Dinosaur Hill Trail (McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area, CO)

Dinosaur Hill Trail, McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area, September 2020

In western Colorado’s Grand Valley, between the modest town of Fruita and splendid Colorado National Monument, lies one of the most famous dinosaur dig sites in the United States. It was here in 1901, on a multi-hued hill composed of rock of the Morrison formation, that paleontologist and museum curator Elmer Riggs, discovered the fossilized skeleton of a 72-foot Apatosaurus (closely related to a Brontosaurus). While the bones have been removed (they are displayed at the Field Museum in Colorado), the dig site remains a lesser-known tourist attraction in the Grand Junction area of Colorado. The brief but scenic Dinosaur Hill Trail, located in the McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area, circumnavigates the site where the discovery was made. In addition to paleontological history, this short hike offers panoramic views of Grand Valley, the Colorado River, the Book Cliffs, and the McInnis Canyons area.

Map of Dinosaur Hill Trail, McInnis Canyon National Conservation Area

The hike

Dinosaur Hill is located about 1.5 miles south of Interstate 70 in the town of Fruita, Colorado. After crossing the Colorado River, State Highway 340 enters a dry area of opal- and chalk-white-colored hills, a clear marker of the Morrison Formation, a layer of sedimentary rock which dates to the Jurassic period and the boasts the most number of dinosaur fossil discoveries in North America. Bear left at the sign for Dinosaur Hill, parking in the large parking lot at the trailhead. The site is part of McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area, primarily known for its red-rock cliffs, sinuous canyons, and hidden natural arches.

The Dinosaur Hill Trail forms a roughly one-mile circuit around the area, gaining about 100 feet in elevation en route to several vistas and paleontological sites. The hike begins just to the left of the restroom, where hikers will also find a trailhead kiosk with information on the area. Two paths head off from the parking lot; head left first—the right fork will be your return route.

Trail’s start

Ahead, one can make out the two most prominent parts of the Morrison formation: (1) the Salt Wash member, which forms the chalky white rocks that line the base of the hill; and (2) the Brushy Basin member, which forms clay-like hillsides, which take on a magenta- and pale purple-colored hue. After hiking 50 yards up the wide, well-trodden path, the trail splits again. Head left—on a short spur—first, edging around to the west-facing side of the hill. Here the trail ends at the site where the femur bone of a Diplocodus dinosaur (also a sauropod like the Brontosaurus) was discovered by Elmer Riggs’ search party in 1901. While the leg bone is no more, paleontologists left behind the mold, leaving visible where the femur was uncovered.

Mold of femur bone at Dinosaur Hill

After this short detour, return back to the main trail and turn left. From here the Dinosaur Hill Trail climbs steadily, snaking through a ravine before ascending to the spine of the main hillock, reaching a bench and shade structure after about ¼ mile. In addition to views back toward Colorado National Monument and McInnis Canyons to the south and west, hikers get their first look at the Colorado River to the north.

The wide trail continues to climb beyond the shaded vista point, reaching the summit of Dinosaur Hill at 0.45 miles. A short spur to the right leads to another bench and shady spot at the top of the hillock. Now the panoramas are truly 360 degrees. Off to the east, one can now see as far as Grand Junction, with the Book Cliffs and Grand Mesa beyond.

View south from the ridgeline

Also at the summit is an interpretive wayside on the transportation of the Apatosaurus skeleton, an operation that required building a wagon road down to the river before using a boat to transfer the bones down to the railroad line in Fruita.

Colorado River, Grand Valley, and Grand Junction from Dinosaur Hill

The descent down the east slope of Dinosaur Hill is surprisingly steep and rocky, passing neatly arranged, chalky white rocks on the left that form a large “F” (for Fruita). After dropping down through the crumbly Brushy Basin member, the route traverses a dry ravine at 2/3 mile. From here the trail heads up to the main quarry site, adorned with a plaque dedicated for the discovery of the Apatosaurus at this site in 1901. The tunnel itself is fenced off and locked, but hikers can peer into the hole and imagine excited paleontologists pulling out the skeleton, piece by piece, of a 72-foot Apatosaurus, more than 100 years ago.

Dinosaur quarry, where the Apatosaurus was discovered in 1901

From the quarry site, the trail bears south, then west, skirting the hillside and making its way back toward the trailhead. After a series of dips and climbs, the loop hike ends back where it began, completing a roughly one-mile circuit. All told, the entire hike takes about 30 minutes to an hour, plus time for exploration and admiration of the historical sites and nifty views.

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