Image: Vernal, Utah
Vernal, Utah, is home to a large dinosaur museum and is the base for a National Park Service site at a bone quarry that steel magnate Andrew Carnegie established in 1909.
updated 8/25/2009 3:28:07 PM ET 2009-08-25T19:28:07

Local legend has it that cowboys, sheep herders and trappers long knew about the huge fossilized bones that regularly surfaced from the ancient rock underlying Utah's dinosaur country.

But not until steel magnate Andrew Carnegie learned of the bones did Vernal and the surrounding Ashley Valley get the nation's attention 100 years ago. Now Vernal, a Western outpost whose wide streets are lined with energy, mining and agricultural businesses, makes a business of its bones. It's home to a large dinosaur museum and is the base for a National Park Service site at a bone quarry Carnegie established in 1909.

Carnegie's bone quarry is the central dinosaur-related attraction of the area. Located 20 miles outside of Vernal, it's part of Dinosaur National Monument, a 210,000-acre park with rocky and rippled canyonlands stretching into Utah and Colorado.

The park is best known for its visitors' center, with a wall of 1,500 fossilized bones from 11 different types of dinosaurs. In 2005, the visitors center, which sits atop Carnegie's bone quarry, was closed because of severe structural problems.

It's not expected to open again until 2012. But there is still plenty to see. A bed of fossilized bones extends outside the shuttered building. A trail nearby passes fossils naturally eroded from a cliff, including a string of vertebrae, a large femur, and a humurus bone.

The park has a temporary visitors center with fossils and a gift shop featuring giant replica dinosaur bones to take home.

And there is a lot more at the park than bones. Fremont Indians who lived near the park's two rivers about 1,000 years ago left behind both petroglyphs (patterns that are chipped or carved into the rock) and pictographs (drawings or paintings on the rock). They can be seen at remote sites accessible by foot or car.

Image: Dinosaur National Monument
Vernal's Dinosaur National Monument isn't expected to open until 2012, but there is still plenty to see.

The park is also spectacular in itself, a rolling bed of multicolored rock cliffs and formations showing the movement of the earth over hundreds of millions of years.

"The cliffs and sculptured forms are sometimes smooth, sometimes fantastically craggy, always massive, and they have a peculiar capacity to excite the imagination," wrote author Wallace Stegner in a book of essays, "Dinosaur," that Stegner edited in 1955 when there was talk of converting the park's Yampa and Green canyons into a reservoir for a hydroelectric dam. "The effect on the human spirit is neither numbing nor awesome, but infinitely peaceful," wrote Stegner.

Dinosaur bones are found on every continent. But Utah's Uinta Basin is unique because of the way that the rock shows the ancient remains. Originally the rocks, formed from lake and floodplain sediment, lay flat. Over millions of years, the movement of the earth pushed the massive stone layers until they now point at the sky. Erosion has worn away the rock, revealing the bones.

The result: "There's just no other place anywhere on the planet where they're just so beautifully exposed for the public to see. It's the most famous place to see dinosaurs still in their host rock anywhere in the world," said Jim Kirkland, the Utah state paleontologist, who works for the Utah Geological Survey. "There is no place as spectacular as Dinosaur."

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The valley holds lesser-known attractions. Settlers entered in the late 1800s, many of them members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in search of a place where they could practice their religion free from persecution. National park secrets

Outlaws such as Butch Cassidy spent time hiding out in an isolated valley called Brown's Park near Vernal and visiting the local saloons.

The outlaws' protected valley is still farmed, but of the outlaws' homes and the businesses they used, little remains, said Ellen Kiever, a clerk in the county's well-stocked history center. Nevertheless, the county holds events to remember the outlaws and the farmers who lived with them side-by-side. Every year a dance is put on at the old schoolhouse. There's also a John Jarvie festival each Father's Day, in honor of a Scotsman who settled in Browns Park in 1880 and built a ranch, store, cemetery, post office and river ferry.

This year is the 100th anniversary of the dinosaur discovery that led to the establishment of the Dinosaur National Monument. In some local histories, a Dr. Earl Douglass, sent West by Carnegie to find fossils for his Hall of Vertebrate Paleontology in Pittsburgh, gets credit for finding the bones and recognizing their significance. Others say the credit should go to another man: goat herder Johnny Harper, who found a huge petrified bone in what became the Carnegie quarry and told everyone in town.

"Johnny went on with his duties of caring for the goats and never got recognition for this historic find," wrote local historian George Long in a 2007 narrative history.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: America's national parks

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  1. Acadia

    Acadia National Park in Maine boasts the highest mountain on the U.S. Atlantic Coast and was the first national park east of the Mississippi River. Visitors beware: temperatures can vary 40 degrees -- from 45 degrees to 85 degrees in the summer and from 30 degrees to 70 degrees in the spring and fall. (Gareth Mccormack / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Rocky Mountain

    Bear Lake, with mountainside aspens changing colors in mid-autumn, is one of the popular attractions in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. (Universal Images Group via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Badlands

    The climate in South Dakota's Badlands National Park is extreme. Temperatures range from minus 40 degrees in the dead of winter to 116 degrees in the height of summer. Visitors are drawn to the park's rugged beauty as well as the area's rich fossil beds. (Mark Newman / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Yosemite

