Itinerary: Hunting dinosaurs in the Grand Junction area

Dinosaur skeleton Fruita Colorado
A dinosaur skeleton fills the room at the Dinosaur Discovery Museum in Fruita, which also features robotic dinosaurs. It’s the key stop in the afternoon’s itinerary. | Photo by James Fee / flickr.com

By John Leach

The Grand Junction area wasn’t one of Colorado’s leading places for finding new dinosaurs, but thousands of dinosaur bones and skeletons were dug up from a handful of sites in the Grand Valley and sent off to major museums.

The area, which is proud of its dinosaur heritage, also has a museum with dinosaur bones and casts and robotic reconstructions of dinosaurs.

Here’s a one-day itinerary for you to learn about dinosaurs in the Grand Junction area:

Morning

Start the day by driving west on Interstate 70 for 30 miles to the Rabbit Valley Natural Area, where more than 10,000 individual fossils have been recovered since 1981, including bones from the Allosaurus, Apatosaurus, Brachiosaurus, Camarasaurus, Ceratosaurus, Diplodocus and Nodosaurus.

Rabbit Valley features a 1 1/2-mile loop trail that takes hikers through rock formations that hold dinosaur skeletons and skeletal remains, plus wood and leaf fossils. Allow 90 minutes.

Hiking is best in spring or fall. Summer brings biting gnats and 100-degree highs, while winter can bring snow that hides key sights and makes the route slippery.

From there, get back on Interstate 70 and head east for 16 miles to Fruita. Take the Colorado 340 exit and head south across the Colorado River to the Fruita Paleontological Area, another major dinosaur dig.

The Fruitadens, a beaked dinosaur the size of a fox, was discovered here in the 1970s, though the smallest dinosaur on record was not scientifically described and named after the city until 2009. The skull of a new variety of Ceratosaurus and bones from several other dinosaur species also were found here.

There is a one-mile trail with signs explaining the geology and the dinosaur discoveries.

Afternoon

After lunch, it’s time for the Dinosaur Journey Museum in Fruita, the top dinosaur museum in Western Colorado.

Exhibits display bones from dinosaurs such as Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus and Allosaurus and cast skeletons from such dinosaurs as the Velociraptor, Camarasaurus, Allosaurus and Stegosaurus.

Robotic reconstructions demonstrate how the Tyrannosaurus rex, Triceratops and Utahraptor roamed the Earth during the Cretaceous period.

The museum also has historic photos of dinosaur digs in the area dating back to 1900.

Optional side trips:

Near the Fruita Paleontological Area is Dinosaur Hill, where two-thirds of the skeleton of a 70-foot-long, 30-ton Apatosaurus was found in 1900.

About 10 miles east of Dinosaur Hill and just off Colorado 340 is Riggs Hill, site of the 1900 discovery of the first bones of a Brachiosaurus, a plant-eating dinosaur that for decades was thought to be the largest of the giant reptiles. Or you can take a longer but more scenic drive through the Colorado National Monument, with its red sandstone canyons and monoliths, on your way to Riggs Hill.

Places mentioned in this article
Dinosaur Journey Museum
Dinosaur Hill
Fruita Paleontological Area
Grand Junction
Rabbit Valley Natural Area and Mygatt-Moore Dinosaur Quarry
Riggs Hill dinosaur area

Other Colorado dinosaur sites

Denver area

The Denver area has both dinosaur digs and dinosaur museums, so we have prepared a one-day itinerary to see the best of what’s there: Itinerary: Hunting dinosaurs in the Denver area

Western Colorado

• Delta: The Delta County Historical Society Museum has a collection of dinosaur bones donated by rockhound Vivian Jones, who found the first bones of the Supersaurus and Torvosaurus from Dry Mesa in the early 1970s. About 4,000 bones from 17 different dinosaurs were excavated from Dry Mesa Quarry, but the site was closed in 2000.

• Dinosaur National Monument: More than 1,500 dinosaur fossils set in a wall of sandstone are featured in the new Quarry Exhibit Hall at Dinosaur National Monument. The hall protects the site where paleontologists excavated thousands of dinosaur bones before the monument was created in 1915.

South-Central Colorado

• Cañon City: Garden Park six miles north of the city was a major spot for dinosaur discoveries, with bones excavated there leading scientists to describe and name such key species as the Allosaurus, Diplodocus, Camarasaurus, Ceratosaurus, Haplocanthosaurus and Epanterias. The quarries have been closed, but there are plaques about the key sites and a 1/4-mile interpretive trail. The Dinosaur Depot Museum, located in a former firehouse in Cañon City, has a replica of the world’s most complete Stegosaurus skeleton, taken from Garden Park, and cast skulls from other dinosaurs.

• Colorado Springs area: The first Theiophytalia bone was discovered at the Garden of the Gods Park in 1886, but it took until 2008 to describe and name the new dinosaur. The park’s visitor center has a cast of the dinosaur’s skull. In Woodland Park, 30 miles northwest of Colorado Springs, the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center features dinosaur fossils from the Cretaceous period.

• La Junta: Picketwire Canyon south of La Junta has more than 1,300 dinosaur tracks preserved in a 1/4-mile stretch of stone, the largest set in North America. Dinosaurs passing through the area 150 million years ago pounded their tracks into the mud surrounding a lake that filled the Purgatoire Valley. Partial dinosaur skeletons also have been discovered.

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