MOAB, UTAH -- A happy geological fluke has made Utah one of the world's best spots to hunt for dinosaurs. Throughout the rest of the United States, this fossil-rich layer of sedimentary rock is buried under prairies and forests. But in the badlands of Utah, the stratum rests near the surface, even along hiking trails.
I consulted Utah's top paleontologists on the best way to make a four-day road trip to see the state's dinosaur exhibits. They told me the best time to visit is now, during an era of astounding discoveries. Thanks to improved technology and exploding interest in the field, paleontologists are digging up new dinosaur species around the world at a rate of 10 to 20 each year.
Utah's quarries have been at the forefront of this trend, producing such discoveries as a strange duck-billed herbivore, a new horned quadruped, plus evidence that some dinosaurs fished.
Here are some great stops to make on a drive around Utah:
St. George Dinosaur Discovery Center, Johnson Farm: Nine years ago, Sheldon Johnson, a retired optometrist, was prepping land for resale when he spotted something in the soil. He uncovered thick mudstone slabs imprinted with thousands of dinosaur prints, including skin impressions and tracks from what paleontologists believe was the lanky, fast-moving coelophysis of the early Jurassic period.
Johnson notified paleontologists and city officials, who later built a museum around the 200-million-year-old impressions. Among the exhibits is the world's largest slab of stone containing dinosaur prints.
• The drive: From Las Vegas, drive two hours along Interstate 15.
Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry: In the 1930s, near Cleveland, about 30 miles south of Price, paleontologists uncovered the densest collection of fossils in the world -- more than 12,000 bones in one-quarter of an acre.
It looked like a mass grave, except for the fossilized dinosaur egg found in 1987.
• The drive: To reach the quarry from Cleveland, drive 12 miles along unpaved roads. A four-wheel drive vehicle is recommended.
Utah Field House of Natural History: In northeastern Utah, the visitors center at Dinosaur National Monument in Jensen is one of the state's premier fossil viewing sites. Unfortunately, the center was closed in 2006 due to structural problems. I headed instead to nearby Vernal to see the Utah Field House of Natural History.
The star of the museum is a 90-foot-long diplodocus skeleton. The field house was designed as an educational center, with hands-on exhibits for kids. A 15-minute movie explained the Morrison Formation -- the fossil-rich sedimentary layer that stretches 600,000 square miles from Canada to the American West.
• The drive: Drive about seven miles outside Vernal along U.S. 191 to Red Fleet State Park and dinosaur tracks on the northern shore of the lake. These prints, at the end of a 1.5-mile hike, are not as distinct as the impressions on Copper Ridge but are impressive.
Brigham Young University Earth Science Museum is a research center -- students behind a glass partition clean bones, and the dinosaur displays are magnificent. Highlights include the skeleton of a torvosaurus, a predator with teeth that hang like stalactites. One fossil under glass is the 4-foot-tall leg bone of a Utahraptor, the nasty larger cousin of the turkey-size velociraptor.
• The drive: Through Manti-La Sal National Forest along U.S. Highway 6.
The North American Museum of Ancient Life, Thanksgiving Point, brings the inosaur era to life, complete with spooky lighting and eerie sound effects. The 86,000-square-foot museum -- the world's largest collection of life-size dinosaur skeleton casts -- is part of a 700-acre commercial development that includes gardens, golf greens, shops, animal park, farmers market and more.
The supersaurus, one of the world's largest dinosaurs, stretches 110 feet from head to tail. The neck of the supersaurus is so long it extends into the next exhibit hall.