“Road impassable when wet.” I roll my eyes at this statement. I have been to enough national parks and monuments to know my limits and how cautious the National Park Service has gotten. Little did I know that park service’s warning was more than the usual overreaction. I had quite an adventure while camping at Echo Park in Dinosaur National Monument.
Dinosaur National Monument is located on the border of Utah and Colorado along US 40. Sometimes referred to as Dinosaur National Park, this national monument was created on October 4, 1915, to protect dinosaur fossil beds that had been found in 1909 by paleontologist Earl Douglass. Until 1938, the monument was 80 acres located entirely within Utah. Dinosaur was expanded in 1938 to protect the scenic canyons of Green and Yampa rivers. This expansion added almost 200,00 acres to the park in Utah and Colorado.
I had originally planned on visiting Dinosaur Natl Monument in 2012 but scrapped the plan in favor of visiting the Colorado National Monument. It would be 3 years until I got another chance to visit when I moved from Colorado to Virginia (I’ll do a post later on how I ended up going west while moving east.) This visit was basically, a one day stop to break up the drive between Fort Collins and Great Basin National Park. I wish I had more time to spend but I made the most of my time. It was so serene here, that if I had the best lenses for antarctica or any other arid desert, I’d have had surely indulged in photographing the landscape.
Getting to Echo Park Campground
I arrived in Dinosaur, Colorado late in the afternoon. I planned to go camping at one of three Colorado Campgrounds either Echo Park (1st choice) or Deerlodge Park (2nd choice). Gates of Lordoe is the third but that was in the far north section of the park. My choice was going to depend on the weather. Deerlodge Park is located at the easternmost part of the park and is accessible from the paved roads. Echo Park is reached by a gravel and dirt road that park service lists the road as impassible as wet. The road is not suitable for RV’s or trailers.
I stopped and picked up a few supplies in Dinosaur and did a weather check. It hadn’t rained in the last two days but a storm was incoming. I looked at the rader map. Based on the radar the storm should hit Dinosaur National Monument until 10:00 am. I weighed my options. Both campgrounds have amazing views according to the pictures, but Echo Park is the crown jewel of the camping near Dinosaur National Monument.
After some internal debate, I decided to go for it. I have a four wheel drive manual transmission Subaru Forester and a ton of experience driving on gravel. My vehicle has moderate ground clearance. Echo Park is 38 miles from the Canyon Visitor Center. 25 of which is the paved Harpers Corner Road. The last 13 miles is gravel and dirt. The first little bit is full of sharp and steep switchback as you descend into the canyon. There are several stream crossing and the roads are narrow so it is slow going. It took me about an hour to get from the Visitor Center to Echo Park.
Echo Park Campground
Echo Park Campground sits at the edge of the Green River. It has 22 campsite sites: 1 handicapped-accessible, 4 are walk-in, and 1 group sites for groups more than 6. The rest have space to park one or two vehicles. A few campsites have shade, but most are spread out in the meadow. All sites have picnic tables and fire pits. There is a vault toilet in the campground.
It was mid-October when I was there so it only cost $6.00 for the night. During peak season, it is $15.oo per night. Peak season is from late May to early October. During this time there is water available at the campground, the rest of the year it is shut off. One can make reservations for the campground during peak season.
The road isn’t maintained outside of peak season so winter visits are at your own risk. Cell service is non-existent in the monument.
I camped at site number 5 which had some shade as well as some wind protection. I managed to get my tent set-up and dinner made just as the sunset. I had hoped to do some star gazing but alas the clouds covered the sky. Dinosaur National Monument has some of the darkest sky in the lower 48 states. Those clouds would ruin a perfectly laid plan.
Things to go in Echo Park
There are no official trails in Echo Park but several social trails lead out to the confluence of the Green and Yampa Rivers. Here the green-tinged water of Green River mixes with the brown rivers of the Yampa Rivers. Be careful on the river banks because they can collapse without warning. The other social trails lead to Mitten Park and views of the Mitten Park Fault.
If you look closely at the canyon walls you might spot Fremont petroglyphs. One set that is close to the road is marked and can be easily seen. But the rest are not marked in any way due to vandalism issues. If you see the petroglyphs please don’t touch or draw on them. These are federally protected and report any vandalism you do see or find.
Just before you get to Echo Park Campground is the pull off for Whispering Cave. This small fissure is shaded and provides a unique spot in the canyon.
A Change in Plans
I planned to get up around 7 am just a the sun was starting to rise and hike out to the confluence and explore the petroglyphs and Whispering Cave before heading out of Echo Park and beating the rain back to Harpers Corner Road. Alas, at about 4:00 am, I was woken up by a familiar sound on my tent. It was raining and it wasn’t a light drizzle. It was a steady downpour. There was nothing I could do but shake my head and go back to sleep.
I got up at 7 am as planned. Everything was wet. The Echo Park road is listed as impassible when wet and I was at the end of it. After my drive down, I didn’t think park service was joking about the road conditions when wet. My road trip plans didn’t include didn’t want to risk waiting for more water to fall on the road.
Those little streams I crossed were a lot wider and had a lot more water than they had when I drove in. The real adventure was on some of the steeper straight sections. I thought they were dirt but they weren’t dirt. They were packed sand. The sand was slick and even with four-wheel drive.
It was a hairy drive out. I had issues getting traction and keeping traction on the sand. It took every ounce of skill I had to get up Echo Park road. I whole way up I kept thinking about those switchbacks. Even as I was sliding on the sand, I was worried that the real challenge was awaiting me.
Surprisingly, those straight sections were the hardest part. The switchbacks were dirt and gravel. They weren’t slick at all and I got up those easily but by the time I made it to Harpers Corner Road, I need a breather to relax before I spent the rest of the day in Dinosaur National Monument.