Diggin' For Dinosaurs - Wyoming Dinosaur Center
Wyoming Dinosaur Center, Wyoming
I'll never forget that it was at least two hundred degrees outside the window of that blissfully air conditioned Econoline that day and it didn't matter whether it was F or C. It was impossibly hot. I've lived in Las Vegas and I never saw that city get that hot, so being this far north I half expected icicles in July. I was wrong.
A rooster-tail of dust rose from the road as the van sped through chalky gray and red hills. The van snaked its way through a working ranch, then rumbled across cattle guards outside the small town of the appropriately named Thermopolis, Wyoming. It clambered up a steep hill on what resembled a worn-out mule trail more than a road.
Across a dry wash, a horizontal strip of the opposite hillside looked like a cake after someone has dragged a finger across the frosting. Then the yellow earth-movers came into view, along with people crouching in the dirt, studying the ground.
It was a dinosaur dig. A big one.
In fact, these quarries and others on nearby bluffs had yielded hundreds of dinosaur bones of all kinds since digging began in 1993. More remains rise to the surface almost every day; there are nearly 50 fossil sites on the property that may take more than 150 years to excavate completely.
These dusty boneyards are owned and operated by the Wyoming Dinosaur Center, a cavernous warehouse standing above the Bighorn River on the edge of Thermopolis, where visitors gape at towering dinosaur skeletons. Few other places in the world let you watch workers pull bones from the ground, prepare them in a laboratory, and see them on display. It's one-stop shopping for dinosaurphiles.
The Wyoming Dinosaur Center got its start in 1993 when dinosaur enthusiast Dr. Burkhard Pohl and his partners spotted the red layers of the Morrison Formation rising in the hills outside Thermopolis. They knew the Morrison had yielded many prehistoric remains at famous locales such as Dinosaur National Monument and Como Bluff, so they got permission from the family that owned the land to prospect for fossils.
It wasn't long before dinosaur bones were practically tumbling out of the ground at their feet. They soon bought what they now call the Warm Springs Ranch so they could take up digging full-time (as full as Wyoming weather permits) and built the Dinosaur Center to house the steady stream of fossils emerging from the hills.
Painted dinosaur footprints lead down Thermopolis's main street, over the Bighorn River, and through a residential neighborhood to the Dinosaur Center.
Visitors first wind their way past displays tracing the evolution of life leading up to the time of the dinosaurs - a chronology that will be familiar to travelers who have arrived in Thermopolis via the Wind River Canyon, which in about 10 miles slices through a timeline of Earth history, including some of the oldest rocks on the planet. Fossils from around the world preserve primitive plants and simple marine organisms like the ancestors of today's starfish.