Dino Trekker 7-Day Itinerary
This 7-day itinerary is a full immersion in to the incredible dinosaur fossil record of Utah's Jurassic World and national park splendor. Pack up your car and travel through the modern-day variations of ancient landscapes where geologic wonder lines every road and trail.
Utah is a land of impossible landscapes that are profound lessons in geology and prehistory before a single word is read. From the monolithic formations and narrow slots of Zion and the titled, fractured landscape of Capitol Reef to the stark beauty of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Dinosaur National Monument's astonishingly well-preserved window into the past, this grand tour of Utah's top dinosaur stops and scenic places is a delight for the whole family — and configurable to your level of adventure. Finish it off with a stop at the West's best fishery where you can also raft the rapids, hike into alpine wilderness or relax on a boat.
Day 1: Salt Lake City
Salt Lake City is the primary gateway to Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon national parks in Utah (and Zion for looping itineraries), as well as Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. Salt Lake City International Airport hosts eight airlines and their affiliates and more than 600 scheduled daily flights, with nearly 90 cities offering nonstop flights. Utah's capital city, Salt Lake City, was founded by Brigham Young and the Mormon Pioneers upon their entry into the Salt Lake Valley in the summer of 1847.
Today, Salt Lake is a vibrant metropolis that is undergoing a cultural Renaissance defined by top performing art companies, distinct local flavors in its neighborhoods and cuisine and craft brews and cocktails, all while retaining its welcoming and outdoorsy character. Salt Lake's 20-acre City Creek Center is a must-see shopping destination and includes stores like Salomon, which you can't find anywhere else in America. The open-air, mixed-use mall has dramatically changed Salt Lake's downtown. The historic 35-acre Temple Square is a popular historic destination in downtown Salt Lake, and for those interested in shaking their family tree, there is no place on earth like the LDS Family History Library. And did we mention Salt Lake's mountains are literally in our backyard? Two blocks from downtown is the mouth of City Creek Canyon, which accesses incredible trail systems like the expansive Bonneville Shoreline Trail. You can be in a national forest within minutes — walking.
For more information on the Salt Lake to Yellowstone trip, you may download a one-sheet here. Travelers to Zion National Park may elect to fly in through Las Vegas, though a roundtrip itinerary from Zion to Arches may benefit from a Salt Lake arrival.
Natural History Museum of Utah
The Natural History Museum of Utah (NHMU) is the University of Utah's literal and figurative "Trailhead to Utah." On the one hand, the Trailhead is a way-finding smart phone app in progress that accompanies your journey through the innovative, modern exhibits, which have direct and immediate links to Utah's natural wonders, unlike any other museum experience. On the other hand, the museum intertwines with the Bonneville Shoreline Trail, part of a deliberate design "to physically represent the Museum's positioning at a junction of the urban and the natural world" and help fulfill the University's commitment to improving Utah's community and environment. A 5.27-acre conservation easement was also established with the facility.
NHMU exhibits Sky, Life, Land, Gems and Minerals, the unparalleled Past Worlds, the immediate Great Salt Lake (viewable through the panoramic windows) and Our Backyard, and Utah Futures to get the public involved, First Peoples and the truly distinctive, in content and design, Native Voices. The brilliant design of NHMU carries you up and through these worlds in a seamless and continuous experience. You'll want to linger in the Past Worlds exhibit, which represents 500 million years of ancient environments in Utah, from plant life to massive skeletal reconstruction of dinosaurs. But unlike most dinosaur exhibits, NHMU is continually evolving: a rotating exhibit brings in the latest dinosaur finds from Utah field sites, including the exciting new discoveries at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument highlighted in National Geographic. You will have the option of seeing some of this incredible monument down the road.
On the Way to Zion
Thirty minutes south of Salt Lake City, Thanksgiving Point has one of the world's largest collection of mounted dinosaur skeletons, exhibiting more than 60 mounted dinosaur specimens and thousands of ancient fossils. The museum also features dozens of interactive, hands-on displays throughout its exhibits and a six-story 70 mm movie screen and theater, featuring a variety of 3D movies and other specialty films.
Lodging, Camping and Information
Day 2. Zion National Park
Distance: 231 miles/approximately 4 hours
Zion translates to "The Promised Land," and that means for you some of the most spectacular hiking of your lifetime and impossible landscapes you will never forget. Carved by water and time beyond the stretch of the imagination, Zion National Park is a canyon that invites you to participate in the very forces that created it. Zion National Park's soaring towers and massive monoliths create a spectacular grandeur.Over 100 years old, Zion is Utah's most visited park, welcoming more than 3 million visitors in 2012. There are numerous easy, self-guided trails and more adventurous or strenuous hikes can be found in the park.
