No matter what age you are, from the cute, playful dinosaurs of The Land Before Time, to the truly terrifying killers of Jurassic Park, dinosaurs never get old. Dinosaurs may be extinct (unless you count birds), but that shouldn’t stop you from going out and seeing them today, and not just in the halls of big city natural history museums or the occasional big-screen product of Stephen Spielberg’s brain. Here are five top destinations in the western US where you can get up close and personal with dinosaurs, ranging from kid-friendly day trips to serious multi-day digs with the pros.
Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado & Utah
Straddling the Colorado-Utah state line, Dinosaur National Monument, founded in 1909, is home to one of the largest dinosaur fossil beds in North America. If you’re one with a soft spot for dinosaurs, but don’t actually want to covered head to toe with dust, this is a must-see destination (the beautiful scenery doesn’t hurt either). The Dinosaur Wall in the Quarry exhibit, re-opened to the public in 2011, features over 1,500 bones, some of which you can touch, and rangers offer guided tours including a Fossil Discovery Trail hike. For fans of river rafting, one of the best ways to experience the park is through the rivers that actually deposited the fossils that made this location famous, including the Green and Yampa rivers.
Ghost Ranch Museum of Paleontology, New Mexico
Better known as the home of artist Georgia O’Keeffe and the shooting locale for movies like Silverado and City Slickers, Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu is also a dinosaur destination perfect for visitors of all ages and levels of interests. The resident paleontologist is always at work excavating what has been found in the quarry located on the ranch, the location of several significant finds, including the 2009 discovery of the genus Tawa, which altered theories on the geographic origin of dinosaurs. As a guest you can watch the next discovery in action. Some activities are geared toward the excavation junkies; if this isn’t for you, never fear, just take a hike to the quarry site and do other activities like the dinosaur bone dig or plaster bone casting – perfect for kids – not to mention the great displays, which range from the complete Coelophysis skeleton to fossils of huge alligator-like reptiles.
Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park, Nevada
Say that name three times fast. Nestled just outside the middle of nowhere Nevada, adjacent to the ghost town of Berlin, Berlin-Ichthyosaur is primarily visited to get an up close look at Nevada’s official state fossils: Ichthyosaurs, ancient marine reptiles that swam in the warm waters that once covered what is now the Great Basin. Interestingly, these fifty-footers were reptiles like all other dinos, but they gave birth to live young. Weird, right? While in Berlin visiting these one of a kind fossils there is also camping and picnicking to be done, along with the historic Nevada ghost town to explore nearby.
If you want hands-on experience this is the place to go. Offered solely between May and August, the Museum of Western Colorado provides several dinosaur experiences including a half day Fruita Paleo dig where you assist paleontologists in digging up rare Jurassic crocodiles, mammals and one of the smallest dinosaurs in the world, the petite Fruitadens. If you’re really willing to get your hands dirty, the museum also offers a four to five day Cambrian trilobite or Moab expedition, where you help paleontologists log data on bone and footprint conditions, with the opportunity to keep some of what you find.
Judith River Dinosaur Institute, Montana
This six-day dig program at the Judith River Dinosaur Institute in Montana is only for those willing to take part in a serious endeavor. Only offered three times a year from July to August, each expedition has a mission to excavate a specimen with scientific value. In the past they have excavated pelvises, dorsal plates, and ribs of a stegosaurus, the last of which turned out to be over six feet long! In the upcoming years the institute is working on a new sauropod discovery. Want be in the thick of current Jurassic paleontological research? This is the place to go.
For more tips on exploring the West, see Lonely Planet's new Western USA travel guide