It's mind-boggling to consider that modern humans (Homo sapiens) have been around for only a teensy fraction of time—200,000 of Earth’s 4.5 billion years of existence. And prior to our arrival, the planet looked a lot different: Most of Earth’s land mass was connected, and it was swampy, hot, and covered with lush tropical vegetation. During the Mesozoic Era (from about 252 to 66 million years ago), the Rocky Mountains were not even at half their present size, an ocean stretched from the coastal plains of the American West to the Eastern Seaboard, and massive creatures roamed and reigned on the planet. Thanks to discoveries from paleontologists and citizen-science enthusiasts, there are loads of ways to explore the otherworldly “Age of the Dinosaurs.”
In the American West, opportunities to participate in dinosaur digs and to tour sites where dinos once roamed have become a hit with families, as they offer fun, hands-on ways to teach children about ancient Earth and its previous occupants. Some sites, such as Morrison, Colorado’s Dinosaur Ridge —a national natural landmark where the world’s first stegosaurus (spike-tailed) and apatosaurus (long-necked) specimens were found—even offer dinosaur-themed summer camps.
“Kids are all about dinosaurs,” says Jeff Lamontagne, executive director of Friends of Dinosaur Ridge. “We have one family that sends their kids from the Atlanta area every year—they say the kids really want to be paleontologists and that the wealth of treasures at Dinosaur Ridge never gets old.”
At the tri-point joining New Mexico, Texas, and Chihuahua, Mexico, paleontology enthusiasts can discover dinosaur tracks within a unique, border-crossing ecosystem. Insights El Paso Science Center owns 211 acres of Chihuahuan Desert spanning the United States and Mexico. Millions of years ago, this desert was a damp and wet region; over the course of time, geological activity brought about its present dry, arid climate. Here, docents lead two- to three-hour tours on trails that showcase various footprints from the Cretaceous period. Says Insights El Paso administrative assistant Gabriela Franco, “We find many invertebrate fossils in the area such as ammonites, oysters, and scallops. This is further evidence of the ‘dinosaur beach’ that existed here so long ago—it’s amazing to find marine remnants in the middle of the dry, hot desert.” Indeed, Insights patrons can visit a fossil bed and take in massive trackways where dinosaur herds appear to have romped. “We love that a UTEP [University of Texas at El Paso] student discovered these tracks,” Franco adds. “It inspires children to dream big and pursue science.”
Yet another dynamic and diverse place to revel at dinosaur fossils is Dinosaurland, located in Vernal, Utah. Within this huge swath of canyonland and winding rivers sits Dinosaur National Monument. The nearby Quarry Visitor’s Center Exhibit Hall boasts a 200-foot-long cliff “Wall of Bones” that reveals approximately 2,000 fossilized dinosaur bones, presented as they were found in a nearby sandbar dating from many millennia ago. Not only can you glimpse numerous dinosaur species here, but visitors are also allowed to touch these bones. Dinosaur enthusiasts flock here to view one of the few baby stegosaurus fossils ever found.
“A visit to the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum, with its lifelike models of dinosaurs, is always a hit with my kids,” says Bridget Lake, travel and tourism coordinator with Uintah County, Utah. Lake especially recommends the museum’s hands-on fossil digs, numerous fossil exhibits, and observation window overlooking the fossil preparatory lab, where kids can see how dinosaur fossils are being preserved. Outdoor options are plentiful here too. “Hike the three-mile round-trip to the Dino Tracks Trail,” Lake suggests, “It ends on the backside of Red Fleet State Park, to a shoreline of dinosaur tracks. My kids love looking for the tracks and seeing how many they can find.”
Indeed, the Southwestern and Western mountain states claim the most dinosaur fossil discovery sites in the United States—especially Colorado, Utah, and Montana. Each of these states offers some form of dinosaur tourism, whether in the form of opportunities to participate in digs, dino treks to locate tracks, or museum laboratories where one can witness scientists examining fossil bones. Ready to plan your own dinosaur discovery tour of the West? Here are a few suggestions.
*Did you know that Colorado’s state fossil is the stegosaurus?
