Dinosaur Ridge: The Dinosaur Highway

DinoRidgeboyOne of Colorado’s most unusual museums consists of a road sliced through a mountain where dinosaur footprints, bones and fossils of prehistoric insects or plants are etched by nature into the scraped rock walls. Children hug the giant footprints, as if to clutch the spirit of a prehistoric beast while their parents scan the shale for a glimpse of a fern or insect outline. Dinosaur Ridge draws families, and even foreign visitors, to this unusual site. Once a month, a ribbon of highway serves as a ramp up and over a small mountain.

The road is blocked from traffic one Saturday monthly from May through October. This is the route that dinosaurs once walked. The hogback ridge served as a beach on a vast inland sea that stretched farther than the eye can see, and dinosaurs migrated along its edge, leaving footprints in the sand. These days it’s a conduit for bicyclists or prehistory fans. Stations set up like bus stops along the road give meager shelter to dinosaur fans and the volunteer geologists who deliver science tips.

DinosaurRidgeSueHirschfeld012“This is what the earth once looked like,” says volunteer Sue Hirshfeld. To the novice viewer, the side of the mountain looks like the surface of Mars, hard and crusty, gray and bald as the dome of a building. Of course, that’s the point. Earth once was a far different place than it is now. “The prehistoric bones out here were discovered in 1877,” says Matt Carey, the educational operations director for Dinosaur Ridge. In the 1930s, a road cut a swath through the area and more treasures were revealed.

By the 1950s, fossil collectors began gouging out fossils that looked collectible and those pockets can be seen today. It wasn’t until 1989 that geologists and paleontologists endeavored to have the site designated as a natural landmark, which they hoped would help preserve the fossils.

DinosaurRidgeplantsoutofrocks042The roadside sprouts native plants like asters and sages that bloom through cracks in the rocks. And wide slices of earth reveal the soft sands, browns and grays of varying hues that catch light rays and change in color from early morning to dusk. Along the road are stations devoted to dinosaur footprints, or bulges where heavy dinosaur legs pushed through mud, or where bones still can be seen today. At the top of the ridge are breathtaking views–C-470 filled with cars streaming into Denver to the east, the home of Red Rocks Amphitheater, to the west. The ridge is a hogback formation of jagged rocks that once reminded pioneers of a bumpy spine similar in appearance to that of a razorback hog.

While tracks are the most spectacular and popular part of the ridge, tracks don’t reveal the details of a dinosaur. Tracks don’t readily identify a dinosaur, Matt says, “unless you find a pile of bones at the end. We can tell what family dinosaurs were part of, based on the size, but it’s like saying you can tell the breed by a dog’s prints.” Perhaps that’s the mystique of dinosaurs to the children who stare wide-eyed at the mother and baby footprints. Dinosaurs remain a mystery, announcing their earthly presence only by a faint print, massive and three-toed.

DinosaurRidgefootprints033“We call this the dinosaur freeway,” Matt says, “which is one of a couple found along the hogback along the Front Range. This was the edge of a seaway, an inland sea that stretched from Colorado to Missouri and the Gulf of Mexico to Canada. It was fairly shallow and was similar to the environment you might find in the Carolinas. We find evidence of similar plants. We were not right along the beach, but farther back, where plant life would be.”

Children who visit Dinosaur Ridge are looking for the remains of a t-rex or a triceratops, but the ridge is a little too old for those familiar giant beasts. The ridge was home to the iguanodon, a big plant eater who also has made an appearance in a Disney movie. And the tracks of the iguanodon can be found leading up a hill, a mother and baby, side by side. The ridge is in the era of the Jurassic, but instead of a movie experience, it’s a real park filled with long dead prehistoric creatures.

DinosaurRidgefourpeople001Some are tiny. Sue points to squiggly lines embedded in the rock. These are the imprints of ancient worms wiggling on the bottom of a shallow sea. “The more I stand here, the more I see,” Sue says. Carbonized bits of mangrove trees remain. It’s an ancient swamp, similar to what you’d see in Florida today. Sue, a retired college geology teacher, sees more and more detail as she examines the rock. We are standing at the most recent slice of time on the ridge. The west side is the oldest, but a stroll from west to east covers millions in years. “The ripple marks, the footprints, the sediments, the mud and sand. It’s such a great exposure of the rock as you walk along. Most of the time you get a slice of the birthday cake but here you get to look at the layers in some detail,” she says.

DinosaurRidgebicyclists011On a blistering hot day, it pays to take water with you. Bicyclists often breeze through, but a few stop, pulled in by a few words from a volunteer. “Bicyclists often take the time to check what we are doing,” Matt says. The ridge is best savored during a slow walk and, when the road is closed for the once-a-month event, for two dollars, a shuttle will take you to the oldest part of the ridge. You’ll then walk through time on the way back to the visitor’s center. As children scamper from dinosaur footprint to footprint, it’s a reminder that the youngest of Earth’s creatures remain spellbound glimpsing hints left behind by the oldest.

Helpful places and websites:

  • Dinosaur Ridge Visitors Center, 16831 West Alameda Parkway, Morrison, Colorado, 80465; 303-697-DINO; www.dinoridge.org
  • Denver Museum of Nature & Science, 2001 Colorado Boulevard, Denver, Colorado, 80205, 303-322-7009; www.dmns.org
  • Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, Florissant, Colorado, 80816-0185; 719-748-3253; www.nps.gov/flfo