This is the beginning of our dinosaur journey: laying our hands on an example of what could have played a role in the dinosaurs’ catastrophic end, at Blanding, Utah’s Dinosaur Museum.
You wouldn’t know this small gem of a museum was there if you weren’t looking for it, just as you can’t imagine the region’s rich dinosaur history, if you aren’t paying attention.
This two-day family road trip is partly a trip of the imagination, sparked by the knowledge that this area of western Colorado and eastern Utah boasts a rich and varied history as the nucleus of dinosaur discovery. We’re on a quest to find dinosaurs – what’s left of them, that is, on segments of the highly touted Dinosaur Diamond Prehistoric Highway. It turns out there is a lot to see – if, of course, you’re looking.
225 miles: 3 hours to Blanding (150 miles),
1.5 hours Blanding to Moab (75 miles)
Blanding’s Dinosaur Museum and Arches National Park
Our expedition starts in Telluride, as we follow segments of the Dinosaur Diamond Prehistoric Highway Scenic Byway. The real Dinosaur Diamond goes all the way to the town of Dinosaur, in the northwestern corner of the state, and as far west as Price, Utah, 170 miles northwest of Grand Junction.
Because our expedition crew is comprised of our 4- and 2-year-old daughters, our travel agenda must factor in frequent potty breaks, snack times and other stops just to keep us all sane. So though our dinosaur hunt will keep us close to home, rather than exploring the 480-mile Dinosaur Diamond in its entirety, we’ll discover an abundance of evidence of these prehistoric creatures within a few hours’ drive.
Our first stop takes us to Blanding, Utah’s Dinosaur Museum, an unassuming building tucked away, just off the little town of Blanding’s main drag. This museum houses its fair share of surprises, including a Giant Ammonite – at over six feet wide, this ancient dinosaur-era mollusk (which went almost entirely extinct 65 million years ago, around the same time the dinosaurs did) is one of the largest ammonites in the world.
Blanding’s claim to dinosaur fame is thanks to the Blanding Giant, an Apatosaurus (more popularly known as Brontosaurus) that a resident found in the area more than 40 years ago. He kept the massive bones, later identified as pelvic bones, in his backyard before donating them to this quaint, community-run museum.
We’re all in awe of the museum’s large exhibit devoted to feathered dinosaurs, with two life-sized models showing what a dinosaur could have looked like either wildly feathered, or with the more conventionally conceived scaly hide.
A naptime’s worth of driving takes us north to Moab, Utah; a veritable playground for kids and adults alike. Our dinosaur-themed trip will take us to Arches National Park, where we’ll literally follow the footsteps of dinosaurs. We drive the first scenic nine miles from the park entrance to Balanced Rock, turning onto the 4x4-only Willow Flats Road.
“Are you on the lookout for dinosaurs?” we tease the girls, telling them to imagine the dramatically stark landscape outside, with its fantastically formed sandstone pinnacles, fins and balanced rocks, as the lush shores of a shallow inland lake, as it was some 165 million years ago.
Just over four miles from where we turned off the paved road, leaving the hordes of other photo-snapping tourists behind, we see a sign.
It tells us this area’s vegetation attracted many dinosaurs, and in turn, predators, including the two types whose tracks can be seen here: the Saurapod and the Therapod, two human-sized dinosaurs that walked upright, and thoughtfully left their prints in the mud, now turned to sandstone, where our children squeal as they fit their little feet into the prehistoric prints.
Dinosaur Museum: Admission, $3 for adults, $2 for seniors and $1.50 for children. 754 South 200 West, Blanding. www.dinosaur-museum.org.
Arches National Park: Admission, $10 per vehicle. Camping at the Devil’s Garden Campground is $20 per night and can be reserved in advance through www.nps.gov/arch.
