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Dinosaur land: Hunting Utahraptor and his kin in modern-day Utah

C’mon in: A 20-foot Tyrannosaurus rex welcomes visitors to the Field House of Natural History in Vernal.
C’mon in: A 20-foot Tyrannosaurus rex welcomes visitors to the Field House of Natural History in Vernal. WASHINGTON POST

Gray-green plateaus and rock formations in a palette of fiery oranges and browns take up much of the landscape on the 400-mile drive from St. George, Utah, to Dinosaur National Monument. Arid and sprawling, it’s not the subtropical terrain that made up the late Mesozoic era, but that didn’t stop the 5-year-old aspiring paleontologist in the back seat from imagining a hungry allosaurus or herd of sauropods pounding across the land in search of dinner.

“We’re in dinosaur land,” Theo chanted repeatedly.

Indeed, we had gone to Utah on the trail of dinosaurs. My son’s fascination with the giant reptiles began at age 2; three years later, his bedtime stories still feature triceratops and stegosaurus, and the majority of his toy collection can be split into two categories: carnivores and herbivores.

So it seemed like a good time to expose him and his 9-year-old brother, Jack, to the real land of the allosaurus and brachiosaurus. Last spring, the kids, their dad, John, and I set out from Los Angeles to Utah on a seven-day road trip across a craggy, ever-changing landscape to Dinosaur National Monument, the mother ship for any enthusiast of the prehistoric beasts.

Home of the 30-foot-long meat-eating allosaurus (it’s the state fossil), Utah has some of the country’s richest fossil deposits and what scientists believe is the world’s largest concentration of bones of carnivorous dinosaurs. No one knows why they’re there, says Ken Carpenter, director of the Utah State University’s Eastern Prehistoric Museum in Price. “There’s something odd that attracted predators to that site, and then they died,” he said.

We managed to squeeze in a few modern-day attractions along our route, but ultimately we all ended up embracing the dinosaur culture right along with Theo. We learned about Andrew Carnegie’s role in the Gold Rush-like search for fossils that swept the country in the late 19th century, and found dinosaur links in such unexpected places as Pipe Spring National Monument near the Arizona border and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. On a lighter note, we picked up pterodactyl-hunting licenses at the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum and snapped photos of the giant pink brachiosaurus statue and other Flintstonesesque kitsch that marks Vernal, the town closest to Dinosaur National Monument.

All in all, it was a vacation full of unexpected discoveries you get only on a road trip that doesn’t always follow the map.

St. George, two hours north of Las Vegas, was our first stop. Home to a small museum, the town is known more as the gateway to Zion National Park than as rich dinosaur territory. Yet the Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm is a jackpot for anyone with even a passing interest in the prehistoric world. Built atop a sandstone slab that holds some of the oldest and best preserved dinosaur tracks in the world, it opened in 2008 after a local optometrist, Sheldon Johnson, discovered tracks as he was leveling a hill on his property. Research revealed an early Jurassic lakeside environment with hundreds of tracks left by meat eaters and swimmers, including the footprints and foreleg marks of a crouching dinosaur, one of only five such impressions ever found.

The on-site laboratory makes up the museum’s main room; to date, 3,500 tracks have been documented within a 10-acre area surrounding the museum. .

From St. George, it’s a swivelly hour-long drive to Pipe Spring National Monument, once a polygamy outpost for breakaway groups of the Mormon church. Millions of years earlier, the barren landscape also apparently attracted at least a few large theropods, and rangers are happy to guide visitors to their tracks, discovered in 1995, on the half-mile trail that loops behind the 1870s fortified ranch house.

At Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, rangers suggested following the unpaved Hole-in-the-Rock Road to Collet Top Road, where a washout leads to dinosaur tracks made along a white sandstone ridge about 77 million years ago.

Also worth a stop is nearby Devils Garden — a striking collection of hoodoolike rock formations and plateaus that couldn’t have been more inviting for a couple of car-weary kids. Theo got busy inventing prehistoric scenarios — “This cave is where the pterodactyl kept her babies safe” — as Jack leapt from the plateaus like a gazelle in the Serengeti.

It’s about 300 miles from Escalante to Vernal, but we pit-stopped in the middle at the Eastern Prehistoric Museum in Price. By today’s tech-savvy standards, the museum seems a bit understated (it’s looking for a larger space), but it is worth a look, especially when taken in context with the stark coal-mine landscape surrounding it.

As the desk clerk pointed out: “We are right in the heart of where all these fossils are found.” The Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry, home to the densest concentration of Jurassic-age bones ever found, is only 32 miles to the south, and the source of many of the museum’s displays. Its two main halls focus on eastern Utah paleontology and archeology, and there’s a quirky collection of prehistoric objects, from allosaurus dung to a triangular plate from a stegosaurus’s back with a bite taken out of it.

