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Since the dawn of his consciousness, my son has been a huge fan of dinosaurs. I mean, one of his first words was “qualus.” I believe it was his attempt to say Quetzalcoatlus, which is the scientific name for a giant pterosaur that roamed the Earth some 71 million years ago. I know, a pterosaur isn’t technically a dinosaur.
If you didn’t know that, then you haven’t yet spent enough time with your dino-loving kid. A few more years of watching Dino Dan and reading dinosaur textbooks every night at bedtime, and you too will learn the ways of parental paleontology. Due to my kid’s undying love of ancient extinct lizards, we have always searched high and low for anything we can find in the dino realm—dinosaur-themed TV shows, books, toys, stuffed dinosaurs, LEGO sets, dino dig kits (more on those later), dinosaur-themed bedding, you name it.
Intent on getting him out of the house whenever possible, we also constantly scout every inch in our vicinity for dinosaur-themed activities. There isn’t a natural history museum with a dinosaur exhibit in a city we have visited that we haven’t spent hours exploring.
Unexplored dinosaur country?
All that being said, I don’t know why it took us so long to figure out there’s a place called Dinosaur National Monument that spans 2 states, from Utah into Colorado. There’s also a highway called the Dinosaur Diamond Prehistoric Highway, a 512-mile loop you can traverse with a reliable car, a little patience, and, most of all, some pro-dinosaur attitudes.
If you’re in the US, you could spend days driving and visiting places like an impressive dinosaur bone quarry, a town actually called Dinosaur, the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum (which features a dinosaur garden full of life-sized dinosaur replicas), and a multitude of dinosaur exhibits, fossil museums, and dinosaur “dig sites.” It’s an incredible and beautiful area in its own right, but to a dinosaur lover, it’s a veritable Shangri-La.
Now, you may have noticed that I put the phrase “dig sites” in quotation marks, and you may be wondering why. Well, that’s because there are many places in the area that purport to be actual “dig sites” but are more along the lines of places where kids just dig for fake bones or where the real pits are purposefully stocked with dino bones so that each kid is guaranteed to find a bone on every trip. These are definitely cool, especially if your kid is 5 and doesn’t care how or where they find a bone as long as they find one.
I’m here to tell you that you can really and truly bring your kids to an authentic, working, and lucrative bone dig site replete with real paleontologists and geologists. These professionals will drive you up a mountainside and help you look for real dinosaur bones. Moreover, they will put your name in the dig site logbook if you unearth a bone that is of a certain size and intact enough to make it a viable discovery.
Let me tell you a bit about our experience digging for dinosaurs in this magical place.
A family’s quest for dinosaur bones
Where can you find dinosaur bones? We went on our fossil treasure hunt outside the boundaries of the National Dinosaur Monument. Even though I’m sure there are places just like it in that Dinosaur Diamond Highway Zone, this one is just a few hours away, and I recommend that you make it the centerpiece of your dinosaur activity-filled destination vacation. Plus, on the drive to Wyoming from Jensen, there are signs along the highway telling you what kinds of fossils were found on each mountainside along the route. It’s so cool.
Anyway, the place we went to is called the Wyoming Dinosaur Center, which is located in Thermopolis. This paleontological utopia is the absolute Stegosaurus’ knees. The building itself contains a museum, so right off the bat, you have a good 2 hours of discovery waiting for you. Some exhibits in the museum are made from bones discovered on the property.
As a matter of fact, one of the dinosaur skeletons on display was being constructed from bones that were still being uncovered at the site we were to dig in. If that doesn’t send you into prehistoric hysteria, then I’m sorry, but you’re not truly a fan.
When it comes to this level of dino discovery, you better be some kind of fan because I’ll tell you this—digging isn’t easy. It’s a long, hot day, but it’s so rewarding. When our expedition kicked off, we and another family were put in 4-wheel-drive vehicles and transported over bumpy and rutted dirt roads up into the wild mountains of Wyoming.
There, we were to spend the next 5-7 hours—in the heat, with nothing but a port-a-potty for bladder relief. As portable toilets go, it was a nice one, and the 4x4s were nothing if not reliable vehicles, but I just want to give you an idea of what you’d be getting into. I will say, though, that my son is 11, and we were with a 9-year-old and a 6-year-old, and all of them had a blast, never once complaining about the conditions. Their love of dinosaurs was so great that any discomforts barely registered with them. I’m just saying that for your kids’ happiness, you could probably suck it up for a bit.
Real dinosaur digging
Who digs up dinosaur bones? Our guides, Todd and Marisa, were interns at the facility at the time, but they were both multi-hyphenate scientists working in these coveted positions at the center for school credits towards their paleontology degrees. Digging with Todd is the closest you could ever get to digging with a Jurassic Park-type scientist without hiring an actor and providing him with the wardrobe. Marisa was so keen on geology that she could name the rock you were holding from 10 feet away with pinpoint accuracy.
These two were not only nice, but knowledgeable and eager to teach. And teach they did. I could have listened to either of them talk for hours about fossils and rock formations, but more importantly, so could my son.
