When the dinosaurs roamed the earth, they were tiny and titanic, terrifying and titillating, fleet footed and even flabby. Sounds like me at various ages. My map says the Dinosaur National Monument is way, way up in northeastern Colorado. Next to the town of Dinosaur! And next to nothing else, on a road to nowhere. Excellent, let’s go chase some dinosaurs!
Fall has begun and the tourist hordes have fled, so I start with Rocky Mountain National Park and Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous paved road in America. The aspens are golden and quaking, the peaks still have pockets of snow and the air is warm with no hint of impending winter.
After a quick lunch in Granby I hit U.S. Route 40, a mostly wide and gentle two-lane highway and my home for the day. Following alongside the Colorado River for an hour, through lots of farmland and a brief fun canyon, I turn north into spacious mountain valleys with vast ranges off in the distance. Steamboat Springs comes up next, normally quiet in this “between” season but full of restaurant and shopping options. Grabbing an ice cream cone and sitting outside, runners of all sizes and shapes on some sort of charity 10K pass by. Some ogle my shiny new Triumph, but the longing stares are for my waffle cone.
Back on the road, I stop for gas in Craig, as the final haul is 90 solitary miles to Dinosaur. Ubiquitous white oil-field pickups and dually ranch trucks are my only companions. It is wide open country so I let the Tiger run, but a beep from the Valentine One radar detector says, “Watch out!” and sure enough there’s a Moffat County sheriff hiding behind a small bluff. Whew!
Dinosaur, Colorado, is short on amenities, so my destination for the evening is another 40 minutes west, the tourist town of Vernal, Utah. It has lots of generic motels and restaurants, and the town itself is dinosaur tourist central. A 40-foot tall, blindingly pink “Dinah the Dinosaur” welcomes visitors from the east, while midtown has a 20-foot tall T-Rex, currently eating a watermelon while roasting a hot dog and hamburger on a grill. Don’t ask me why….
Come morning, I backtrack on U.S. 40 just past Dinosaur and enter a secret back road of the Dinosaur National Monument. Harpers Corner Road is just 32 miles long, and I’m not sure there’s a more secluded and untraveled bit of twisty paved fun in America. Rocks and trees, swerves and curves, mostly straddling a narrow ridge, it ends at nothing more than a scenic turnaround. There are breathtaking vistas across Utah and Colorado, but today we’re socked in with fog, with visibility about five feet down the various slopes. But the roadway is clear, and I meet all of two cars in a couple of hours of moto play. I stop in the final turnaround for a photo op, just waiting for some leviathan to come waddling out of the fog, but all is quiet until I mount up and have a blast riding back down to U.S. 40.
Back in Vernal for lunch, we move on to Dinosaur National Monument proper. Utah Route 149 takes you to the main visitor center, which is cool and informative, with a neat Stegosaurus done in spiffy black and white camo to greet you. Just about to celebrate its 100th birthday, Dinosaur National Monument is a delight for the ancient history buff. Going back in time you can find homesteader cabins, 1,000-year old petroglyphs from the Fremont people, and finally, from the late Jurassic, we have fossils! Over 1,500 are up close and even touchable in the Quarry Exhibit Hall, a truly “nowhere else in the world” display. The scientific minded will spend serious time here, but I take some time for a slow ride farther into the park, to see petroglyphs and follow the winding Green River.
My last day in Vernal is to be a short day trip up to the Flaming Gorge area. I take U.S. Route 191 north out of Vernal, a pleasant wide highway through desert rocks and hills until entering Ashley National Forest, where the fall colors are in full force, then turning west onto Utah Route 44, which runs up the west side of the gorge and the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area. Major John Wesley Powell (of Grand Canyon fame) led an expedition down the Green River and marveled at the wildly striped red cliffs. I stay on top of the cliff walls, cruising along perfect tarmac and deciding which overlooks require photo ops and which are best passed at speed. This area is sparsely traveled as it’s simply too far and out of the way. In other words, just right for two wheelers looking to get away.