This is also one of the best places to learn about the sharp-clawed Utahraptor, on proud display in the lobby, and its link to the movie Jurassic Park. Discovered near Moab in 1991, the same year the film opened, the Utahraptor gave scientific underpinnings to the oversize raptors in the movie, which director Steven Spielberg had taken the creative liberty of calling velociraptors. “In reality, velociraptor is less than half the size of the dinosaurs depicted in Jurassic Park,” a caption gently informed us.

Quarry Hall at Dinosaur National Monument is newer and slicker than the Price museum, but we soon learned that its fate was once as precarious as a plant-eating stegosaurus amid a pack of predatory sauropods. The bentonite clay soil that yielded so many fossil finds for scientists turned out to be a disaster when it came to supporting buildings, creating a wobbly, fun-house-like environment for more than 40 years. The monument finally closed in 2006, reopening in 2011 with a stabilized visitors center and exhibit hall.

The two-story hall’s marquee exhibit is a 150-foot-long rock wall exposing more than 1,500 Jurassic-era bones unearthed from a nearby ancient riverbed. The digging started in 1909 by a team of paleontologists led by the Carnegie Museum’s Earl Douglass, on a mission to bring truckloads of ancient bones back to Pittsburgh. A nifty diagram helps identify many of the embedded items, which include the skulls, vertebrae and femurs of 15 types of sauropods. As the adults in the group crowded around the diagram, our pint-size paleontologist was more impressed by the femur of the 34-ton allosaurus that loomed over him.

Several more dinosaur fossils lie in their natural state on the 1.2-mile path that links Quarry Hall to the monument visitors center. We followed that, then hopped in the car and drove to the Colorado border to pick up Harpers Corner Drive, one of the few Park Service roads open in early spring.

Suddenly we were navigating the part of Dinosaur National Monument with no connection to dinosaurs. Marked by ridges, plateaus and snow-dusted canyons surrounding the Green and Yampa rivers, this segment was added to the monument in 1932 to protect it from development. John and I watched in quiet awe as the Switzerland-like scenery unfolded on all sides, while Jack saw the dwindling piles of snow and plotted one last snowball fight.

Our other backseat passenger, meanwhile, remained firmly immersed in the prehistoric world.

“We’re in dinosaur land,” Theo whispered. In his mind, we certainly were.

Utah’s land of dinosaurs

Information: www.utah.com/byways/dinosaur_diamond.htm

WHERE TO STAY

Best Western Dinosaur Inn, 251 E. Main St., Vernal; 435-789-2660; http://bestwesternutah.com/hotels/best-western-dinosaur-inn. Simple lodging with a playground and complimentary breakfast, within walking distance of restaurants and the Field House of Natural History Museum. Rooms from $105.

Rim Rock Inn, 2523 Highway 24 East, Torrey; 435-425-3398; www.therimrock.net. Surrounded by red rock cliffs and the Boulder Mountain Plateau, this pleasant roadside inn has an adjacent restaurant with a full bar and a sophisticated menu. Rooms from $64.

Chalet Motel, 664 E. St. George Blvd., St. George; 435-628-6272; www.chaletmotelstgeorge.com. Large units with kitchenettes on St. George’s main thoroughfare. Rooms from $49.

WHERE TO EAT

7-11 Ranch Restaurant, 77 E. Main St., Vernal; 435-789-1170; www.7-11ranchrestaurant.com. Chicken-fried steak, double chili burgers and a surprising number of salads, plus frisbee-size cinnamon rolls and a dinosaur-themed gift shop. Entrees start at $10.

Irmita’s, 490 West St. George Blvd., St. George; 435-628-4399; www.irmitas.com. Taqueria with a giant pot of beans simmering on the stove, a salsa bar and open-air patio. Closed Sunday. Platters from $6.

WHAT TO DO

Dinosaur National Monument, Maybell; 435-781-7700; www.nps.gov/dino. Quarry Exhibit Hall has a sheer rock wall embedded with more than 1,500 fossils. Ranger-led tours run hourly, more frequently in the summer. You can also camp and take guided whitewater rafting trips in season. Weather closes some roads in winter. $10 per car.

Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm, 2180 East Riverside Dr., St. George; 435-574-3466; www.dinosite.org. Scientists say this small museum, built atop a sandstone slab, holds some of the best preserved dinosaur tracks in the world. Adults $6, children ages 4 to 11, $3.

Utah State University Eastern Prehistoric Museum, 155 E. Main St., Price; 435-613-5060; www.usueastern.edu/museum. Two main halls focusing on eastern Utah paleontology and archeology. Adults $6, children ages 2 to 12, $3.

Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum, 496 E. Main St., Vernal; 435-789-3799; stateparks.utah.gov/park/utah-field-house-of-natural-history-state-park-museum. Sleek interactive exhibits, a fossil lab and a garden filled with life-size dinosaur replicas. Adults $7, children $3.50.

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