Fossils Come Alive at Dinosaur National Monument

In one section of the quarry wall at Dinosaur National Monument, you can touch the dinosaur bones. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Every year, National Fossil Day is observed by the National Park Service during mid-October. There’s no better place to celebrate it than in the massive quarry house in Dinosaur National Monument, located on the state line between northwest Colorado and Utah.

The famous, 150-foot-long quarry wall is embedded with more than 1,500 fossilized dinosaur bones. It’s literally a log jam from an ancient river where dinosaurs drank and hunted…and died.

The quarry is preserved to show the bones located exactly as they were found, and high-tech touch screens allow you to zoom in for a close-up view of a particular bit of skeleton.

Having recently been on a Dino Dig, I can’t imagine how many years it would take for paleontologists to excavate this many fossils. (And work still goes on nearby; a team recently discovered an ichthyosaur, a giant marine reptile.)

As my brother, David, and I entered the quarry hall, there was dino-magic in the air. A little girl let go of her father’s hand and skipped over to the fossil wall. “I’m so excited! I can’t believe these are real dinosaurs,” she said, petting a tibia bone in the okay-to-touch zone.

An observation deck overlooks the massive quarry wall, which is filled with fossilized dinosaur bones. ©Laurel Kallenbach

To help us make sense of the jumbled hodgepodge of bones, which belong to at least seven species of Jurassic-era dinosaurs, David and I used a guide booklet, “What Kind of a Bone Is That?” (It cost us just $1 at the Visitor’s Center.) The two of us reverted to full dino-nerd mode: we spent a couple of hours ID-ing interesting bones, like the sacrum and back plate of Stegosaurus. At the end, we just sit on a bench and speechlessly gaze at the magnificent, intact skull of Camarasaurus, a gigantic plant-eater.

Some of the fossilized bones preserved in Quarry Hall. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Park rangers are always stationed in the quarry hall to answer visitor questions. We talked to ranger Tiffany Small, who pointed out a few more details that we’d missed. She also impressed upon us how unique this view of the past we were witnessing really was. “People come into the hall and cry because they’re so moved that this quarry has been preserved—and that the remains of these prehistoric animals are still here for us to remember.”

When I asked Ranger Small who gets most excited when they come into this hallowed hall of ancient bones, she replied: “Dinosaurs bring out the kid in all of us.”

I guess she could tell David and I were reliving our dino-crazy childhood.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Related Articles:

Read more about my travels in America’s national parks and monuments:

This diorama in Quarry Hall shows the skeleton of Allosaurus and a painting of what the animal might have looked like. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Beds in the Woods

I’ve been reminiscing about my camping days as a kid. A list of my family vacations reads like a guidebook to the U.S. National Park system: Acadia, Yellowstone, Cape Hatteras, Mesa Verde, the Everglades, Valley Forge, Grand Canyon, the Redwoods, Isle Royale, Bryce Canyon, Craters of the Moon, Yosemite. Our family of four camped everywhere, either sprawled in a tent or wedged into our tiny, 8-by-15-foot aluminum trailer.

For spring break when I was a kid, we packed up the tent and headed to destinations closer to our Kentucky home: Daniel Boone National Forest, Mammoth Cave, Cumberland Gap. We’d search for wildflowers—jack-in-the-pulpet, lady’s slipper, Dutchman’s breeches, trillium and ghostly Indian pipe—that popped their heads through the soggy leaves each rainy, chilly spring.

My roots in those lush, mossy forests and rocky hills run deep: I was named for the clusters of pink laurel blossoms that light the forest in early spring—and for a pretty cascade called Laurel Falls in the Smoky Mountains.

Camping 101

Camping isn’t just about taking a vacation—it’s about connecting to nature, and I have to say that all those childhood camping trips taught me more about ecosystems, meteorology, botany, astronomy, geology and wild beauty than book learning.

As an adult, I don’t camp often, but I’m still amazed at how quickly I adapt to getting back to nature. In fact, my favorite trips lately tend to be places in which cell phones, TVs, the internet and even electricity don’t play a role whatsoever.

Hanging Around in Mexico

And, although spending the night on the ground in a sleeping bag has lost a great deal of charm, I’m still a sucker for outdoor beds. My current favorite? A hanging bed in a palapa—an open-sided, thatched-roof shelter in the Mayan tradition.

I’ve been lucky enough to discover Yelapa, a village on Mexico’s Pacific coast where it’s common to stay in a palapa in the jungle or overlooking the beach. I love climbing under the filmy web of mosquito netting that covers a platform with a comfy mattress.

The whole bed is suspended by ropes. Inside this swaying nest I can read by flashlight or just lie and listen to the night sounds of the jungle or strains of salsa music wafting from town.

It’s cozy and snuggly—but I’m constantly aware of nature, especially the scorpions, which are plentiful, poisonous and demand respect. Especially the cries of unknown predators far up the mountains. Or the sound of fruit bats nibbling the local berries.

Sweet Dreams

Despite the somewhat unsettling factors of snoozing in nature, I sleep well, and all the unnecessary stuff in life peels away until I’m back to the essential me—the same me who at 2 years old got my photo taken with the laurel flowers.

Last spring, my brother, David, and I visited Kentucky for the first time in almost 30 years. We spent two nights in the Red River Gorge tenting at a campground we spent a lot of time in as children. Although now both of us live in the arid West, we quickly adapted to the East’s rainy but more temporate climate and its bounty of foliage.

David and I aren’t little kids anymore—and after two nights sleeping on the ground, I especially was happy to move on to a softer bed! Yet there’s nothing as welcoming as returning to the land of your youth and reliving camping memories from bygone decades.

I’d love to hear from others about the joys of outdoor dwelling.

Where are your favorite places to camp?

What gear do you take along and why?

What’s your best (or worst) memory from a camping trip?

—Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Brother David, much more the outdoorsman that I, cooked our camp meals at the Red River Gorge, Kentucky.

The laurel flowers we’re in bloom yet in early April, but their waxy leaves still welcomed me home.