Land of Dirt Rainbows and Sandstone Sculptures

June 28, 2015

Outside DinosaurThe town of Dinosaur, Colorado is about what you’d expect for a town in the middle of nowhere with a quirky name. Streets had names like Brontosaurus Blvd, Camptosaurus Crescent and Antrodemus Alley. A Stegoaurus sculpture stood outside city hall. Apparently the town wasn’t originally called Dinosaur. Before 1966 it was called Artesia, but after that the town embraced being the closest thing to Dinosaur National Monument. Accommodations at Terrace Motel weren’t great, but they were cheap. For $65 we had a whole suite with a kitchen/living room with a separate door leading into a bedroom with a Queen size bed, and a large bathroom with a jacuzzi bathtub inside a trailer. Though, we only got this room because we specified that we needed a bathtub, I’m not sure what the room would have been like otherwise, apparently this was the only room with a bath.

Dirt Rainbow

We saved seeing the 1,500 dinosaur bones, still encased in the rock of Quarry Exhibit Hall, and driving Dinosaur National Monument’s auto tours  for another time. I don’t think the late Jurassic denizens of this park will be going anywhere any time soon, unless they’re going to a museum. But I felt the urge to move along, migrate north to latitudes with longer summer days. We headed for Bear Lake, Utah, a days drive away through the southeastern edge of the Uinta Mountains and a corner of Wyoming. As we crossed the vast desert expanses, we marveled at the dirt rainbows and rippling, abstract sandstone sculptures beside the road.


The layers of sediment that make up the dirt rainbows took years to deposit, and the varied colors represent the minerals that different environments and life forms left behind over these long spans of time. Sometimes in the ancient eras (roughly 145-80 million years ago) this land was covered by a shallow sea, and other times it was swamp or forest or plains. My eyes aren’t trained to be able to look at the formations and discern what an ancient environment looked like or when it was formed, but I entertained myself on the drive imagining the millions, billions of beings who once lived here, whose dust speaks volumes about the ancient environment through color and chemical composition. I imagined our car driving along the seabed with the marine reptiles of the Cretaceous, like the long-necked plesiosaur, swimming above us among sharks and squid-like belemnites.

Sandstone and Telephone poles

My imagination was helped along by informative signs along the road that gave details about the various geological formations, such as what geological time period they are from and what fossils could be found in them (for example: Jurassic, Curtis Formation, Home of Fossilized Squid), so that even people just driving through at 75+ mph could appreciate the deep time portrayed in the sand and stone. It turns out that these signs are part of the Flaming Gorge- Uintas National Scenic Byway.

Across the Plain

When the Cretaceous creatures swam here the continent looked very different. The Rocky Mountains hadn’t risen out of the earth yet. During the Laramide orgogeny at the end of the Cretaceous, as the Farallon tectonic plate beneath the sea slid under the North American plate in a process referred to by geologists as subduction,  the precursors to the Rocky Mountains began to lift and heave from the enormous force, exposing the ancient layers of sediment and nearly vertical faults that the Uinta Mountain region is famous for.

Lake View 1

When we reached the Flaming Gorge Recreation Area, we almost decided to stop for the night, even though it was still early afternoon. It was that beautiful! The area is aptly named after its intensely red dirt and stone.

Recreation Area

The reservoir is formed by the Flaming Gorge Dam on the Green River. The teal water is the perfect temperature for swimming and boating on hot summer days. I’d love to kayak on the lake for several days and explore the little inlets and islands.

Lake View 2

But we had planned to go to Bear Lake, so we stuck with the plan and kept on driving north across arid plains into Wyoming. We passed an incredible ridge and then ascended onto a high plain with grass that rolled like the sea stretching to crest distant gold mountains etched on the horizon. Splashes of sea foam green sagebrush outlined the hillsides that were once a prehistoric ocean where some of the world’s earliest birds, Hesperornis swam. (By the way, they were six and a half feet long and had teeth!)


More spectacular dirt rainbows hinted at the life story of this region with full, stunning colors ranging from burgundy to blue-green and steely purple-grey. I wonder what these minerals mean, but finding out is not as easy as you’d expect. Describing color in soil layers is a skill agronomists (soil scientists) develop. (There are even soil describing competitions!). To discuss color in a standardized way, they use the Munsell Color Chart and Soil Book. By evaluating the soil’s color they can learn about the substances that are in the soil like gypsum, proteins, magnesium oxide, glauconite, iron or other various compounds.  The red soils we saw so often in and around Flaming Gorge were likely from a high concentration of oxidized iron.

Strange Dirt Rainbow

Another Dirt Rainbow

The stories about ancient times, even before the first primates, told in the earth outside the windows are fascinating, but also enigmatic and mysterious. Not easy reading for the casual passerby. I was glad we had the audiobook of a A Civil Campaign by sci-fi writer Louis McMaster Bujold for an entertaining human narrative far from earth, but still on a planet where humans admire the beauty of the mountains and dream about the freedom of frontier colonies a world away. Believe it or not, sci-fi and the American West go very well together.

Red Plain

We crossed vast distances between towns with train station depots, fast-food and truck stops. We waved peace as we passed a guy in a short white bus decked out as an RV, who we dubbed “bus guy” and then saw again father down the road after we refueled. Morgan and I talked about frontiers, new horizons, and borderlands; about “going through the motions of our cultural programming” and how on the edge of society people can more freely step outside of nine to five, into new patterns to the beat of the seasons, the wilderness drum. There is nothing like these vast expanses to stimulate conversation and imagination.

Industrial West

Trains and the West

But the excitement of driving though the land of frontier legends is marred by the thought of what and who was here before the warehouses and railways– a culture and a people who flowed the rhythm of the plains closely, living off the meat and fat of the land. While the European descendants saw this as new territory to be claimed, they largely ignored the territories established by the First Nations people. As the United States of America expanded westward, fifty million of the bison the Native people depended on for their livelihood were massacred, sometimes out of train cars. Now, the whole migration path of the bison who used to roam here is fragmented by railroads, fences and highways.  Driving in Wyoming over the land where I can almost see bison roaming, I can’t help being inflamed at what invasive, rampant, careless greed did to the Natives and the ecosystem of the Great Plains.

Fire Mountain

Dry Mountain

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