You can make a big loop up into Wyoming and back down the east side, but I plan to escape Utah that way tomorrow, so I stop in Manila just shy of the state border. Refueled with a tasty burger, fries and a banana milkshake, I retrace my way back down Route 44. It’s a casual day, so I follow a forest side road up and through a massive aspen grove, where I find a clearing just begging for a silent, contemplative rest stop.
The next morning it is time to leave Vernal, even though I am leaving some sites untouched such as the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum, which I can at least report has some great dinosaur statues all around the building. This time I stay on U.S. Route 191, following the eastern side of Flaming Gorge over the towering dam and onward.
omewhat less scenic, but still twisty in spots and with excellent pavement, U.S. 191 winds north into Wyoming, where the land flattens out and the highway eventually merges for a bit with Interstate 80. I jump off in Rock Springs for both lunch and a quick run through the halls of Western Wyoming Community College. That might not be your normal idea of grand sightseeing, but doing my homework I learned that WWCC has five life-sized dinosaurs on display, including a Tyrannosaurus that watches you eat at the T-Rex Grill.
Fed and informed, I move on, back to U.S. 191 north for another 45 minutes until I turn east on Wyoming Route 28. If you like solitude, Route 28 will do the job for you—it’s 70 miles of quiet with very few turns and even fewer signs of nature other than grassland. There were signs for South Pass City, an 1868 frontier town, but I keep going to join up with U.S. Route 287 and head north to Lander, where I stop for gas and a heat respite, the sun bearing down unrelentingly. Turning right on to Wyoming Route 789 takes me through continuous farm country for about 45 miles until the turn north on U.S. Route 20. This goes to the east side of Boysen Reservoir and finally to Wind River Canyon. Motorcyclists search out topographical names like that, and this one doesn’t disappoint. I have to watch for big horn sheep and big butt RVs, but the setting sun lights up the steep canyon walls—a perfect ending to a long day’s ride.
At the north end of the canyon is Thermopolis, home to the world’s largest mineral hot spring, where I stay in the rider-friendly Roundtop Mountain Motel. A surprisingly excellent Mexican dinner and giant margarita downtown at Las Fuentes ends the day nicely.
Day 5 is a restful tourist day. First it’s a tour of the Wyoming Dinosaur Center, a large nondescript metal barn that is delightfully full of bones and beasts, all arranged chronologically starting when Wyoming was a seabed. After lunch, I lounge in one of the commercial hot springs facilities and recharge the muscles and the mind. Pre-dinner is a walk through Hot Springs State Park, an otherworldly landscape of bubbling mineral formations. Be sure to cross the swinging suspension bridge and see where the boiling sulfurous springs join the Bighorn River, and the unexpectedly free bathhouse is quite nice.
Day 6 and it is time to head home, but not before a couple of canyon dives and one last dinosaur hunt. I get back on Route 20 and head north for an hour to Greybull, where I turn east on to U.S. Route 14. Just about 8 miles east is a south turnout for a gravel byway to the Red Gulch Dinosaur Tracksite. The byway is about 5 miles of good gravel, easy pickings for an ADV bike and not too bad for a road bike assuming no recent rain. The site is amazing, a ¼-mile swath of limestone with thousands of Middle Jurassic footprints that you can walk among and compare foot sizes. I have the landscape to myself and can easily picture a plodding train of Theropods wandering down the draw.
Back up the byway to U.S. 14, I continue east toward Buffalo, but first I have some riding to do. Shell Canyon kicks off the fun, up to Granite Pass and over into the Bighorn Mountain Range, with some of the finest riding in Wyoming. Best of all is that you think you are done by Burgess Junction, but then you turn east and U.S. 14 is now the Medicine Wheel Passage Scenic Byway, with lovely forests and high mountain meadows bisected by sport-touring friendly pavement.
After a good 45 minutes of fun, I am now back on the Wyoming plains and hit Interstate 90, and that is the end of my dinosaur chase. I turn on the mental cruise control and head south, back to Colorado and home. It was a great week of riding, and although I never caught any dinosaurs, I sure had fun roaming their ancient playgrounds.