Not many of us can say we make a living in dinosaurs. But even Sue Ann Bilbey--a geologist-paleontologist who heads a Utah dinosaur museum--got a thrill out of Steven Spielberg's recent "The Lost World: Jurassic Park." "I got to see a Pteranodon fly and land," she says excitedly.
The film may spark a new outbreak of "dinomania," which swept the country in 1993 when Spielberg's "Jurassic Park" debuted. There may well be a summer rush, as there was that year, to real-life dinosaur parks, quarries, museums and other fossil sites, by folks eager to learn more about the prehistoric creatures.
At Dinosaur National Monument, on the Colorado-Utah border, "our visitor count went up 125%," recalls curator David Whitman. "And we're kind of expecting it again." Set in a high desert canyon land cut by rivers of white-water rapids, the 211,000-acre park protects one of the world's largest repositories of dinosaur bones dating back to the Jurassic period 135 million years ago.
Indeed, tracing the trail of dinosaurs in America has become a popular family vacation choice in recent years. Roots & Wings Excursions, a Herndon, Va., travel firm, has put together a weeklong family tour in late July to Dinosaur Country, and at least two sites of dinosaur digs are inviting travelers to join in the search for bones or bone fragments. You might even be the one who uncovers the bones of a hitherto unknown type of dinosaur, as professionals continue to do.
"Kids love dinosaurs," says Bilbey, who is acting director of the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park in Vernal, which is just 20 miles from Dinosaur National Monument. "It's the monster concept. They look mean and ornery, but they're dead and gone."
In the Dinosaur Garden at Utah Field House, 18 life-size dinosaurs modeled in fiberglass give visitors a chance to compare the monsters. The latest addition, which arrived last month, is a replica of the newly discovered Utahraptor, a 17-foot-long meat-eater displaying, as Bilbey describes it, a "horrendous" claw and big teeth. "It's something that nightmares are made of." In "Jurassic Park," a similar raptor was a villain.
For the most part, the dinosaur trail in America leads to the Rocky Mountains--particularly to Utah, Colorado and Wyoming. These states, and others, are traced by the Morrison Formation, a massive layer of rock that has been the source of major dinosaur finds. But natural history museums throughout the country, including the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, also offer important dinosaur exhibits.
If "The Lost World," a fantasy about dinosaurs, has piqued your curiosity about the real thing, here are a few of the many ways and places to learn more about dinosaurs and about other prehistoric fossil life.
The Wyoming Dinosaur Center & Dig Sites in Thermopolis ( 864-2997) invites visitors to join in supervised digs--expect to be sifting soil on your hands and knees--or to watch paleontologists at work. The center operates a dinosaur museum in Thermopolis, but the Dig-for-a-Day site--or "bone bed"--is a 15-minute van ride into a remote area of low mountains. Apparently, this high desert cattle-grazing land once was a feeding place for meat-eating dinosaurs, who left behind the gnarled and scattered remains of their prey.
Only 10 participants a day are accepted on the supervised dig-for-a-day, so reservations are advised. The midsummer fee is $100 per person or $250 for a family of four. Or take a dig-site and museum tour: $14.50 for adults and $9 for children ages 5 to 14, seniors 60 and older, students and veterans. Kids under 5 are free. Kids' Digs, a special series of two-day digs for youngsters ages 8 to 13, is scheduled for Aug. 12 and 13. The cost is $40 per child, which includes lunch.
The Dinamation International Society in Fruita, Colo. ( 344-3466), introduces small groups of vacationers to the science of fossil hunting at its Colorado quarries and in Mexico, Argentina and Mongolia. The society also operates the Devils Canyon Science and Learning Center in Fruita, which features displays of robotic dinosaurs, mounted skeletons and a working dinosaur laboratory. And you can feel the earth move beneath your feet in a simulated earthquake demonstration.
The five-day Colorado study and quarry excavation program costs $875 per person (double occupancy), which includes lodgings in nearby Grand Junction and some meals. Dates are Aug. 2 and Aug. 16. Special five-day family programs are scheduled July 26 and Aug. 9. The price is $850 for adults and $575 for children ages 6 to 12.