I had a couple of big epiphanies during this road trip but the biggest was that I really want to live in Utah. I honestly never thought much about the State before arriving there but was immediately captivated by its natural beauty and geological wonders. Or perhaps it simply stirred a semi-dormant aspect of my childhood.
Utah is a time capsule with a direct link to a group of animals that I absolutely adored as a kid and am still fascinated with today. Although it wasn’t the primary theme of this trip, there was never any doubt once we got there that we were firmly in the land of the dinosaurs…and neither of us were complaining. Seriously, how many of us Godzilla fans can’t tie our love of Japan’s most famous export to the real giants that once roamed the Earth? And how can we call ourselves animal lovers while completely ignoring the ones from our planet’s past?
David and I drove in from the Little Ale-Inn in Nevada and spent the night in St. George, Utah; not far from where they filmed 1977’s The Car. The next morning we left for Zion National Park when David spotted the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm. We immediately pulled over but it wasn’t slated to open for another couple of hours so we continued on to Zion. Although our original plans were to drive to Bryce Canyon National Park from there, we opted to backtrack to the museum first. And tracks, it would appear, was definitely the operative word.
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, if you find fossils on your own 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 built a museum right on old man Johnson’s farm (next to Prince’s Raspberry Beret…sorry I couldn’t resist) and now manage it themselves. For this, we dinosaur fans owe Dr. Johnson a great debt of gratitude!
This attraction was similar to the Dinosaur State Park in Connecticut we Daves covered in 2014 and the Nash Dinosaur Tracks in Massachusetts David covered the year before that. It’s been described by Paleontologist Dr. Jim Kirkland as, “the most significant dinosaur tracksite in western North America.” It’s scarce even by dinosaur track standards as many animal and plant fossils were also recovered here too. The conditions for fossilizing living matter and tracks are quite different from each other and rarely have scientists gotten such a complete representation of an extinct ecosystem.
The museum did feature fossils as well but, unlike the tracks, were mostly replicas. In truth, most of the fossil bones you see at any Natural History museum are fake since there are so few complete skeletons discovered and tacking up a piece of skull, a couple of vertebrae, and a toe bone isn’t exactly going to “wow” the visitors. To me, as long as the bones are scientifically accurate (cast from the real deal), I honestly don’t care.
Before getting to the tracks, there was 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 (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 it had, and would, inspire.
Another simple but effective touch was including a plastic model figure next to the bone replicas as an added visual. These past few years have actually been exciting times for prehistoric model (I’m avoiding the word “toy”) collectors thanks to companies like 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 the most recent dino discoveries. Considering we Daves grew up at a time when the same five dinosaurs were the only ones you ever saw, it’s been rather fun collecting a few ourselves.
Some tracks discovered likely belonged to Protosuchus, an early relative of crocodiles.
An early dinosaur also likely represented in the tracks was Megapnosaurus pronounced meh-GAP-no-SORE-us.
The museum offered some pretty rare replicas of dinosaurs not related to the tracks including 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. I really need to take a class on fossils!
Actually, since tracks can’t be directly tied to a specific animal, scientists give them the generic name Grallator to indicate tracks made by small, three-toed Therapods (two-legged meat-eaters) such as the Megapnosaurus seen above.
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.
While walking the outer perimeter of the tracks, I looked over the ledge and spotted something we Daves just love…a gift shop! I snapped a few pictures, catching one of volunteers off guard.
We were really glad that we drove back to see the museum and left for Bryce by noon.
While inside their visitor center, they had a fossil of another past resident of Utah, a menacing aquatic reptile called Tylosaurus.
That night we stayed in a small town near Bryce called Hatch. When David and I plan a road trip, we always try and pre-pay for our hotels via Hotels.com. It’s always a gamble trying to find something relatively cheap that isn’t a total dive and offers (if possible) a free continental breakfast. Trying to find something affordable near a National Park is a challange so I took a gamble and reserved a room in the nearby Hatch at a place called the Riverside Ranch & RV Park. It was like $100 a night but that was literally half of what the Bryce hotels would’ve cost us. When I went inside to register I was greeted by a kind, older man who walked over and shook my hand before offering to carry our bags to our room (we carried our own bags but he walked us over anyway). The rooms all had names on the door and ours was called the “Buffalo” room” (I’m sure they meant Bison). It was nice and clean and outside there was even a big fire pit that the man offered to light for us after it got dark.
Utah was very friendly! I thanked him for his stellar hospitality and told him I’d write something favorable about his place on Tripadvisor (and kept my promise).
The next day we’d be heading to Moab. This tourist town had a Dinosaur Attraction of its own and one we’d never forget!
Coming up…Going on a Paleo Safari!
Photos David Albaugh & Dave Fuentes