I love puzzles. I can sit for hours looking for pieces and figuring out which colors go in which section. I find it so soothing. While I know not everyone feels this way, there are some of you like-minded weirdos out there. My wife is one, which is perhaps why we got married. Regardless, the only other exertion-free activity I’ve found to be as addicting is digging for dinosaur bones. I’m not joking.
Once I knew what to look for and how to use all of the primitive tools provided, I could have sat for another day and a half just brushing away debris and looking for signs of bone fragments. The hours felt like minutes. When we stopped to eat out packed lunch at the picnic table facing one of the greatest views of all time, I had forgotten that time existed and that I’d been starving due to lack of breakfast.
After lunch, we dug some more. We had been very productive all day, finding lots of little bones and fragments, but then something very cool happened—my wife and son uncovered a large rib bone. It was big enough to be a significant find, so Marisa got out the logbook and entered their names next to the description of the bone.
This was a rib bone from a Camarasaurus, so their discovery wouldn’t lead to a new dino species being named after them. However, when the bone itself is completely extracted, it will find its way back to the museum with the paperwork sporting their names. It will forever link them to this bone no matter where in the world it travels. To say this was cool is an understatement. This was the pinnacle of my son’s dinosaur-obsessed young life and of mine, too, given my life-long dino love.
We then traveled to another hillside where you could just move some dirt around with your foot and find fossils of bullet squids, clams, and other mollusks and ammonites. We have bags and bags of items that we found in this area alone, which was once at the bottom of an ancient ocean. Truly amazing.
As a capper, Todd and Marisa brought us back to the museum at the center and walked us through each exhibit, talking extensively about the history of Earth. Todd, an older gentleman, had more energy than I’ve ever seen in a human when he was talking about paleontology. After hours of digging with kids in the heat, he still wanted to keep teaching them. They even took us into the room where other scientists were working on cleaning and preserving all of the bones that had made it down from the dig sites, so we got the true behind-the-scenes experience.
Alas, all things must come to an end. After Todd forced himself to wrap up his talk, Marisa introduced us to the lab’s pet scorpions, and then we said our misty-eyed goodbyes, bought a few souvenirs from the gift shop, and left the Wyoming Dinosaur Center exhausted but fulfilled. It was an experience above and beyond our expectations, and we will never forget it.
If this sounds like something your kids would fancy, I highly recommend that you start looking into it now. The digs fill up quickly and getting there requires some advanced planning, but it is, without a doubt, worth it.
Things to remember when going on an actual dino dig
Here are some things to keep in mind if you want to go on an authentic dinosaur dig with your kids:
- Bring water, lots of it. They do provide plenty of water, but trust me, it’s best to have enough handy so that you won’t ever be without it.
- Find out what lunch they provide ahead of time if you have picky kids, which we do.
- Bring hats and neck coolers.
- Oh, and water—have I stressed that enough?
- Get there early. It takes a good 20 minutes to reach the dinosaur dig sites on the dirt roads from the center, and they won’t wait for you if you’re late. Plus, they can’t easily come back down to get you.
What if you can’t go to dinosaur or fossils dig sites for real dinosaur fossils?
Dinosaur dig kits
I know, not everyone can take time out of their lives to travel to Wyoming and spend 8 hours sweating and digging up dinosaur bones. Some people may not be able to get to a dinosaur excavation site in a safe or comfortable manner. It’s ok.
If you shudder at the thought of physically going on active dinosaur digs or think that your kids just won’t appreciate hours of work for small rewards, there are always some at-home dinosaur dig kits that you can check out.
Here are 2 dig kits for kids that we like:
1. National Geographic Mega Fossil Kit
This isn’t your run-of-the-mill fossil dig kit. The National Geographic Mega Fossil Dig Kit is full of authentic fossils (including dinosaur bones) that your kids will love to dig out of the soft clay using the tools provided.
Your child can feel like a real paleontologist when they read about their finds in the 16-page book included in the set. Even though they can dig in the comfort of your home, you should probably have them perform this activity outside to avoid all the dust and debris from the clay getting over your floors, furniture, and rugs.
Let your child dig around until the very last fossil is unearthed as you introduce them to more science concepts.
Trust me, this is an amazing kids’ fossil kit, but it is, I stress, messy.
2. National Geographic Dino Fossil Dig Kit
This dino dig kit, also from National Geographic, not only gives your child the opportunity to find a replica of a Tyrannosaurus Rex tooth (let’s face it, that’s what every dino-loving kid wants to find anyway), but it also includes dinosaur poop!
That’s right, it’s called coprolite, and your kids will love digging it out. Don’t worry, it’s a fossilized dino, but let’s face this, too—the only other thing a dino-obsessed youngster wants to find as much as a T. Rex tooth is dino poop. I’m not wrong!
A dream come true
Digging for dinosaur bones was a dream come true for my son. If we had really looked into the possibility when he was a bit younger, I think the impact would have been even greater.
So, do yourself a favor: if your kid knows more about sauropods than about the purpose of a front loader or the New England Patriots quarterback stepping in after Tom Brady, take him or her to one of these authentic dinosaur digs. Who knows, it could lead to a career in the field. It will definitely lead to an experience they will never forget.
If they end up hating it, then at least you won’t have a kid lecturing you daily on the creatures of the Cretaceous period, so win-win!