Going on a Dino Safari in Utah
By Joyce Kiefer
They roared their terrible roars
And gnashed their terrible teeth
And rolled their terrible eyes
And showed their terrible claws
Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things? His lines perfectly describe the real-life monsters that once stomped the lands of eastern Utah – dinosaurs! My husband Bill and I decided to hunt down these fearsome beasts this summer when we were in the area. I wanted to scope out places where our grandsons could examine their fossils and life-size replicas. I also hoped to check out an actual dinosaur quarry deep in the desert.
Fortunately, Bill and I never outgrew our interest in dinosaurs.
WAY BACK WHEN
His father once brought home a yard-long dinosaur leg bone from a rock hunt in the Utah desert just west of Colorado where the family lived. Bill returned with his dad to the spot to hunt for more. Perhaps they would find the rest of a brontosaurus like the one discovered near the ranch where his dad grew up. But alas, the desert wash where the leg was found had suddenly changed course and covered up whatever bones were left.
As for me, a city kid from California, I was fascinated by the prehistoric monsters I read about with skeletons more fantastic than anything I could imagine. But what about their skin? I still yearn to know if dinosaurs came in bright colors, stripes or polka dots. It’s a question I plan to ask God as soon as I get to heaven.
Dinosaur digs and museums dot the map throughout Utah and western Colorado within the Dinosaur Diamond, a national scenic byway that covers both states. But we decided to focus on the area from Salt Lake City to Moab, four hours southeast, because both are destination points for multiple interests. Moab is the gateway to the spectacular Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. We’d check out museums and a quarry and update ourselves on a trackway we once visited on a trip to Moab.
We started out by taking our grandsons who live in Salt Lake City to the Thanksgiving Point Museum of Ancient Life in Lehi, about 20 minutes south. Ben and Adam are two and four years old, respectively. The first exhibit grounded us in present-day reality. A life-size re-created scene showed paleontologists measuring out, digging, and casing bones in plaster. Real fossils are placed throughout the room. Adam stared wide-eyed at the huge skulls on the windowsill of the lab where paleontologists are actually at work. Before, he was not so sure real dinosaurs existed. Now he believed.
The pathway through the museum then took us back to the beginnings of Planet Earth. Adam loved walking through the young universe on the transparent floor that made him feel he was out in space. The next room surrounded us with aquaria filled with replicas of the creatures that lived in the ancient seas that covered the Great Basin. While he was looking at trilobites on giant sponges, we snatched Ben away from the jaws of a dimetrodon. He tried to climb into the scene of a life-size replica of the spiny creature standing off a couple of challengers. Ben and I found calmer fun turning the crank of a machine that showed how a dino would look with stripes, colors, dots…
All of us walked open-mouthed down the ramp to the replica of a Supersaurus, which makes a brontosaurus look like a wimp. I’m sorry we missed the Erosion Table where kids create sand canyons and watch the rushing water go through to reveal with tiny plastic dinos. The museum offers 50 interactive displays along with 60 complete dinosaur skeletons.
MORE DINO DISPLAYS
Bill and I went on our own to the next point in our suggested safari – the town of Price, two hours south of Salt Lake City toward Moab. Here the Wasatch Mountains end and the vast desert begins. A local treasure trove of human artifacts and animal fossils awaited us at the College of Eastern Utah Prehistoric Museum. When Adam gets a bit older, I know he’ll want to meet the Utahraptor on display, the real life (death) version of the killer dinosaur in "Jurassic Park. " With this beast, life imitates art. The villain velociraptor in the movie "Jurassic Park" was scaled up for effect, but months
into production the real Utah Raptor was discovered. It matched the size Spielberg had in mind, complete with killer claw.
I was amazed by the webs of holes and lumps made by the imprints of dinosaur armor on a couple of rocks. Another thrill: looking at rocks with dinosaur footprints that were removed from a nearby coal mine and imagine the surprise of the miners to find these on the ceiling.
We found a display of the 140 million year-old dino parts that came from the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry 30 miles away, which has yielded the bones of 46 young allosaurus. Only 30 % of the quarry finds belonged to plant eaters. What were all those juvenile carnivores doing in one place?
Although it’s hard to tear away from the Hall of Dinosaurs, no one should leave this museum without getting acquainted with the local ancient Indian cultures and looking at photos of the spectacular rock art deep in the canyons of the surrounding desert. The museum has racks of information on the area and a well-informed staff to give directions. Ask about nearby Nine Mile Canyon, which is more like a 40 mile-long outdoor gallery of petroglyphs and pictographs, and Buckhorn Wash near the dinosaur quarry.
WHERE THE BONES ARE
Museums are wonderful but they leave me wanting to visit the sites where the items on display were actually discovered. The next morning we drove to the quarry.
Every dinosaur afficianado should walk the blue-gray, clay hills that yield fossils and imagine these dry places filled with fern trees and marshes. The quarry is about 30 miles south of Price between the small towns of Elmo and Cleveland. The final 12 miles are firmly graveled road, fine for passenger cars. Finally, you arrive at the quarry Visitor’s Center nestled against the boulders. The work done at the quarry is well-explained and the geologist on hand was friendly and happy to answer our questions. We walked past the menacing allosaurus (maybe he just wanted to play fetch) and off to the sheds that covers the quarry. Instead of complete skeletons, we looked into a pile of bones that runs deep into the ground. Two observation platforms allowed us to see the deposit from various angles. Dinosaur National Monument in northern Utah has the most spectacular quarry display and an ongoing dig, but the building has collapsed. No digs presently take place at Cleveland-Lloyd.
Unless it’s blistering hot or about to rain, take the Rock Walk to get a feel of the desert. At the very first marker look to the ledge to the left for the partial rib of a sauropod. Persevere to Point 6 and look around for the small blackened fossils of the dino that once rested here. Pick them up but put them back.
The last stop on our dinosaur safari is the Copper Ridge trackway near Moab. Taking the unpaved roads from the quarry to I-70 is a real safari through the desert outback. As we left the quarry, two handsome antelope bounded across the road. We were indeed out in nature. Follow the road signs to Buckhorn Wash where slender Barrier Art pictographs (@2,000 years old) stand like sentinels on a rock wall. Continue on to I-70 and then east to Highway 191 and Moab.
These gravel roads are OK for passenger cars, but carry water, watch for potholes and don’t go if it’s raining, just rained, or about to rain. We got caught in a rainstorm and the clay spattered our car so that it looked like it was dipped in cement. The easier way to Moab (115 miles away) is to return to Price and take 6/191 to I-70 See the website at the end of this column for exact directions on where to find the footprints. Do print out the dinosaur hunting license and fill it out when you arrive.
Whichever way you go, the reward is a set of footprints left from an ancient chase in Jurassic times. A brontosaurus suddenly realizes he’s pursued by four three-toed carnivores coming from different directions. He makes a sharp turn to the right. The hunters close in. The larger one has an irregular gait – was it hurt? The rest of the story. the roars and the gnashing of all those teeth, is yours to imagine.
How can anyone outgrow dinosaurs?
College of Eastern Utah Prehistoric Museum
Main Street, Price, UT
Cleveland Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry
Copper Ridge Dinosaur Trackway
Bureau of Land Management
Click on Dinosaur Hunting Licence!
Dinosaur Diamond National Scenic Byway
P.O. Box 1531
Price, UT 84501
(800) 477-5558 or the CEU Museum
Thanksgiving Point Museum of Ancient Life
3003 N. Thanksgiving Way
www.thanksgivingpoint.org - use link to museum
Salt Lake City
Joyce Kiefer is a regular columnist for Bay Area Family Travel. She lives in the Bay Area.
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