Whenever someone mentions “the Old West,” I’m always more inclined to think about Allosaurus and Utahraptor as opposed to cowboys and Indians. The American southwest is a treasure trove of fossil discoveries and this past summer I finally made my way there. During that trip, I had the privilege of seeing several different dinosaur-themed attractions; most of which that were unplanned. One of the last ones I saw specifically highlighted the prehistoric animals that once lived in this region and appropriately called the Dinosaur Journey of Western Colorado in Fruita. What was intended as just a quick stop to stretch our legs ended up being a morning of discovery!
What made this museum really stand out were the amazing fossils (both real and full-sized casts) intermingled with life-size models and hands-on learning tools. To me, these are the perfect ingredients for a successful dinosaur attraction and the Dinosaur Journey of Western Colorado excelled at all three. I was vacationing with my best friend at the time and we were anxious to walk around after driving in from Moab, Utah en route to Colorado Springs. Though the building itself wasn’t all that spectacular from the outside, we were amused by the Triceratops bus sitting in front. Once inside we honestly didn’t know where to look first.
There was a life-like Camarasaurus neck with skeleton representation across from it. We passed the likeness of a T-Rex head before seeing glass displays showing bones and model representations of the animals they belonged to. Every inch of space from the ground to the ceiling had something to read or look at. We could only visit for a couple of hours but I could have easily stayed through the afternoon.
As promised the museum did indeed feature some of the great animals that once roamed the American Southwest. They included…
UTAHRAPTOR: A graphic depiction of this animal was recreated as it feasted on a long-neck. According to the accompanying signage, this raptor could use its toe claw to kick a wound the size of a T-Rex bite.
CAMARASAURUS: In addition to a life-size head/neck of the animal looming over the walkway, they also had a replica cast of its most renowned fossil. In 1915 a nearly intact juvenile Camarasaurus was discovered at the Morrison Formation in Dinosaur, Colorado. This specimen was found fully articulated (still lying in its death pose) and even its delicate ear bones were intact. The actual fossil is on display at the Carnegie Museum in Pennsylvania (which I’m headed to this spring) still encased in the sandstone it was found in!
ALLOSAURUS: The aforementioned Morrison Formation also yielded a high number of Allosaurus fossils. This top predator of the Jurassic is also Utah’s State Fossil.
STEGOSAURUS: Colorado’s State Fossil is Stegosaurus and was depicted here both as a skeleton and a life-like representation.
OTHNIELIA: These small bipedal plant-eaters lived in the Western United States about 150 million years ago.
PLESIOSAURS: Back in the Cretacious Period, Colorado was sea level with shallow seas bringing aquatic reptiles such as the long-necked Plesiosaurs.
There were other notable “sea monsters” that once swam in this region including Mosasaurs such as Tylosaurus and a rather frightening looking fish called Xiphactinus (pronounced Zif-ack-tih-nus). I’ll be delving more into those creatures in the near future.
TYRANNOSARAUS REX: What collection of America’s greatest dinosaurs wouldn’t include the “Tyrant Lizard King?” This museum featured a giant animatronic one that was truly amazing!
TRICERATOPS: Where there’s T-Rex, Triceratops can’t be far away. The most famous of all ceratopsians was on display in a smaller, life-like version, along with a real skull beside it.
MYMORAPELTA: This small Ankylosaur from the Jurassic Period was discovered in the Morrison Formation. It’s still being debated whether or not this animal is an early ancestor the more famous Ankylosaurus or a representative of a different family of dinosaurs altogether.
DIPLODOCUS: The Morrison Formation has yielded many different species of Sauropods (long-necks) including the aforementioned Camarasaurus as well as Brachiosaurus and Brontosaurus. Another is Diplodocus that was longer but less bulky as the more famous Apatosaurus.
DILOPHOSAURUS: One of the larger carnivores from the Jurassic Period, Dilophosaurus is probably most famous for an appearance in Jurassic Park where it sports a fan-face and spits venom at Newman from Seinfeld. Obviously, those features are fiction, but that doesn’t make this animal less formidable. In fact, Steven Spielberg made his Dilophosaurus actually smaller than reality so it wouldn’t be confused with his star dinosaurs, Velociraptor.
CAMPTOSAURUS: This is a robust, beaked plant eater from the Jurassic Period. Judging by the wear on their teeth, it’s believed they specialized on rough vegetation. Because of the way its back would have had to have been arched when it stood on all fours, its name means “Bent” or “flexible” lizard.
CERATOSAURUS: This is the official dinosaur of Fruita, Colorado (location of this museum) and its name means “horned lizard.” It was a carnivorous theropod that lived in the late Jurassic Period. What sets this dinosaur apart is its larger-than-average skull. The specimen found in Fruita is the largest Ceratosaurus and referred to as Ceratosaurus magnicornis.
CORYPHODON: Dinosaurs weren’t the only animals that called this region home. After their extinction, mammals began to rise to prominence and one of the most common discovered in this area was the hippo-like Coryphodon.
I live near The Field Museum of Natural History, which is known for having an exceptional dinosaur exhibit while boasting “Sue” – the largest, and most complete T-Rex specimen. Still, I confess that visiting here made me pine for a smaller dinosaur exhibit that I could volunteer at. The Museum of Western Colorado’s Dinosaur Journey has their volunteers making casts from real dinosaur teeth/claws to sell at the gift shop. I ended up buying a couple of T-Rex teeth casts for my sons.
In a related story, the museum also made a strong case for why it’s better to collect fossil casts rather than actual specimens. This was an important message for the folks living in these parts where stumbling over a Triceratops horn in their backyard isn’t beyond the realm of possibility. Trilobites, amenities, fish, and plants are no problem but the bigger stuff should be available for research and hopefully, public viewing.
I have to say this attraction was a nice surprise and definitely worth a return visit should I ever find myself back out in those parts. It as inexpensive and offered great learning opportunities for both kids and adults!