Touch a Jurassic-period fossil and go river rafting? This destination offers both.

Eve Chen

There's a real Jurassic park right here in the U.S., but it's nothing like the books or films.

Dinosaur National Monument's dinosaurs died millions of years ago, but they left behind a treasure trove of fossils for generations of dinosaur lovers.

"The most fun part of being a ranger here is seeing the dinosaur kids who've grown up," Sonya Popelka, the monument's interpretation supervisor, said. "It might be a few decades or half a century since their dinosaur phase, but that love and that spark and that interest comes back alive when they come face to face with this wall of bones here."

Visitors to the National Park Service site, which straddles the Utah and Colorado state line, can walk in the footsteps of dinosaurs and do something else they can't at museums.

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"You can put your hands on real dinosaur bones, turned into fossils," Popelka said. "So you can experience the Jurassic as directly as possible by seeing and actually touching."

Museums all over North America showcase fossils from this very site, but Dinosaur National Monument is the mother lode.

There are over 1,500 dinosaur fossils in its Quarry Exhibit Hall alone, which was built right over a wall of partially excavated bones. 

"We have a lot of the giant sauropods, the four-legged, long neck, long tail plant eaters. The majority of bones that are preserved in the rock quarry are those," Popelka said. "We do have theropods. Those are the meat eaters. ... We see them less frequently, just like the predator-prey relationship today where you may have a large herd of herbivores and a small number of carnivores."

Jurassic-period species include allosaurus, apatosaurs, diplodocus and stegosaurus, among other types of dinosaurs.

More than dinosaurs

Visitors will also find evidence of what archaeologists call the Fremont culture, which dates back 1,000 years. Not much is known about the early settlers who brought agriculture to the area and whose petroglyphs and pictographs are still visible on rock walls today. However, the lands have been tied to 36 Indigenous tribes and pueblos, including the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah and Pueblo of Santa Clara, New Mexico.

"Something that people do not really think of when they think of Dinosaur National Monument is the strong cultural connections that are evident still across the landscape," Popelka said. "The recreational opportunities with river rafting that we have now are rooted in fur trapping and trading and transportation routes that stretch back for centuries."

Dinosaur National Monument visitors can see more than 1,500 dinosaur fossils and even touch some with their own hands.

Park visitors can explore all this rich history or simply enjoy the great outdoors, hiking, stargazing and camping without worrying about hurrying or heavy crowds, particularly outside of summer.

"Give yourself enough time to enjoy it and let things sink in," Popelka said. 

Dinosaur National Monument covers more than 210,000 acres and is open all year round. It saw 359,560 visitations last year.