Hike, Dig, Visit, Learn: Paleontology Abounds in Western Colorado

Photos by Tyler Logan

Photos by Tyler Logan

Two years ago, in the high-desert area known as Rabbit Valley, on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property approximately 30 miles northwest of Grand Junction, an 8-year-old boy from Florida found what appeared to be the jaw of an Apatosaurus while on a dinosaur dig with his grandmother. They had joined paleontologists from Museums of Western Colorado on one of the many excavations that take place there throughout the summer.

Over the next couple of months, as professional paleontologists dug deeper at the Mygatt-Moore Quarry they found the upper jaw connected to cheeks, a forehead, and the back of a head. “It was a complete skull of an Apatosaurus,” says Julie McHugh, curator of paleontology for the Museums of Western Colorado. “Skulls are very rare. It was the fourth known intact skull to be found of an Apatosaurus. The first was discovered in the 1860s.”

Western Colorado and eastern Utah is a rich region for finding dinosaur fossils, due to the fact that the right-aged rocks are exposed at the surface, and there is relatively little vegetation. The area’s dry climate makes the landscape perfect for preserving dinosaur tracks.

Each summer, professional and amateur paleontologists of all ages participate in digs at Mygatt-Moore quarry, where half-day and four-day excursions take place from mid-May to mid-August. “There are big dinosaurs at the site,” says McHugh, who also teaches geology and paleontology at Colorado Mesa University.

“We’ve been digging there for 34 years, and it’s still producing fossils. We will be there probably for a few more decades.”

Illustration by Brooke Safken

Illustration by Brooke Safken

The museum acquires special BLM permits to collect the fossils, which are cleaned, cataloged, and made available for exhibit at the museums’ Dinosaur Journey branch. (Note: It is a federal crime to do private collecting.) Scheduled digs for following summers are posted each fall on the museum’s website. “Many people purchase dig excursions for holiday gift-giving,” McHugh says. There are also museum-led hikes and river rafting trips for dinosaur fossil viewing.

Last year, paleontologists discovered fossils of two animals that had never before been found at the quarry – a lower-leg bone of a salamander, and a partial lower jaw with five teeth belonging to a Rhynchocephalian, a relative of a lizard.

In 2010, a large thigh bone of an Apatosaurus was found. “We pulled it out and discovered it was the largest, most complete Apatosaurus thigh bone ever found,” McHugh says. Excavators have uncovered fossils from the dawn of the mammals, who came along after the age of dinosaurs, she adds. “We’ve also found turtles and crocodiles.”

Located at 550 Jurassic Court in Fruita, Dinosaur Journey Museum is a regional paleontological

and geological museum exhibiting real fossils, cast skeletons, and robotic reconstructions of dinosaurs. There are more than 15,000 fossil specimens in its collections, exhibits, and displays featuring discoveries from around the region. There’s also a paleontology laboratory at the museum, where all the collected fossils end up. Visitors watch while scientists remove any remaining rock and sediment, glue cracked and broken fossils, and strengthen fragile specimens with glue or a support cradle made of plaster. The bones are then cataloged into the museum database before being added to museum collections, displayed, or made available for research.

In June, families are drawn to the museum’s Dinosaur Day, which features a range of kid-centered, hands-on activities. The Monster Mash in October is a popular Halloween event where children trick-or-treat inside the museum, with the dinosaurs. Throughout the year, Dinosaur Journey hosts various guest speakers who give presentations about their research.

Rabbit Valley is located in the McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area, one of three NCAs on the Western Slope with rich paleontological resources. The other two are Dominguez-Escalante and Gunnison Gorge, each located south of Grand Junction. Rob Gay is a paleontologist with Colorado Canyons Association (CCA), which works with the

BLM to help manage resources in the three NCAs.

As CCA education director, Gay provides opportunities for the public to learn about the area’s

paleontology. For example, on October 11, National Fossil Day hikes will take place at each of the NCAs, with Gay and BLM staff leading the hikes. Also in October is a guided tour of paleo sites in McInnis Canyons. The all-day excursion includes a visit to Dinosaur Hill in the morning, followed by lunch and a tour of Dinosaur Journey Museum before heading out to the Mygatt-Moore quarry. There are also hikes along the Trail Through Time in Rabbit Valley, and the Fruita Paleo Area, which features interpretive signs explaining the landscape from a paleontological


Over the summer, Gay led a two-day paleontology camp for middle school students, during which they learned basic excavation techniques. The region’s exposed rocks make it easy to find fossils, he says. “You just have to take a walk. There are 152-millionyear-old dinosaur bones out there.”

People are captivated by the big, majestic creatures, making paleontology an easy way to introduce people to science, Gay says. “Scientists learn about the earth’s past by studying why these species became extinct, and how life forms change with different sea levels, temperatures,” he explains. “It’s important for us to understand how human impacts on the planet affect animals and plants.”

Illustration by Brooke Safken

Illustration by Brooke Safken

Gay will lead a public dig of dinosaur tracks in Dominguez-Escalante NCA in the fall — “up high in the trees where it’s cool,” he says. “We’ll be digging them up, exposing the surface, and leaving them in place,” he says. The BLM will add interpretive signs and fencing around the site.

Some of the interpretive signs along trails and at Dinosaur Journey were created with the help of paleontological illustrator Brooke Safken. An adjunct professor at Colorado Mesa University, the 26-year-old Grand Junction native teaches digital illustration and digital painting and has been drawing dinosaurs since she was 2 years old. Her work appeared in promotional art for Jurassic World and can be found in museums, businesses, and private collections.

As artist-in-residence at Mesa County Public Library in 2017, Safken held open studio hours for community members to come and ask questions, watch presentations, and participate in guided art sessions. Safken showed visitors how she creates skeletal reconstructions by studying how muscle and tissue cover the bones — a process she describes as “complicated.” Participants kept their reconstructed dinosaur drawings.

Safken now offers occasional drawing sessions for all ages. “Boo at the Zoo” will take place October 20 at the Children’s Nature Center in Grand Junction. Safken will bring dinosaur models, talk about the work that she does, and answer questions about dinosaurs. “My personal mission is to educate people about the unique fossil heritage of the area,” she says.

To experience the region’s rich paleontological resources for yourself, and for information on current offerings, visit museumofwesternco.com/dinosaur-journey.

Sharon SullivanFeature