After driving for hours across northwestern Colorado’s lonely landscape, there’s finally something to see. Dinosaur National Monument straddles the Utah/Colorado state line. The park’s namesake fossils are on display on the Utah side, but the park’s remarkable geology can be claimed by Colorado.
This is the view that awaits you, if you’re willing to drive nearly an hour north of US Highway 40, then hike for a mile out a mildly challenging trail. The view at Harpers Corner Overlook is worth the effort, and the solitude you’re likely to find here doubles the satisfaction.
Now that I’ve showed you the reward, let’s back up to the beginning. The Harpers Corner Auto Tour begins at the Canyon Area Visitor Center, two miles east of Dinosaur, Colorado, and four miles east of the state line. I stopped in at the visitor center to try to get a prediction on the weather, and decide if it was worth the time to drive out to Harpers Corner. The friendly park ranger inside confirmed what I suspected: the weather is unpredictable. Sometimes the weather at the end of the road is completely different than at the visitor center. That’s what I hoped for.
Harpers Corner Drive runs north, past Plug Hat Butte, then passes several viewpoints that look out at the Yampa and Green Rivers. For the first few miles, I was underneath a cloudburst of rain, so I passed by some of the turnouts.
The weather was still quite gloomy, but the rain had eased up a bit, when I arrived at Canyon Overlook. There are two viewpoints here, and I stopped at the upper viewpoint first. The grey skies made it less than breathtaking.
I also drove down to the lower viewpoint. The views were a little better here, partially because the clouds were beginning to break up. When I first arrived, I stepped out of the car to encounter 40-degree temperatures and a howling wind. I hadn’t packed a jacket since, you know, IT WAS JUNE, and I wasn’t expecting to encounter winter-like conditions. I reached into the back seat to grab the warmest article of clothing I had brought — a denim shirt — only to discover that my cooler had leaked, and it was soaked with icy water.
I quickly grabbed a few photographs of the lackluster landscape before shivering my way back to the car. With such cold weather, and so little to wear, I wondered if I should give up, and drive back to US 40, and on to Vernal. Instead, I decided to put on a second t-shirt, and head on out the road.
The weather continued to improve as I made my way to Harpers Corner. At the end of the road, a one-mile hike led to that pointy protrusion of rock, that you see in the above photo. The view from the road was uninspiring…
… but a sign at the trailhead made a big promise: hike a mile, and see “the best view in any National Park.”
Really? Any National Park? Better than the Grand Canyon? Yosemite? Zion?
I had my doubts, but I couldn’t let a claim like that go unconfirmed.
The weather was still cool, and I knew I would freeze to death if another downpour hit, or if the wind picked up. But after hours of driving across Colorado, I was desperate for some time outside the car.
For part of the way, the trail to Harpers Corner runs along the side of the ridge, providing numerous viewpoints looking southeast, towards the confluence of the Green and Yampa Rivers.
As it closes in on the end of the trail, the path switches to the opposite side of the ridge…
… and Whirlpool Canyon comes into view, looking northwest.
At the end of the trail, a fence provides safe viewing, looking east and west. The best view, however, lies beyond the fence. Climb through the bars…
… and head out to the end of this knife-edge. From here, you’ll have a 360- degree view of an incredibly jumbled landscape, sliced by two rivers, and further mangled by fault lines.
The most curious sight at Harpers Corner is Mitten Park Fault. Here, the layers of the earth’s crust that normally run horizontally have turned upwards. Between Mitten Park Fault and the nearby Island Park Fault, the ground was raised 3,000 feet. That upwelling occurred long before the Green and Yampa Rivers cut through here.
Looking downstream, Whirlpool Canyon is fully visible from here.
Chances are, you’ll be the only person out here, so kick back for a few minutes and enjoy the perfect silence.
There’s only one important landmark you can’t fully see from the end of the trail. On the way back, watch for an opportunity to look east, to see Steamboat Rock. On the opposite side of Steamboat Rock, the Yampa River comes to an abrupt end, as it slams into the rock wall, and mingles with the Green River. The two combined rivers then flow around the head of Steamboat Rock, twist back to the north, and at Mitten Park Fault, turn west again.
Remarkably, my 2-mile round-trip hike to the viewpoint and back took only about an hour and 15 minutes. I was hurrying, though, as I hoped to avoid another rain shower. Instead, I was amazed when the sun came out for a few minutes.
On the drive back to US 40, I couldn’t resist making one stop to take a picture of the perfectly curvy road…
… and the view into Echo Park. There is a road that heads to Echo Park (located on the far side of Steamboat Rock), but it’s a high-clearance dirt road, and signs warned that it is impassable when wet. If it hadn’t rained earlier in the day, I would have given it a try.
Here’s a time-lapse dash-cam video of the drive out and back, on Harpers Corner Drive. Be sure to watch the second half, which is less rainy, and shows the drive back from Harpers Corner to US 40: