Wherever you go in the United States, you’re probably no more than a few hours away from a dinosaur skeleton. The “ruling reptiles” are virtually everywhere. From field sites to museum displays, the country is dotted with dinosaurs, and to coincide with Smithsonian magazine’s new Evotourism feature I have compiled a short “Dinotourism” subset of destinations for the Mesozoic-minded.
The Dinosaur Diamond: Utah and Colorado form the heart of dinosaur country. A scenic byway system called the Dinosaur Diamond links some of the top spots along the border of the two states. Among the highlights are the Allosaurus-rich bonebed at the Cleveland-Lloyd dinosaur quarry in the west; Dinosaur National Monument and the dinosaur-infested towns of Vernal and Dinosaur, Colorado to the north; Fruita, Colorado’s Dinosaur Journey Museum to the southeast; and dinosaur track sites around Moab, Utah to the south. Some of the points along the byway are also within a few hours of other dinosaur attractions around Salt Lake City and Denver, making the Dinosaur Diamond an especially handy system for anyone in want of a Jurassic road trip.
Dinosaur Park: Dinosaurs are not only found out West. Maryland recently set aside a small patch of exposed Cretaceous time in the form of Dinosaur Park in the town of Laurel. If you plan your trip right, you may even get to poke around the remaining fossil-bearing layers on open-house days. Don’t expect to find any complete dinosaurs, though—you need a sharp eye to detect the small, isolated bones and teeth that come out of this site.
American Museum of Natural History: No list of top dinosaur sites would be complete without the American Museum of Natural History. The Allosaurus vs. Barosaurus battle in the Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda and the fourth floor dinosaur halls are magnificent galleries of dinosaurian celebrities, made all the more rich by the imprint of history. Even though the dinosaur halls received an overhaul in the 1990s—including some chiropractic work of Tyrannosaurus and the correct head for Apatosaurus—many of the old specimens could not be moved or altered, and so they remain in the same positions as they were mounted in when famous paleontologists such as Barnum Brown and Henry Fairfield Osborn stomped around the place. The AMNH is also remarkable for placing their dinosaurs in an evolutionary context. If you follow the pathways through the exhibits carefully, you can see the big picture of dinosaur evolution.
Petrified Forest National Park: Although this park in eastern Arizona does not boast many dinosaurs, that is exactly what makes it significant. Petrified Forest National Park preserves a spectacular landscape of the Late Triassic time before dinosaurs became the dominant vertebrates on land. The slender, graceful theropod dinosaur Coelophysis has been found here, but most of the animals this creature lived alongside belonged to groups such as the crocodile-like phytosaurs, the “armadillodiles” called aetosaurs, and powerful, deep-skulled predators called “rauisuchians,” among others you can see at the park’s visitor centers. If you want to see the vestiges of the early days of the dinosaurs, this national park is one of the most beautiful places to go.
Museum of the Rockies: There are plenty of dinosaur exhibits in American museums large and small, but the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana sets itself apart by putting research and significant specimens up front. The skull of a juvenile Daspletosaurus, the “Wankel rex,” parts of “Big Al” and a complete growth series of Triceratops skulls are just a few of the remarkable displays in the museum’s dinosaur hall. Even better for hardcore dinosaur fans, the museum updates the plaques attached to the exhibits to highlight recently published research and even provides citations for those who want to track down the relevant papers when they get back home.
Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History: Yale University’s Peabody Museum of Natural History may initially seem to be a strange addition to this list. Their dinosaur hall is painfully drab and out of date (although a renovation is scheduled in the years to come). But what makes this place an essential stop for any dinosaur aficionado is Rudolph Zallinger’s Age of Reptiles mural. This fresco secco is a masterpiece of modern art and represents dinosaurs as paleontologists understood them during the mid-2oth century. (The often-reproduced smaller version on books and posters came from a draft Zallinger created for himself as a guide—the actual mural is different than the scaled-down reproductions you have seen before.) Even better, the dinosaur hall juxtaposes this outdated imagery with that which replaced it. At the back of the hall is a leaping Deinonychus—the sickle-clawed theropod described by Yale paleontologist John Ostrom in 1969 that helped spark the “Dinosaur Renaissance.” If you kneel down just right, you can see the predator against a background of Zallinger’s plodding dinosaurs.
St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm: Dinosaur bones are great, but tracks hold their own charms. After all, footprints represent the actual behavior of once-living animals, and the St. George dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm in southern Utah has an abundance of fossil tracks. Modeled after the working-museum model of Dinosaur National Monument, this site is a museum built over an early Jurassic track site covered by dinosaur footprints. Particular track specimens line a pathway around the museum, but visitors can also see the intact surface on which many footprints are still preserved.
Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County: What’s better than one Tyrannosaurus? A Tyrannosaurus trio. That’s the view taken by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County‘s new dinosaur exhibit, which presents a growth series of three Tyrannosaurus rex as its centerpiece. But that’s not all. The new exhibit mixes updated skeletal mounts of Carnotaurus, Triceratops and other dinosaurs with beautiful artwork and interactive displays. The top floor of the exhibit, in particular, features multiple displays on paleobiology and how paleontologists extract information about dinosaur lives from fossil bone. An additional perk—the museum has detailed dinosaur puppets that regularly put on shows and sometimes wander the museum halls. The adorable, fuzzy Tyrannosaurus juvenile alone is worth a visit.
Fernbank Museum of Natural History: During the past two decades, South America has yielded some of the most impressive dinosaur giants. The casts of two such creature form the centerpiece of Georgia’s Fernbank Museum of Natural History. Although reconstructions of the enormous theropod Giganotosaurus can be seen at other museums, the Fernbank is special in presenting the carnivore alongside a cast of the absolutely immense sauropod Argentinosaurus—perhaps the largest dinosaur of all time. If you want to have that feeling of being dwarfed by Mesozoic giants, this display is what you might be looking for.
Field Museum of Natural History: If Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History has one claim to dinosaurian fame, it is “Sue,” a nearly complete Tyrannosaurus rex. There’s no better place to get a feel for what the great Cretaceous tyrant was actually like. But don’t let Sue’s star power outshine the museum’s other dinosaurs. In addition to the big Brachiosaurus out front, the Field also places dinosaurs in the context of evolution in their Evolving Planet exhibition. Paleo-art fans will also find much to enjoy—the Field is home to some classic renderings of prehistoric life by the highly-skilled paleo-artist Charles R. Knight.
Dinosaur Provincial Park: This isn’t an American dinosaur site, but is important enough and close enough to squeeze its way into the list. Located in Alberta, Canada, the strata of Dinosaur Provincial Park has supplied many of the world’s major museums, including the AMNH, with spectacular dinosaur fossils and continues to yield more information about dinosaur biology, ecology and evolution near the end of their reign. This park is also within a few hours’ drive of the Royal Tyrrell Museum and the dinosaur-populated town of Drumheller, Alberta.
This is just a short list of a few highlights—there are plenty of other field sites and museums out there, including Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (a.k.a. The Evolution Museum). Do you have additional recommendations? Let us know in the comments.