    One of the nation's first wilderness parks, Yosemite is known for its waterfalls, scenic valleys, meadows and giant sequoias. (Robert Galbraith / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. North Cascades National Park

    The North Cascades National Park complex offers something for everyone: Monstrous peaks, deep valleys, hundreds of glaciers and phenominal waterfalls. The complex includes the park, Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas. (David Mcnew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Zion

    This spectacular corner of southern Utah is a masterpiece of towering cliffs, deep red canyons, mesas, buttes and massive monoliths. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Redwood

    Created in 1968, Redwood National Park is located in Northern California. Today, visitors to the national park can enjoy the massive trees as well as an array of wildlife. (David Gotisha / Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Joshua Tree

    Joshua Tree National Park is located in southeast California. The area was made a national monument in 1936 and a national park in 1994. Outdoor enthusiasts can go hiking, mountain biking and rock climbing. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Great Smoky Mountains

    Straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border, Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses more than 800 square miles in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Visitors can expect mild winters and hot, humid summers, though temperatures can differ drastically as the park's elevation ranges from 800 feet to more than 6,600 feet. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Arches

    More than 2,000 natural sandstone arches, many of them recognizable worldwide, are preserved in Utah's Arches National Park. Temperatures can reach triple digits in the summer and can drop to below freezing in the winter. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Grand Teton

    The Snake River flows through Grand Teton National Park, and the jagged Teton Range rises above the sage-covered valley floor. Daytime temperatures during summer months are frequently in the 70s and 80s, and afternoon thunderstorms are common. (Anthony P. Bolante / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Haleakala

    Visitors watch the sun rise at 10,000 feet in Haleakala National Park in Maui, Hawaii. If weather permits, visitors at the top of the mountain can see three other Hawaiian islands. (The Washington Post via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Grand Canyon

    Grand Canyon National Park is perhaps the most recognizable national park. Nearly 5 million visitors view the mile-deep gorge every year, formed in part by erosion from the Colorado River. The North and South rims are separated by a 10-mile-wide canyon. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Yellowstone

    Yellowstone National Park, America's first national park, was established in 1872. The park spans parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Grizzly bears, wolves, bison and elk live in the park. It is well known for Old Faithful and other geothermal features. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Mount Rainier

    Glaciers. Rainforests. Hiking trails. Mount Rainier National Park, located in Washington state, offers incredible scenery and a diverse ecology. The park aims to be carbon neutral by 2016. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Hawaii Volcanoes

    Two of the world's most active volcanoes can be found within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. In 1980, the national park was designated an International Biosphere Reserve; in 1987, it was added as a World Heritage Site. (David Jordan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Everglades

    Everglades National Park covers the nation's largest subtropical wilderness. It is also a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve and a Wetland of International Importance. Visitors to the park can camp, boat, hike and find many other ways to enjoy the outdoors. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Glacier

    A view from atop the Grinnell Glacier Overlook trail in Glacier National Park. With more than 700 miles of trails the park is known for its glaciers, forests, alpine meadows and beautiful lakes. (Matt McKnight / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Bryce Canyon

    Located in southwestern Utah, Bryce Canyon National Park is known for its distinctive geological structures called "hoodoos." (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Crater Lake

    The brilliant blue Crater Lake, located in southern Oregon, was formed when Mount Mazama, standing at 12,000 feet, collapsed 7,700 years ago after a massive eruption. Crater Lake is one of the world's deepest lakes at 1,943 feet. (David Gotisha / Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Olympic

    Washington state's Olympic National Park offers visitors beaches on the Pacific Ocean, glacier-capped mountain peaks and everything in between. Keep the weather in mind when visiting, though, as roads and facilities can be affected by wind, rain and snow any time of year. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Sequoia and Kings Canyon

    A woman stands among a grove of a Giant Sequoia trees in Sequoia National Park in Central California. The trees, which are native to California's Sierra Nevada Mountains, are the world's largest by volume, reaching heights of 275 feet and a ground level girth of 109 feet. The oldest known Giant Sequoia based on its ring count is 3,500 years old. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Denali

    Alaska's Denali National Park spans 6 million acres and includes the 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, North America's tallest peak. Many park visitors try to catch a glimpse of the "big five" -- moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves and grizzly bear. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Kenai Fjords National Park

    The National Park Service considers the 8.2-mile round-trip on Harding Icefield Trail in Alaska's Kenai Fjords National Park to be strenuous, saying hikers gain about 1,000 feet of elevation with each mile. (National Park Service via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Death Valley

    California's Death Valley encompasses more than 3.3 million acres of desert wilderness. In 1849, a group of gold rush pioneers entered the Valley, thinking it was a shortcut to California. After barely surviving the trek across the area, they named the spot "Death Valley." In the 1880s, native peoples were pushed out by mining companies who sought the riches of gold, silver, and borax. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Wind Cave

    Bison graze in Wind Cave National Park in the southern Black Hills of South Dakota. Millions of bison were slaughtered by white hunters who pushed them to near-extinction by the late 1800s. Recovery programs have brought the bison numbers up to nearly 250,000. (David McNew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Canyonlands

    The Lower Basins Zone is outlined by the white rim edge as seen from the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. (Doug Pensinger / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Shenandoah

    Fall colors blanket the Shenandoah National Park, drawing tourists to Skyline Drive to view the scenery. (Karen Bleier / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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