the “Dinosaur Diamond“, a roughly diamond shaped scenic byway that straddles the paleontologist’s playground of eastern Utah and western Colorado. I couldn’t believe that there were still undiscovered bones to be found at such a well-trodden site.
This was our first stop, and for someone who had only seen real dinosaur bones in the cavernous and formal setting of a natural history museum, the thought of an actual dinosaur bone just poking out of the ground seemed far-fetched. But Andrew kept insisting, and to humor him, my nephew Sam helped sweep away the dirt with his painter’s brush. I dutifully took pictures to document our find. We joked about what we might name the new discovery as we continued our drive to Moab. It wasn’t until we visited the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Trail near Arches National Park that I realized that Andrew’s find was in fact a dinosaur bone.
I had joined my brother and Sam, my 6 year old nephew, for a dinosaur themed tour of the red rock country surrounding Moab, Utah. On our five day blitz, we planned to hit up Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, the city of Moab, and interesting dinosaur sites along the way. Our plan was akin to touring Europe in a week–too little time and too much to cover. Nonetheless, we mapped out an ambitious plan of attack that included full days of hiking at Arches and Canyonlands, important dinosaur digs, and even a few hours of bouldering at Big Bend. We set up our base camp in one of the diminutive cabins of Arch View Resort. The resort was well-situated: close to town and the Arches entrance, but far enough away to imagine that we were staying on a remote ranch, albeit with rows of campers parked nearby. There was also a network of primitive dirt road trails beyond the grounds, which provided endless rock-studded country for a morning run. As I ran, I pondered the difference between dog tracks and big cat tracks, and wondered whether the area was frequented by mountain lion.
Our first stop after settling into our cabin was the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Trail, a BLM site which bills itself as a “grand experiment”. Visitors (of which we were the only ones at the time) can walk along a trail that contains 150 million year old exposed dinosaur bones. There are no fences, no rangers, just you and the fossils. I was astonished at the quality and quantity of bones from sauropods like the vegetarian Stegosaurus, fierce Allosaurus, and 20-ton Camarasaurus. Our personal discoveries of the various bones felt new and fresh without crowds, guards or velvet ropes to separate us from the fossils. I was glad that this obscure “tourist attraction” still existed with the crowds piling into the nearby parks. We quickly learned to recognize the purplish-gray, grainy and pebbly textures of the fossilized bones. I also realized Andrew’s discovery at Dinosaur Hill was actually legit. We weren’t mere tourists, we were dinosaur hunters!
Beyond the Mill Canyon trail, empty country beckoned. We meandered through the unfenced, sandy tracks of cowboy country, ate some snacks in the shelter of a wind sharpened sandstone block, and headed back. We ended the day in Arches National Park, with a late afternoon hike along the 1 mile Park Avenue, a rock skyscraper-lined trail which Andrew declared to be one of his “top 10” hikes.
The next day, we returned to the park to explore the namesake natural rock arches, formed from eroded fins of red Entrada sandstone. We chose the 7.2 mile Devils Garden loop, which visits 7 standing arches and one recently collapsed (in 2008) arch. The trail cuts through impressive hallways of red rock, past Landscape Arch, one of the longest known natural stone arches in the world, and continues through more rugged territory to the Dark Angel spire (a small but dramatic sandstone pillar first climbed in the 1960s). As we continued along the trail, the crowds gradually thinned out. By the time we veered off onto the “primitive trail” return leg, we had the place to ourselves. Probably because of the peaceful setting, I enjoyed our stop at Private Arch the most. By the time we returned to the trail head, we were happily tired from clambering over rocks and through the sometimes soft, sandy trail bed. Although the 7 mile trail could be hiked fairly quickly, it was nice to take most of the day to stop and check out the arches, eat snacks and take photos of the interesting rock formations. I was impressed with Sam’s hiking abilities – and as he demonstrated, it’s a great hike for kids, as long as you take your time and bring plenty of water.
Our visit to Canyonlands National Park yielded more subtle sights. With only one full day before our return to Colorado, we decided to visit the Needles District. The driving distances between Moab and the Canyonlands entrances, as well as between the various districts of the park
At the Needles District of Canyonlands, we visited Pothole Point, a shelf of sandstone rock peppered with depressions, or “potholes” that fill with rainwater to form temporary miniature ecosystems of fairy shrimp, tadpoles and insect larvae. We also hiked the 2.4 mile Slickrock Foot Trail, which provided a great overview of the topography of the park. Rock spires and monolithic buttes punctuated the horizon, while surrounding canyons exposed a rainbow of sediments deposited over millions of years. On a smaller scale, the trail skirted thick crusts of cryptobiotic soil–a type of biological soil crust that is thought to be one of the first colonizers of the earth’s early land masses. I also saw a twitching pile of caterpillars just escaping their web. (If you’re curious, you can watch the video of the caterpillars here.)
Our visit to Canyonlands was too short. The sprawling park requires at least several days, if not longer. However, we had a plane to catch and one last pilgrimage to make. After several wrong turns, we finally made it to the Copper Ridge Dinosaur Track Site.
At the site, gigantic Apatosaurus tracks take a rare turn in direction. (Most tracks are straight.) It’s also possible to see the well preserved, three-toed tracks of what is thought to be a limping Allosaurus. It was one last chance to, literally, walk in the footsteps of the giants.