Cold Desert Trail

Overview: How does life adapt to the harsh extremes of a “cold desert” (high elevation desert)? Hike this trail to find out.

Type of trail: Self-guided nature loop.

Distance: 0.25 mile

Elevation change: None

Hiking time: 15 minutes to 1 hour

Maps: Intermountain Natural History Association booklet, available in box by trail

Difficulty: Very easy

Starting point: The trailhead begins at the south side of the parking lot of the visitor center, which is the first right turn after you enter Harpers Corner Scenic Drive. From Jensen, Utah, take U.S. Highway 40 east toward Colorado for 25 miles. You will see the sign for Dinosaur Monument Headquarters and Visitor Center. Take a left at this point off US 40. The visitor center and trail are just up Harpers Corner Scenic Road on the right.

If you’re exploring the Cold Desert Trail on a July day, you may disagree with the name of this 0.25-mile-long path. “Cold Desert,” however, is apt. The trail is located at an elevation of about 6,000 feet, and the monument itself is located in a more northern latitude. Therefore the term “cold” is appropriate. But the term “desert” is also correct. The trail is located on the lee side of the Wasatch Range and receives very little moisture.

How does life adapt to such extremes? In part that’s what this hike helps you understand. But the hike offers more. Because of a flash flood in 1999, the hike provides insights into the effects of sudden and heavy water in an area that normally receives only 6 to 8 inches of rain over the span of an entire year.

The flood occurred on the afternoon of July 31, 1999, when a thunderstorm unleashed 0.5 inch of rain in less than 20 minutes. In a few minutes, millions of gallons of water swirled around trees, pushed rocks, and filled burrows. But, as a park brochure points out, though some may see the flood as a disaster, others see it as an agent of natural change.

Perhaps the most significant change has been a reduction in the population of prairie dogs that once thrived here. Prairie dogs serve as the keystone for other species of wildlife, and without prairie dogs these other species are diminished. Burrowing owls, rattlesnakes, mountain plovers, bison, and coyotes all depend — or, as in the case of the bison, depended — on the prairie dog for various aspects of their well-being.