Hike: 1) The Emerald Pools in the park is a relatively easy three-mile, round-trip, signature hike and is fun for the whole family. Likewise for the accessible 2) Riverwalk at the Gateway to the Narrows. Or choose a more strenuous adventure in 3) the Narrows. Taller and older kids will be able to join you for this hike in the Virgin River itself. With a little extra time, hire an experienced guide and grab a permit and hike even deeper to access the magnificent 4) Subway section of The Narrows. 5) Angel's Landing is a strenuous 5 miles and can take several hours, but if you've given yourself the time, this is a powerful hike you'll never forget.
Canyoneering: Zion National Park has become a favorite in this exciting sport. Dozens of canyons offer route finding, rappelling, swimming and hike challenges for beginners to advanced. Permit required.
Camping: The parks campgrounds are popular. South Campground is first-come, first-served. For Watchman, make your reservations early, typically up to six months prior to arrival date. There are also several campgrounds a short drive outside the park. Zion lodging abounds in gateway communities along Highway 9 and in St. George.
Additional park activities: Backpacking, bicycling, birding, horse-back riding, rafting and ranger-led programs.
Lodging, camping and information:
Stop Along the Way
Newly discovered in February 2000, St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm, has been described as the most significant dinosaur tracksite in western North America and houses some of the oldest and best preserved footprints in the world. The Jurassic-era site showcases thousands of dinosaur tracks and other fossils from an ancient shoreline. There are also terrific skeletal reconstructions, rotating displays and an interactive children's area.
Day 3. Bryce Canyon/Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Tough day to be you. After a visit to the Big Water Visitor Center, choose between a visit to one of the nation's most iconic parks, Bryce Canyon or the ruggedly beautiful Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument — or add in extra time to experience both! Dinosaur enthusiasts learn about the unique rock layers of Grand Staircase and the prolific dinosaur excavations at Big Water then take to the backcountry with your 4WD vehicle, conditions permitting. Or stick to the highway and return along historic Highway 89 to Scenic Byway 12 through Red Canyon to Bryce Canyon National Park.
Zion National Park to Big Water Visitor Center: 87 miles/90 minutes
Big Water to Bryce Canyon via U.S. 89/S.R. 12: 133 miles/2.25 hours or the mostly unpaved Cottonwood Canyon Road through GSENM 71 miles/3+ hours
For all its unparalleled beauty, most stick to historic Highway 89 Bryce Canyon. If you're more inclined to get off the beaten path (and are properly equipped), take a close look at the second route option through Grand Staircase–Escalante.
Route 1: Scenic Drive to Bryce Canyon with short hikes along the way.
Following your introduction to Grand Staircase at Big Water, a return trip along Highway 89 then north to Scenic Byway 12 will give you a few chances to stretch the legs en route to Byce Canyon. Highlights include the Toadstools and Red Canyon.
12 miles from Big Water heading back west toward Highway 89, find a short access road on the north to park at a fence line. A moderate hike through a wash and well-defined trail leads to distinctive hoodoos and imaginative natural formations that look more sculpted than eroded — a great introduction to what's coming next on this itinerary.
Kanab is like a Hollywood portrayal of the classic American West – towering Navajo sandstone cliffs and vistas of sagebrush. This scenery has lured filmmakers to Kanab for nearly 80 years. Abandoned film sets near town and in the nearby monument have become tourist attractions.
Twelve miles outside of Bryce Canyon National Park, on Scenic Byway 12, Red Canyon beckons with a similar red rock landscape. Like Bryce Canyon, Red Canyon's hoodoos were sculpted from limestone over eons from wind and water erosion. Red Canyon is part of the Dixie National Forest and follows Scenic Byway 12 for about four miles. The hoodoos can be explored with short hikes along many of the trails that run throughout the canyon, or along the paved, five-mile Red Canyon Bike Path.
We call it Hoodoo Country. It sounds like "voodoo" for reasons you'll have to see to believe. It all translates into a newfound respect for Mother Nature. Bryce Canyon's view from 9,000 feet (2,743 meters) is unlike any else in the world.
Bryce Canyon National Park is a series of natural amphitheaters sunk into pink cliffs and filled with delicate red rock "hoodoos." The most brilliant hues of the park come alive with the rising and setting of the sun. Summertime offers a myriad of walking/hiking trails and a 37-mile scenic drive overlooking incredible vistas. Bryce Canyon Lodge, a National Historic Landmark, is open April through November.
