I honestly never thought much about the State of Utah before visiting there last summer but was immediately captivated by its natural beauty. Utah is also a treasure trove of geological wonders with a direct link to a group of animals I absolutely adored as a kid and am still fascinated with today. Although it wasn’t the primary theme of our road trip, there was no mistaking that my best friend and I had entered the land of the dinosaurs and our journey would take a prehistoric turn. It all started on Tuesday, June 14th as we were just about to leave St. George when my buddy noticed a sign for the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm. Thankfully we’re of like mind when it comes to these sort of things so, with absolutely no debate, we altered our original plans in favor of staying in St. George a bit longer. I can’t tell you how glad he saw that sign! Then again, this place was all about surprising discoveries.
About fifteen years ago, a local optometrist named Dr. Sheldon Johnson was doing some construction work on his farm when he uncovered 200 million-year-old dinosaur tracks. I’m not sure what the laws are State to State but, in Utah, should you find fossils on your property you can pretty much do whatever you want with them. Thankfully, instead of continuing on with his excavation plans, Dr. Johnson contacted the right people and opted to preserve the tracks instead. The City of St. George eventually built a museum over that spot and now manage it themselves. And for this, we dinosaur fans owe him a huge debt of gratitude!
The find was so incredible it’s been described by Paleontologist, Dr. Jim Kirkland, as “the most significant dinosaur track site in western North America.” It’s scarce, even by dinosaur track standards, as many animal and plant fossils have been recovered there too. Since the conditions for fossilizing living matter and tracks are very different from each other, scientists are rarely ever given such a complete representation of an extinct ecosystem.
Before guests could view the tracks, however, they must first walk through the museum’s numerous fossil (mostly replica) displays. Many provided plenty of learning opportunities regarding the animals that once roamed (or swam) in Utah. One of the most interesting was a Phytosaur, semi-aquatic reptile that resembled crocodiles.
I’ve always been a fan of Ceratopsians and Utah boasts many great finds including their own Utahceratops! This was the first time I’d ever seen parts of one on display.
Most of the fossil bones you see at any Natural History museum are replicas since there are few complete skeletons ever discovered and displaying a piece of skull, some chipped vertebrae, and a toe bone ain’t exactly going to “wow” the visitors. To me, as long as the bones are scientifically accurate, it makes little difference.
There was also a room full of faux fossils and interesting facts regarding some of the most fearsome and fascinating animals to have ever existed on the planet in general (and a few that are still here). The museum was both adult and child-friendly and I couldn’t help but wonder how many young minds this location has and will inspire.
Another simple but effective touch was including a plastic model figure next to the bone replicas for added visuals. These past few years have actually been exciting times for prehistoric models (I’m avoiding the word “toy”) thanks to companies such as Papo, Schleich, Safari Ltd, and CollectA (some of which were used by the museum and seen in these photos). While each of these companies has their hits and misses, there’s no denying that their competitiveness has inspired more detailed and scientifically accurate representations as well as depictions of the most recent dinosaur discoveries.
Some tracks discovered at this site didn’t belong to dinosaurs at all. Those included some that were believed to belong to Protosuchus, an ancient reptile and early relative of today’s crocodiles.
Early dinosaurs represented in the tracks were likely Megapnosaurus – pronounced meh-GAP-no-SORE-us. Your probably more familiar with its other name, Coelophysis.
The museum also offered some rare replicas of dinosaurs not related to the tracks at all, such as Scelidosaurus, an early Thyreophoran (armored) dinosaur like the more famous Ankylosaurus among others.
We made it to the tracks and while some were pretty obvious others not so much. Tracks that can’t be directly tied to any specific animal are given the generic name Grallator to indicate tracks made by small, three-toed Therapods (two-legged meat-eaters) such as the Megapnosaurus I mentioned earlier.
Eubrontes is the name given to larger Therapod tracks that were likely made by the twenty foot long Dilophosaurus, a statue of which could be seen in the track area.
Finally, we reached the track site which was surrounded by a walkway so guests could stroll the parameter with signage explaining what they were seeing (and my untrained eye sure needed a LOT of explaining).
Just like today’s healthy lake systems, indicator species such as amphibians existed in Lake Dixie too. This was proven by the discovery of fossilized tadpole nests.
Another amazing find was the presence of dinosaur swim tracks.
After we walked around what had once been the Prehistoric Lake Dixie, we stopped at the Museum’s gift shop. I purchased their book, “Tracks in Deep Time: The St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm” which gave an even more in-depth look at this truly amazing place!
Utah is about as close to Dinosaur Heaven we Paleo-fans can get and you’ll definitely want to check out this unique museum!