Hike or bike Dinosaur Ridge Trail at your own pace for free, or purchase tickets for a guided bus tour or the hop-on/hop-off shuttle.
Special Events and Programs:
• Walk With a Geologist
These exclusive tours offer private access to scientists who provide insider secrets about the sites at Dinosaur Ridge.
• Dinosaur Ridge After Dark: Molding and Casting With Chocolate
This adults-only program offers a chance to learn about the molding and casting process, but with chocolate!
• Dinosaur Ridge hosts day trips and longer weekend excursions to dig sites, unique fossil and geologic areas, and even to other museums and organizations.
• “Everything Dinosaur” Talks
This 12-part free public lecture series introduces visitors to the amazing world of dinosaurs, one type at a time.
• TriceraTOTs Program
This 30- to 45-minute preschool craft and storytime program is fun for budding junior paleontologists.
• Dinosaur summer camps for children ages six to 13
These week-long day camps are designed to nurture excitement and wonder for science, art, and the outdoors.
THE ROYAL GORGE DINOSAUR EXPERIENCE
One family’s fascination with dinosaurs over several generations has culminated in one of the most unique dinosaur attractions in the Rockies. Travelers will enjoy the location in Canon City, which offers views of nearby Royal Gorge Bridge and the Sangre de Cristo mountains. The Reynolds family has a mission to offer educational outdoors experiences for families while they discover more about Colorado’s paleontological heritage. This experience has two parts: an indoor museum where visitors can enjoy a world-class collection of interactive displays, full-scale dinosaur fossil casts, real dinosaur fossils, and guided tours; and an outdoor adventure park where visitors can go wild in the following ways:
• Traverse the T-Rex Terror Ropes Course, where you’ll come face-to-face with both a 80-foot-long diplodocus and a mighty roaring T-Rex, which stands more than 20 feet tall
• Stroll along the Dinosaur Wild Walk to see 16 different life-size, skinned, animatronic dinosaurs, some of which track guests’ movements
• Shovel for fossils at the Kid’s Dig, where tots and their parents can unearth faux T-Rex bones from gravel sandboxes
*Did you know that Utah’s state fossil is the allosaurus?
DINOSAUR NATIONAL MONUMENT
• Raft the river that runs through Dinosaur National Monument’s canyons with Holiday River Expeditions guides, who are schooled in geology and dino lore.
• Hike the many trails and camp within DNM on either the Colorado or Utah side.
• Visit the Quarry Exhibit Hall within the visitor’s center to see the Wall of Bones.
• Take a moonlight hike with a ranger along the Fossil Discovery Trail.
MUSEUM OF ANCIENT LIFE AT THANKSGIVING POINT
Head to northern Utah to visit one of the world’s largest collections of dinosaur displays. There are 60 complete dinosaur skeletons in these galleries, along with more than 50 hands-on exhibits.
*Did you know Montana’s state fossil is the the duck-billed dinosaur (Maiasaura peeblesorum)?
SIEBEL DINOSAUR COMPLEX AT THE MUSEUM OF THE ROCKIES
T. Rex fans rejoice! Located in Bozeman, this museum features 13 T. Rex skeletons and the largest T. Rex skull ever found. There’s much to learn about the age of dinosaurs and see at the vast complex, including a jaw-dropping view of Big Al, one of the most complete allosauruses ever discovered.
THE MONTANA DINOSAUR TRAIL
Some of the most significant dinosaur discoveries in the world have occurred in Montana, and loads of dinosaur fossils remain. The statewide Montana Dinosaur Trail has 14 locations that offer exhibits, special programs, and field digs. Visitors can uncover a wealth of fossils and skeleton remains of prolific species such as the T. Rex, triceratops, and apatosaurus. The Prehistoric Passport is a fun tool to help locate dinosaur displays, exhibits, and activities—each offers “fossil facts,” a field notes section, and space that can be stamped with the official “dino icon,” as evidence of a visit.
ANNUAL DINO SHINDIG
This two-day festival is held at the end of July each year at this Ekalaka-based museum, where visitors attend special paleontologist-led programs and events. There’s dancing and digging at sites too.