Dinosaur National Monument, 2013 Visit
Part Two: Across The Misty Ranching Highlands
Arrival In Vernal, Departure For Dinosaur
(Continued from the blog post, “Dinosaur National Monument Today, Part One.”)
Even with sporadic rain and spring virgas dotting the horizon, the high open mountain passes of Rocky Mountain National Park, shining with stark beauty, already felt dry like the deserts of the interior and Western side of Colorado. Coming from the drizzle of a wet summer on the Colorado Front Range in Boulder, the high desert plains north and west of Steamboat Springs were warm and welcoming with the smell of sage and sun cracked earth all the way to Vernal, Utah.
After arriving indestructible at Randy Fullbright’s house at 4:00 am, I followed his previous instructions for where to catch a few hours of sleep. After waiting as long as he could, Randy woke me up somewhere between 7:00 and 8:00 am, and I found I was no longer indestructible. Indeed, with the night’s caffeine worn off, I was bone tired. Not only did I have very little sleep that night, I had just spent two weeks with minimal sleep moving all of my belongings. Weariness finally caught up with me here, in Vernal, the very morning I was supposed to rise to the occasion for a long hike in Dinosaur National Monument.
Well, I couldn’t exactly drive all that way, show up on Mr. Fullbright’s doorstep and then try to explain why I was too tired to go, especially with excitement in the air and him already well into his coffee that was making him increasingly indestructible by the minute, not that he wasn’t tough as nails even in his sleep. Everything I began to say about being tired sounded like a feeble excuse on the way out. So, I abandoned that line for the time being. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I must have reasoned that there might be opportunities for complaining later, but fortunately that would prove not to be the case.
Just then it was all about gathering my hiking boots, socks, camera gear, day pack and other items for our outing that seemed determined to rock on whether my body was ready or not. Randy and I had been talking on the phone about exploring Dinosaur for weeks, if not months, and the day had arrived. It was overcast so far. We wrestled our gear into Randy’s Ford 4×4 pickup, made lunches, reshuffled my cooler and other food into a cool place in the house and jumped in the truck ready to rumble.
The Approach: Diamond Mountain Road
Dinosaur lies east of Vernal. You can take the road to the Dinosaur Quarry on the Utah side before you get back into Colorado, or take Highway 40 across the Colorado border, turning left on the Harper’s Corner Road near the park headquarters and Colorado side visitor’s center, or enter the national monument on dirt roads that cross the prairie ranch lands just east of Vernal. We took Diamond Mountain Road. It jarred us around here and there with a few rough spots, but generally was smooth graded gravel that turned to pothole-riddled pavement in the national monument. Diamond Mountain Road meandered through dry washes and over low mesas that melted together as one open mesa top and faded into the mist in the distance. The sun nearly broke through in a few places, but mainly the clouds kept the sage-dotted sparsely grass-covered earth draped in mystery.
This land stage is battleground not only to the interests of Dinosaur National Monument, wealthy ranchers, developers, speculators and miners in a new energy boom. It is a battleground for idealists wishing to grow wealthy as Vernal develops as a mecca for fracking and other dirty mining approaches. Some special interests believe the only obstacle to Vernal’s rise to economic stardom and wealth would be Dinosaur becoming a national park and thereby imposing higher air quality standards on the area, limiting industrialization. Tourism interests and others on the other side of the issue believe the opposite. They argue that it is exactly Dinosaur’s conversion to national park status that would bring more new prosperity to the region than any other short-lived or even long-lived mineral or oil and gas extraction boom.
Randy and I had discussed many of these issues in the weeks and months leading up to my arrival in the area. Randy had also told me stories about photographing many of the remote and little known parts of Dinosaur, some that my father, pioneer wilderness photographer Philip Hyde had also photographed in 1951-1955, many that he had not. Randy spoke of places like Island Park, Echo Park, The Chairs, Jones Hole, Harper’s Corner, Mantle’s Ranch, Old Roundtop, Split Mountain, Whirlpool Canyon, Gates of Ladore, Hell’s Canyon, Yampa Bench, Rainbow Park, Douglas Mountain, Blue Mountain, Cub Creek, Deer Lodge Park and many others in the canyons of the Yampa and Green Rivers. For more on remote places to photograph see the blog series beginning with, “The Battle Over Dinosaur: Birth Of Modern Environmentalism 1.”
Many Ranchers And Other Groups Are Against Dinosaur Becoming A National Park
“Many of the ranchers, who also happen to be old friends of mine, are against Dinosaur becoming a national park,” Fullbright said. “They are afraid that they will lose their rights to grazing on the national monument if it becomes a national park.” This has happened over time in several national parks of the west. In Canyonlands, for example, grazing rights and leases were written to run out after 100 years. Randy said that in contrast the National Park Service in Dinosaur would be willing to offer grazing rights in perpetuity. “It wouldn’t be that hard for the National Park Service to give each of the old ranching families a grandfather clause for running livestock as long as their blood lines last, but they don’t trust that.”
Later, after I returned home to Northeastern California, Randy suggested I contact Dan Johnson, Dinosaur’s Chief Interpretive Ranger, to hear more about the potential for a change in Dinosaur’s park status. More on the issues involved in the next blog post in this series…
As we crossed the high plateaus approaching the canyons of the Green River, the signs of grazing were apparent and an occasional lonely fence angled off into the distance to join others. The mood of austerity was accentuated by washed out skies, white mists and lands colored by a limited palette of grays and beiges. Even in these drab conditions, the desolate wind-swept near-raw land had a presence and nature that only brought joy rather than loneliness to the heart of long-time desert travelers and dwellers like Randy Fullbright and me. The ceiling began to lift as we drove. By the time we came up over a hill and could look down on the fish hatchery and see ahead the impressive 10-15 mile long escarpment of Diamond Mountain. The skies remained gray overhead, but we could see as far as the land allowed in every direction.
I made a few photographs before we plunged down toward Diamond Gulch on the road that began to wind sharply with the contours of the hillsides. We stopped once again before a longer stop for more photographs where the road turned to parallel Diamond Mountain. At that spot, the views up at the eroded sculpting of the strata of Diamond Mountain in subtle reds, oranges, tans and beiges, were well worth photographing.
Randy drove us on down just a little ways to the Fish Hatchery, where we parked, talked to the park ranger for a while, then hoisted day packs and set off down the fishing trail into Jones Hole along Jones Creek. More on the story of our hike, some of it’s highlights and surprises, conservation photography, spiritual experiences in nature and more in the next blog post.
(Continued in the blog post, “Dinosaur National Monument Today, Part Three.”)
Are you a desert lover? Why?