100 miles: 1.5 hours Moab to Rabbit Valley (93 miles), 15 minutes (10 miles) to Fruita, Trail Through Time, Dinosaur Hill and Dinosaur Journey Museum
With dinosaurs fresh on our minds thanks to an en-route portable DVD screening of The Land Before Time animated movie, we head to Rabbit Valley’s Trail Through Time, off I-70 just a few miles from the Colorado-Utah border.
This 1.5-mile hike offers interpretive exhibits sharing the unique geologic and paleontological history of the area.
“There might be paleontologists here!” I say, to which the next obvious question from my eldest daughter is: “What’s a paly-en-topolis?”
Unfortunately there aren’t any paleontologists at work on the day of our trip at the nearby Mygatt-Moore quarry site, a 150-million-year-old dinosaur watering hole where scientists have uncovered at least 12 different species of dinosaur, and are occasionally seen working in the quarry.
At Dinosaur Hill, just a 20-minute drive east near Fruita, the kids get another chance to imagine “dinosaur scientists” at work, as we hike the one-mile trail up and over the small hill where turn-of-the-century paleontologist Elmer Riggs unearthed one of the most complete Apatosaurus skeletons in existence. Interpretive signs along the way explain the unique geologic conditions that lead to fossilization, which is of little concern to a 4-year-old looking for dinosaurs but is interesting to her parents, with its introduction to the paleontological history of the area. Nearby Riggs Hill, between Fruita and Grand Junction, is the site of the world’s earliest Brachiosaurus find and the first area dinosaur dig site, we learn. (There’s a short interpretive hike here too.)
The day’s adventures, which have stretched our imaginations as we envisage a lush prehistoric landscape filled with fantastical dinosaurs, and later the human scientists that discover these millions-of-years-old treasures, will all come to life in the flesh as we reach the apex of our dinosaur-inspired journey. The Dinosaur Journey Museum, just a few minutes away in downtown Fruita, is as kid-friendly as a museum gets. There are interactive exhibits where kids can uncover real Jurassic dinosaur bones in their own “quarry site,” experience the rumble of a simulated earthquake and see cast skeletons, real fossils (like the large Triceratops skull, perhaps one of the largest specimens ever found,) and even robotic reconstructions of dinosaurs. (One spits water and roars, while another rips the bloody head off of his dinosaur prey, two things that discomfit a 4-year-old, we discover.)
The museum also includes a working laboratory where experts clean and prepare dinosaur bones and fossils for display, and a collections room where scientists study dinosaurs and other animals.
Our expedition crew huddles in the museum’s darkened theatre for the 20-minute film presentation about the life and death of the dinosaur era. The girls, glassy-eyed after all the excitement of our team’s two days of dinosaur exploration, watch in awe as dinosaurs come to life on the big screen.
“We are just beginning to learn about dinosaurs,” the film’s narrator says at the end of the film. “The era of dinosaur discovery may be just beginning.”
It’s the dénouement of our Dinosaur Diamond Prehistoric Highway trip. Later, as we make the 140-mile trip home, imbued with what we now know about the rich paleontological history literally beneath our feet, the scenery isn’t quite the same.
“Are you on the lookout for dinosaurs?” the 4-year-old asks, yawning. I’m not entirely sure she’s teasing.
Trail Through Time interpretive hike: Free. 1.5-mile loop, at Rabbit Valley (Exit 2) off I-70, 18 miles west of Fruita.
Dinosaur Hill interpretive hike: Free. 1.0-mile loop, one mile south on Highway 340 from Dinosaur Journey Museum in Fruita.
Dinosaur Journey Museum: Admission, $8.50 for adults, $6.50 for seniors, $5.25 for children, $24.50 for immediate family groups. 550 Jurassic Court in Fruita, just south of I-70 exit 19. Note that the Kids’ Dig Pit is filled with crushed walnut shells. www.museumofwesternco.com/visit/dinosaur-journey. Camping is available adjacent to the Museum at the James M. Robb State Park, Fruita Section, $16-$24 per night. www.parks.state.co.us/Parks/jamesmrobbcoloradoriver.