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Dinosaur graveyard a land of lasting mysteries

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Allosaurus

Visitors look at a skeleton of an Allosaurus from 149 million years ago inside Quarry Exhibit Hall at Dinosaur National Monument.

JENSEN, Utah — The Dinosaur Diamond Scenic Byway climbs north, high to epic overlooks of a forested basin, before it tumbles back to the desert that typifies far western Colorado. The road skirts Rangely, the town born by oil, and then Dinosaur, holding on by its namesake, with souvenir shops between ramshackle homes and a canyon backdrop that is the final resting place of the ancient beasts.

One of Dinosaur National Monument's visitor centers is down Brontosaurus Boulevard. Wonders are out the front door, a ranger says.

Take, for example, the drive to Harpers Corner, where the Green River cuts through sandstone walls that still appear to be warping, their folds representing rock uplift from unperceivable eras. The Colorado side of the 329-square-mile monument is defined by this back country, where hangs a dark sky graced by rare celestial displays.

But drive a half-hour west to Jensen, Utah — admiring purplish pinnacles like teeth jutting from the plains, turning at an abandoned gas station and continuing through irrigated pastures — and behold a place "like no place in the world," the ranger suggests.

That is the Quarry Exhibit Hall. The glass edifice is built against a rock bearing hundreds of bones, pieces of legs and tails and spines that are now here to be seen and touched 149 million years after they were buried underwater. Most of the exposed fossils belong to long-necked giants. Nearby is the skull of an Allosaurus, the mightiest predator of its days, and also the back plates of a Stegosaurus.

"Most people have seen dinosaur skeletons or models in museums," says Dan Johnson, the monument's chief of interpretation. "But to step into a place and see the actual bones in the actual wall where they were found, it gives this idea of this vast scale of time and makes you wonder what part we are in that, which is really small. I think that's an awe-inspiring feeling for a lot of people."

For a lot of people, pop culture inspires a trip to this remote terrain. It's common for the monument's visitation to spike in years like these, when the latest "Jurassic Park" movie stirs imaginations. "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom" opened recently.

Oh, yes, dinosaurs still rule. That's the first thought entering the Dinosaur Quarry Visitor Center, with dinosaur fossil replicas for sale along with dinosaur toys and dinosaur books that share shelf space, ironically, with Edward Abbey's "Desert Solitaire."

Also available is "Speak to the Earth and It Will Teach You: The Life and Times of Earl Douglas." The paleontologist was scavenging the area in 1909 when he discovered an Apatosaurus' tail vertebrae poking from a ridge, sparking a century of discovery that continues today.

"Erosion occasionally knocks rocks off cliffs and exposes stuff underneath," Johnson says. "So it's a continual process."

The region is a Jurassic epicenter, with the fossils of nearly 500 extinct creatures found here and those of 11 previously unknown species unearthed. But Dinosaur National Monument is most unique for how it preserves the bones as Mother Nature has left them, scattered.

The exhibit hall was the vision of Douglas, who once wrote of his hope for the government to "leave the bones and skeletons in relief and house them in. It would make one of the most astounding and instructive sights imaginable."

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Fossil Discovery Trail

Fossil Discovery Trail is part of Dinosaur National Monument.

The monument goes further, Johnson says. While dinosaurs are the easy source of spectacle, rocks are often overlooked, underappreciated teachers. Several are laid out on a table at the visitor center, as young as 80 million years and as old as 1.1 billion. With 23 formations, no other unit within the National Park Service has as complete a record of geological time.

They are soaring, swooping marvels along the short Fossil Discovery Trail. On one end, a sign asks a question from Douglas: "How much is true, in this land of dreams, and how much is fiction, and which is the more fascinating and marvelous?"

From a high point, hikers look like specks moving through a painting. The Fremont people from 1,000 years ago have left petroglyphs on the orange walls. An uncertain four-legged animal is most eye-catching, however faded. Along the path also are fossils of long-ago clams and snails and gray-golden fish scales.

Eyes stay peeled for the bones of much larger life. A close look at one cliff face reveals small, peculiar ridgelines — unmistakable vertebrae that belonged to some member of the sauropod family. The exact species is yet undetermined in this land of lasting mysteries.

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