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Jurassic Lark

Plan in hand, dino buffs can follow this Western trail of ancient footprints and giant fossils to uncover traces of our prehistoric past.

October 19, 2008|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

MOAB, UTAHST. GEORGEMOAB CLEVELANDVERNAL PROVO LEHI — The bluffs and hills on the outskirts of this mountain biking hub were as red as a sunburn and barren, save for a few juniper trees and clumps of rabbit brush.

As I hiked up a gentle slope to a flat stretch of sandstone, I saw them -- bigger and more clearly defined than I had expected. Dinosaur tracks. I crouched by the gnarly three-toed prints and ran my fingers along the curve of the claw and pressed my palm inside the hubcap-size impression. It was a creepy feeling occupying the same spot as an SUV-sized lizard that could have devoured me like a squirming chicken McNugget.

When the giant meat eater, probably an allosaurus, walked across this spot about 150 million years ago, the landscape was vastly different, a tropical environment on the shores of a vast inland sea, lush with ferns, cycads, conifers and ginkgo trees. Here, the beast's feet sank into a sandbar. Over time, seismic forces buried, solidified and then pushed that sandbar to the surface, retaining in astonishing detail the prints of that long-extinct monster.

It's a happy geological fluke that made Utah one of the world's best spots to hunt for dinosaurs. Layers of sedimentary rock hold clues to the lives of prehistoric plants and animals.

Throughout much of the rest of the country, this fossil-rich layer is buried under prairies and forests. But not in the badlands of Utah, where the stratum rests near the surface, even along hiking trails like this one near Moab, a 10-hour drive from Los Angeles.

As a result, Utah's museums have easy access to a treasure trove of clues to the Earth's distant past.

With plans to see Utah's best dinosaur exhibits, I consulted several of its top paleontologists on the best way to make a four-day road trip across the Beehive State.

Dinosaur experts, almost giddy with excitement, told me now is the best time to visit, during an era of astounding discoveries. Thanks to improved research technology and an exploding interest in the field, paleontologists are digging up new dinosaur species around the world at a rate of 10 to 20 each year.

Utah's quarries have been at the forefront of this trend, producing such discoveries as a strange duck-billed herbivore, a new horned quadruped, plus evidence that some dinosaurs tried to fish.

So in early September, I drove the length and breadth of Utah -- 978 miles -- past red bluffs, towering hoodoos and multicolored mesas. Here are my favorite stops.

ST. GEORGE DINOSAUR DISCOVERY CENTER AT JOHNSON FARM

Eight years ago, Sheldon Johnson, a retired optometrist, was prepping a parcel of land for resale outside of St. George when he spotted something in the soil. About 20 feet below the surface he uncovered thick mudstone slabs imprinted with thousands of dinosaur prints, including skin impressions and tracks from what paleontologists believe was the lanky, fast-moving coelophysis of the early Jurassic period.

Instead of yanking the solid slabs from the ground, Johnson notified paleontologists and city officials, who later built a museum around the 200-million-year-old impressions. Among the exhibits is the world's largest single slab of stone containing dinosaur prints, a block weighing more than 26 tons.

From unearthed bones, paleontologists learn about the size, anatomy and diet of a dinosaur, among other characteristics. But from track prints, experts get clues on dinosaurs' movements -- how they sat, ran, turned and hunted. Andrew C. Milner, the city's paleontologist, believes scratch marks on several slabs suggest some dinosaurs swam in the shallows pursuing fish.

During a close look at a rare dinosaur skin impression, I got the frightening image of a lizard-skinned beast the size of a semi-truck stomping across the landscape.

The drive: I started in the heat of Las Vegas and drove two hours across mostly arid desert along Interstate 15 to St. George in the southwest corner of Utah.

The vitals: Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. Admission: $5 for adults, $2 for children. 2180 E. Riverside Drive, St. George; (435) 574-3466 or go to www.dinotrax.com.

Mill Canyon Dinosaur Trail and Copper Ridge Dinosaur Trackway

Hiking along a gravel path, I stopped to examine a sandstone shelf, the earth grainy and tinted rusty and brown from oxidation. I had driven 13 miles north of Moab to a hiking trail on U.S. Bureau of Land Management territory in Mill Canyon. And there, exposed to the mercy of the elements and curious visitors were dozens of dinosaur bones, black, gray and grainy, like wood. The disjointed bones jutting out of the shelf were part of the vertebrae of a 20-ton camasaurus, according to an interpretive sign near the bones. Nearby, I ran my hands over a diamond-shape bone embedded in rock -- the femur of an allosaurus, a smaller cousin of the terrible Tyrannosaurus rex.

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