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Dinosaur Ridge: The Dinosaur
One of Coloradoís 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 itís
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.
"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,
thatís 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 wasnít until 1989 that
geologists and paleontologists endeavored to have the site designated as a
natural landmark, which they hoped would help preserve the fossils.
The 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
donít reveal the details of a dinosaur. Tracks donít 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 itís like
saying you can tell the breed by a dogís prints." Perhaps thatís 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.
"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, itís a real park filled with
long dead prehistoric creatures.
Some 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. Itís an ancient swamp, similar to what youíd 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. Itís 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.
On 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. Youíll then walk through time on the way back to the
visitorís center. As children scamper from dinosaur footprint to footprint, itís
a reminder that the youngest of Earthís 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;