Drive: Easy drives within the park have spectacular views with various scenery. Stop along the way at the Sunrise, Sunset, Inspiration, Bryce and Yovimpa viewpoints.
Hikes: There are many trails within Bryce Canyon National Park, from easy to strenuous, with varying scenery. You can pick a hike to a waterfall, red rock hoodoos, spruce tree forests, the Bryce Amphitheater, and other famous landscapes. The Rim Trail is paved and fairly level with outstanding views of hoodoos. Navajo Loop Trail is a 1.3-mile hiking path that wanders through the rock formations and draw you into the mystical hoodoos' perspective.
See: Yovimpa Point is a sweeping panorama at 9,000 feet that gives visitors a good overview of the Grand Staircase.
Ranger Program: Park rangers will share interesting facts and activities about the park, including wildlife stories, geologic history, kids interests, full moon hikes, astronomy, and snowshoeing.
Additional park activities: camping, mule rides, horseback rides, ranger and dark sky astronomy programs.
Route 2: 4WD through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is a vast and rugged frontier perfect for both scientific study and backcountry escape. As the name suggests, the monument can logically be divided into two distinct areas, Grand Staircase and the Escalante River Canyon and tributaries, separated by what could be viewed as a third area: the Kaiparowits Plateau. Scenic and recreational opportunities abound within the monument. Scenic Byway 12, a federally designated, All-American Road, between Boulder and Bryce, and U.S. 89 between Kanab and Big Water provide easy access to the graded dirt roads that crisscross the monument. Enjoy an easy hike to Lower Calf Creek Falls, or a more intense exploration of the slot canyons off the Hole in the Rock Road (dirt road, check for current conditions). Visitor centers are located in Kanab, Escalante, Cannonville, and Big Water.
Drive: The mostly unpaved 46-mile Cottonwood Canyon Road Scenic Backway connects Highway 89 west of the Big Water Visitor Center to Scenic Byway 12, via Kodachrome Basin State Park. This is where that high-clearance, four-wheel drive is going to come in handy. Lesser vehicles and inexperienced drivers are not recommended on Grand Staircase's backcountry roads, which are unpaved and occasionally challenging. The road is impassable when wet and not suitable for RVs or trailers at any time. Before any drive, check at the visitor centers for current conditions. While the first few miles are relatively barren, as you drive deeper into the monument you will uncover startling beauty that blends some of the best of the region's red rock formations on these "steps" in the sequence of sedimentary rocks between Bryce Canyon and Zion, a series that ultimately ends with the lower cliffs of the Grand Canyon. The Paria River and the rugged Cockscomb formation are also prominent features of this journey. Grand Staircase is one of the best windows into the earth's geologic history in the world.
Hike: On the gentler side of Cottonwood Canyon's hiking opportunities is the pleasant trek through the Cottonwood Narrows dry wash (round trip 3 miles out and back or loop completed along road); Hackberry Canyon is a perfect hike to consider because it works either a scenic day hike into the lower canyon or a moderately difficult multiday excursion over 20 miles deep into the monument. Technical climbers can advance a further 1.5 miles into a beautiful slot canyon. The short walk down to Grosvenor Arch, a soaring pastel buttress located about ten miles east of the Kodachrome Basin turn-off, is well worth the stop, and a great place for a picnic.
Stops Along the Way
Kodachrome State Park
With 67 monolithic stone spires called sedimentary pipes accentuating multi-hued sandstone layers that reveal 180 million years of geologic time, photographers familiar with old film stock will instantly understand the park's name. The color and beauty found here prompted a 1948 National Geographic Society expedition to name the area Kodachrome, after a once-popular color film. Nowadays, DSLR users and smartphonetographers alike will be advised to clear some space on the memory card for a place that begs to photographed. There is also great camping, hiking, horseback riding and mountain biking. Utah State Park day use and overnight fees apply.
Mossy Cave Trail (Bryce Canyon National Park)
At under a mile (1.5 km), Mossy Cave is actually just outside Bryce Canyon but will be either a nice introduction to the national park's distinctive red rock formations or a short hike to fill in part of the day. Smaller children will enjoy splashing around in the stream that follows the trail but the cavern itself is not accessible.
All-American Road, Scenic Byway 12
Scenic Byway 12, Utah's only All-American Road is a spectacular experience even without factoring in the national parks, monuments and state parks that dot the route. Drive through to Capitol Reef National Park (roughly 116 miles/2.5 hours) or plan extra time to stop along the way.
