I blame my obsession with driving places on my father. Sometime in the early 70’s he drove our entire family (all five of us) from the west coast of America to the east and back in a 64 Mustang. We covered the lower states on the way out and the upper states on the return. My brothers and I did not wear seat belts. Electronic games and DVD players did not yet exist. We kids got car sick nearly every morning (the solution to which was chewing a piece of gum before breakfast). We stayed in Holiday Inns and we thought the swimming pools and ice machines were fantastic fun. That trip across country was the only holiday our family ever took and it stands out in my mind as one of the best vacations I’ve ever had.
Fortunately, I married a lovely Irish man who enjoys road trips too. We recently invested in a small house-of-a-car just so we could hit the open road with our girls and explore the U.S. whenever possible. Last Wednesday, just twenty-four short hours after returning from a two-week trip to Las Vegas to help care for my grandmother, we started our first family road trip. Destination: Denver, Colorado.
The start of our getaway was not ideal. True to form, we left much later than intended (causing a wee bit of stress). It was raining (causing more stress). The kids were hungry (you guessed it, even more stress). That said we were unwilling to let a poor beginning hamper our spirits. We drove in the dark, in the rain, DVD movies playing for the kids, and lots of rubbishy snacks to tide us over until we made it to Vernal, Utah, home of the Utah Dinosaur National Monument (not to be confused with the Colorado one) and our first stop on the road to Denver.
Vernal is a small town. There’s not much to the main street other than hotels and fast food restaurants. I’m sure there are plenty of nice folks living in Vernal, and I believe there are some great mountain biking trails, but there’s little village charm (especially on a cold and rainy evening). Thankfully our reservation at the Spring Hill Suite Hotel turned out to be a little oasis . It was clean, modern and not too expensive. After a quick bite to eat at the Mexican restaurant next door, we settled in for a good night sleep and woke refreshed and ready for adventure.
Thursday morning we were in the car by 10:01am (my husband runs a tight schedule) and in the car park of the Dinosaur National Monument by 10.30am. The drive to the visitor center (left) is very pretty: farm lands give way to gentle slopes, which in turn give way to enormous mountains, and the rapid moving Green River snakes quietly between them. The Center is small but houses an information area and video room, a gift shop and, most importantly, free transportation to the impressive Quarry Exhibit Hall. The bus ride to the Hall takes less than five minutes. Our driver, a second generation Irish-American, gave us a brief overview of the area’s history and was delighted to tell us we were among the first guests to visit the exhibit since it reopened two days before on what was the 96th anniversary of when President Woodrow Wilson created the monument. The National Park Service closed the exhibit 5 years ago when the clay soil under the original building had expanded to the point where the Hall was so extensively damaged it had become a danger to visitors and the famous “Wall of Bones” it encompassed.
The “Wall of Bones” is a sight. You walk into the Exhibit Hall at the upper level and immediately see a petrified spinal column of a dinosaur that roamed the earth millions of years ago. In all there are about 1,500 dinosaur bones exposed in a 200-foot-long wall permanently enclosed in the building. We were free to take as many pictures as we wanted and were encouraged by the Park Rangers to touch the bones too. If you saw the movie Jurassic Park, you’ll enjoy this exhibit. The Wall of Bones dates back 145 million years, which places it near the end of the Jurassic period. Dinosaur remains in the quarry include Stegosaurus, Allosaurus, Diplodocus, Camptosaurus and Apatosaurus.
Since our intention was to make Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument a side trip on the road to Denver we didn’t have time to see more but if you go for a long weekend with your family be sure to do the ten mile self-guided driving tour that follows along the Green River. I am told there are several interesting rock formations to see, plus some short trails that lead to Indian petroglyphs. Camping and hiking is available in the monument for those who are particularly outdoorsy.
Back on the road, we drove to Steam Boat Springs, Colorado for a late lunch. The scenery along the way was so pretty: we passed arid flat lands, rolling hills dressed in autumnal colours, and snow-covered trees and mountains. The drive took us about three hours. Keeping to our schedule, we didn’t spend much time in Steam Boat. We were there just long enough to have a good burger at Old Town Pub (hey, we’re from Ireland – of course we had to try the one restaurant with the word “pub” in its name!). We did learn, however, that the area is nicknamed “Ski Town USA”, it gets an annual snow fall of about 331 inches of what they call Champagne powder (meaning the snow has 70% less moisture than elsewhere), and the year round activities include skiing and snowboarding (obviously), hiking and biking, hot air ballooning, rodeos, camps, and more. An interesting blog on for those of you interested in visiting the area is written by Caroline LaLive, three-time Olympic Ski Racer and Steam Boat Springs local.
Steam Boat to Denver was another 3 hours of driving. As we dropped from the mountain tops into our destination city’s valley floor, I kid you not, the girls had watched six movies, had been engaged to look out the window at regular hourly intervals, had consumed several bags of snacks (they particularly enjoyed this road trip tradition), and had started to ask, “Are we there yet?”. The drive and sight-seeing, in total, took us twenty-six hours. It wasn’t my father’s cross-country marathon but it was every bit as enjoyable. I hope our girls carry on the custom with their kids some day and remember fondly the road trips they took with us.