Over 76 million years ago, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah looked entirely different. Instead of spectacular desert landscapes, Grand Staircase-Escalante was home to a lush, tropical rainforest, where abundant plants supported an ecosystem of prehistoric giants. The area is now known as the ‘Shangri-La of dinosaurs.’ The monument was the last place in the continental U.S. to be mapped and still remains a natural frontier for outdoor enthusiasts and scientists across the country.
Dinosaur fossils discovered in Grand Staircase-Escalante has picked up significantly since the year 2000 when archeological exploration began to be a priority and researchers realized that Grand Staircase-Escalante is a ‘treasure trove’ of fossils revealing never-before-seen tropical plants, turtles, crocodiles and dinosaurs. So far, paleontologists have found 25 unique species of dinosaurs in the area.
The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument spans across nearly one million acres of public land, and one of the richest troves of fossils in the monument is found on the Kaiparowits Plateau, a 50-mile-long ridge. The preservation of the fossils is incredible on the plateau: articulated skeletons, fossilized skin and plants so shockingly fresh that their delicate leaves can be peeled right off the rocks. The Kaiparowits also has yielded some of the greatest crocodile and turtle diversity in the ancient world: six crocodile species and 17 turtle species. One three-foot-long turtle discovered recently died pregnant, her body full of eggs. You can meet the dinosaurs of Grand Staircase-Escalante here.
Among the wild things that roamed in Grand Staircase was a tyrannosaur dubbed Lythronax — which means “King of Gore.” Picture 2.5 tons of a fierce carnivore, jaws lined with serrated teeth capable of crushing bone and ripping off meat by the chunkful. Truly horrifying and mesmerizing at the same time. Paleontologist Dr. Scott Sampson mentioned that “most of the dinosaur fossils in Grand Staircase are found nowhere else on Earth.” Not only are there dinosaurs that have only been found in the monument, but also the preservation of the fossils may be the best in the entire world. For example, fossils of dinosaur skin are extremely rare, yet about half of the duck-billed dinosaur skeletons found in the monument included skin impressions.
The Twenty Mile Wash Dinosaur Trackway is a great, short hike along the Hole-in-the-Rock Road where you can see faint Sauropod tracks that were made about 77 million years ago, it is one of the largest dinosaur trackways in the world with over 800 individual tracks.
Escalante Petrified Forest State Park is an enjoyable place to hike the Sleeping Rainbows Trail that has the densest concentration of petrified wood in the park. The helpful on-site visitor center offers educational opportunities and displays of petrified wood, petrified dinosaur bones, ammonite and shell fossils.
Reminder: Hikers commonly see the shapes and fossils of fish, turtles, sharks teeth and dinosaurs embedded in the rock underfoot and around the trails if they look closely. Visitors are advised to remember that every fossil or carving found is precious and irreplaceable and should be left for others to be able to enjoy. Vertebrate fossils are not permitted to be collected on federal or state lands. Also, it is important to note that the hole-in-the-rock road can be rough and not for everyone. It is recommended that before journeying down the road, stop at the Grand Staircase Escalante Interagency Visitor Center in Escalante to check on road conditions.