Calf Creek Recreation Area
The popular round-trip, 6-mile hike to the lower falls of Calf Creek rewards hikers with an opportunity to cool off in the stunning 126-foot waterfall's pool. It's often a sandy hike and afternoon sun could make this a somewhat strenuous hike, but otherwise it's a nice family-friendly trip. There's also a more strenuous hike to the upper falls.
Escalante Petrified Forest State Park and Anasazi State Park; Escalante and Boulder shops, outfitters and more; ATV's at Ruby's Inn, right outside of the national park; and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Cannonville Visitor Center.
Lodging, Camping and Information:
Day 4. Capitol Reef National Park
It is no wonder the Navajo called this the Land of the Sleeping Rainbow. The contrast of red Entrada and white Navajo sandstones and the a magnificent rip in the crust of the earth create surreal landscapes unlike any you have seen.
Capitol Reef National Park splashes color for 100 miles through an inviting wilderness of sandstone formations and rock art petroglyphs telling the story of the early indigenous people of the Fremont Culture, and later Mormon heritage with the large fruit orchards of Fruita and Gifford Homestead. The central geologic feature, the Waterpocket Fold, is a bulging uplift of rainbow-hued sandstone "reefs" and canyons. You'll find several easy hiking trails and a 25-mile scenic drive in this area. The park is 11 miles east of Torrey or 37 miles west of Hanksville on Highway 24.
Drive: The Capitol Reef Scenic Drive is a 90-minute, round-trip exploration and travels the park's natural wonderland where mysterious petroglyphs tease the imagination and dramatic slot canyons lure intrepid explorers, with pristine natural beauty and solitude.
Visit: The old Fruita Schoolhouse and Historic Gifford Homestead provide a glimpse of 19th-century Utah pioneer farm life.
Walk: Take a stroll among the historic fruit orchards in the Historic Fruita District and take some with you, when in season.
Hikes: The park rangers can inform you on the hike to Hickman Bridge or the longer hike to Cohab Canyon or down Sulphur Creek, among other great hikes. These hikes give an up-close look at the desert region with a natural bridge spanning the landscape or a refreshing river walk. For a longer, more strenuous hike, take a close look at Navajo Knobs and receive a panoramic view of the park's dramatically titled landscape.
Additional park activities: astronomy programs, backpacking, bicycling, family-oriented park-educational games, fishing the Fremont River (with a license), picnicking, and ranger-guided walks.
Lodging and Information:
Day 5. Dinosaur Diamond
Grab one last adventure at Capitol Reef or hit the road for the most dinosaur-intensive leg of your journey. The next two days are dedicated to enriching your sense of prehistory and our own human past. Learn who wandered these lands before you, and assume your place in the earth's expansive timeline. You're part of something truly great.
Stop Along the Way
Museum of the San Rafael
The Museum of the San Rafael in Castle Dale tells stories of a primitive past long buried under shifting soils. A replica of a fossilized dinosaur egg believed to contain an embryo is part of the collection, as well as skeletons of Allosaurus, Chasmosaurus, Albertosaurus and the great skull of Tyrannosaurus rex. 435-381-5252
Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry
Amateur paleontologists and kids of all ages, apply here: Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry invites visitors to create their own hypothesis. This is a great site for your budding young paleontologists, rangers and explorers. You see, Cleveland Lloyd treats dinosaur enthusiasts to the densest collection of Jurassic-era dinosaur fossils ever unearthed, and most of those bones are of carnivores like the Allosaurus, Utah's state fossil. Why so many meat-eaters? Gather the data and decide for yourself through a visit to the museum and one of the two bone deposit structures where paleontologists and volunteers can be seen at work during the field season, adding to the site's impressive resume, already more than 12,000 bones long.
Additional activities: enjoy short loop hikes or walks to viewpoints with stops for picnicking along the way. Leashed pets are also permitted on the trails and outdoors at the Quarry.
Utah State University Prehistoric Museum
Lots of unique information is packed into this museum, which supplements your Cleveland-Lloyd visit with additional paleontological displays (both herbivores and carnivores) and archaeological exhibits dating back to the Ice Age. Steeped in history, the Prehistoric Museum may capture your attention for longer than expected.
Travel a Stretch of Dinosaur Diamond Scenic Byway
In total, Dinosaur Diamond National Scenic Byway covers 512 miles, creating a "diamond" pattern on the map through what was once Utah’s Jurassic World. The Dinosaur Diamond traverses a landscape where giant reptiles roamed millions of years ago. Join dinosaur enthusiasts and scientists from around the world. Explore the museums, active dig sites and rock art along the way.
