Back In Time: On the Trail of Dinosaurs, Ancient Mammals and More

vernal dinosaurland

Dinosaurland, Utah Field Museum of Natural History State Park, Vernal, Utah

brave ski mom logoWho doesn’t like fossils?

Whether you’re a girl or boy, young or old, there is something absolutely entrancing about taking a look back in time. From giant bones to tiny shells, fossils are a window into another world.

While adults may look at prehistoric fossils and contemplate their own insignificance in the ebb and flow of infinite time, kids look at fossils and just think “Hey, that’s cool!”

Fossils in National Parks and Monuments

The National Park Service does an outstanding job of preserving fossils at their parks and monuments. In addition to excellent Ranger and naturalist presentations at most parks, kids ages 5-12 can learn even more, in a hands-on way, through each park’s super fun Junior Ranger program.

junior ranger badges

Junior Ranger pins and patches. Note the Junior Paleontologist patches from Dinosaur National Monument.

While fossils have been discovered and are displayed in many parks, here are two national monuments dedicated to prehistoric discovery.

Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument, Idaho

We visited Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument while driving through Southern Idaho a few years ago. We were passing through the area, and looking for somewhere to stop for a picnic. Looking at a map, we found Hagerman Fossil Beds and made a beeline for the Visitors’ Center.

hagerman horse

Hagerman Horse. Photo courtesy NPS.

Inside the small center we found the Hagerman Horse, or equus simplicidens, the official Idaho state fossil as well as many other ice age mammals.

There are no dinosaurs at Hagerman Fossil Beds. Instead, the fossil record includes over 200 species of plants and animals including saber tooth cats, bears, sloths and camels.

The fossil beds are part of an active quarry and while you can’t visit them independently, seasonal ranger programs allow visitors to visit the beds and see many fossils.

In addition to fossils, the Visitors’ Center also has an exhibit about the nearby Minidoka Japanese Internment Camp at Minidoka National Historic Site, which is very moving and informative for adults and older children.

Dinosaur National Monument, Utah and Colorado

dinosaur national monumentDinosaur National Monument straddles the Colorado-Utah state line near the town of Vernal, Utah. The centerpiece of the Monument is the Carnegie Dinosaur Quarry Exhibit Hall. The hall is constructed over the quarry and visitors can see about 1,500 intact dinosaur bones. These bones are approximately 149 million years old, and yes, the Park Service will even let you touch some of them.

If you want to learn more, make time to visit Dinosaurland at the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park in nearby Vernal.

And while dinosaurs are front and center at Dinosaur National Monument, the park is also a popular destination for river rafting, hiking and viewing Native American petroglyphs.

dinosaur national monument

The Ice Age Hidden Under Colorado Snow

In October 2010, Jesse Steele was driving a bulldozer to excavate a pond near Snowmass, Colorado. When he lifted the tip of his blade and saw numerous large brown bones, he knew he’d better stop digging. Jesse had unearthed a mammoth.

With the Denver Museum of Nature and Science leading the excavation, a team of scientists eventually unearthed more than 4,800 fossils, ranging in size from tiny bits of prehistoric plants to large mammals including the American mastodon, giant bison, ground sloth, Columbian mammoth, and ancient deer, horse and camel.

Image courtesy Amiee White Beazley

Image courtesy Amiee White Beazley

In Snowmass, the Ice Age Discovery Center has exhibits and information geared toward grade school kids.

And to learn more at home, check out the book Snowmastdon! Snow Day Adventure by Amiee White Beazley. This adorable picture book includes facts about Ice Age and the animals of that era in a lovely story about friendship.


Originally published as an Adventure Moms post at Women’s Adventure Magazine. 

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