Lodging, Camping and Information
Stay near Price or head to Dinosaur National Monument. Ask about astronomy programs or, if camping, just soak up the dark skies and star-filled night.
Day 6. Dinosaur National Monument
Dinosaur National Monument is your all-access pass to a bygone era, the unique environment of the late Jurassic now locked up in stone, slowly yielding its ancient mysteries to modern science. After bolstering your prehistoric knowledge at the nearby Field House, wander deeper into Dinosaur, a mecca of outdoor recreation.
Dinosaur National Monument
Dinosaur National Monument features two distinct districts with separate visitor centers. The gateway to the park's prehistory is in the Dinosaur Quarry near Jensen, Utah. Here you will uncover the world-famous fossil exhibits that give the park its name. The Canyon district extends along the Green and Yampa rivers and provides extensive outdoor recreation opportunity. It is difficult not to marvel at the ancient history locked up in Dinosaur National Monument's breathtaking land.
See: Dinosaur includes the largest quarry of Jurassic Period dinosaur bones ever discovered. About 350 tons of fossils and rocks, including full skeletons, have been excavated from the site. In October of 2011, the ribbon was cut on the new Quarry Visitor Center and the refurbished Quarry Exhibit Hall buildings. The Carnegie Quarry's great wall of dinosaur bones features nearly 1,500 Jurassic-era fossils and multiple interactive exhibits are featured in these modern facilities.
Hike: Quintessential desert hiking on the Fossil Discovery Trail (1.2 miles/1.9 km) through tilted layers of stone and stark landscapes but with a wonderful twist: numerous small dinosaur bones locked up in a layer nearly 150 million years old. For a longer journey, consider the Sound of Silence Trail, an exposed path through Dinosaur National Monument's dramatic and diverse geology. Enrich your hikes with printable fossil and geology brochures.
Auto Tour: Tour of Tilted Rocks auto tour is a 10-mile journey through an almost unimaginable time along a mostly paved road. Petroglyph and pictograph panels along the route also point to a human past
Ranger-led tours, scenic drives, wildlife viewing, petroglyph hikes, heritage and archaeological sites, astronomy programs, fishing, rafting and camping.
Lodging, Camping and Information
Stop Along the Way
Utah Field House of Natural History State Park
The Uinta Fossil Journey begins in the museum rotunda where the giant Diplodocus skeleton, 90 feet from tip to tail, looms about and greets visitors. A rock wall contains a small ravine where visitors may try to distinguish fossils from among the washed out pebbles and debris. A dig site simulation illustrates the science and sequence of Jurassic fieldwork, including discovery and removal of fossils from rock. In the Fossil Lab, visitors can use a brush to reveal replicas of fossil.
7. Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area
Explorer John Wesley Powell named Flaming Gorge in 1846, after he and his men saw the sun reflecting off the canyon’s red rock walls during their historic float trip down the Green River. With more than 200,000 acres of land and water, Flaming Gorge is a scenic playground for boating, waterskiing, camping and rafting. Trophy trout can be caught from boat or shore. Rock art and artifacts suggest members of the ancient Fremont Culture and later, Ute, Comanche and Shoshone tribes hunted game in the gorge. Discover renowned Blue Ribbon trout fishing and excellent rafting below the Flaming Gorge Dam on the Green River.
Additional Activities: The recreation area offers a variety of campgrounds, lodging facilities, boating, ATV adventures, diverse wildlife viewing, spectacular sunrises and sunsets, hiking, and backcountry experiences.
Lodging, Camping and Information
Stops Along the Way
Flaming Gorge-Uintas National Scenic Byway
U.S. 191 from Vernal north to the Wyoming border and from the junction of U.S. 191/44 to Manila With 82 miles of wildlife viewing opportunities, this drive allows for travelers to see deer, elk, moose, eagles and many other bird and animal species along the byway. You can learn about the region’s geology and wildlife with the aid of interpretive signs. The byway also accesses Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area with panoramic views of the reservoir, spreading north from the Flaming Gorge Dam.
Swett Pioneer Homestead
In the heart of Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, the Swett Ranch is a testament to Oscar Swett’s self-sufficiency and ingenuity, representing the bygone homestead era, and it’s a historic site not to be missed by those interested in pioneer life.
Red Fleet Dinosaur Trackway Trail
Hike to 200-million-year-old dinosaur tracks, boat and fish on Red Fleet Reservoir, and camp or picnic in a campground overlooking a sandstone and desert landscape