I have always loved prehistoric fossils, and I have visited a whole lot of museums in North America to see them. Occasionally I see lists from travel sites or newspapers that offer advice on which places people should visit to see dinosaurs, or something like that. The problem: it’s usually obvious that the authors of those pieces have never been to the majority of the museums they are writing about, and certainly haven’t been to the majority of natural history museums where dinosaurs are displayed. I have had the fortune to work in one of the museums in the Top 50 when I was in college, and I have visited almost all of the museums on the list below. The rankings, of course, are subjective. My main goal in making this list is to tell people who are interested in dinosaurs about museums with great displays that they should consider visiting.
A couple things about the rankings: Keep in mind these rankings are about the dinosaurs/prehistoric animals that are on display…not the number of fossils in their collections. Some major museums have incredible collections but not much display space, while others largely have display space for casts of dinosaur fossils but very few important fossils in their collection. And most museums fall somewhere in between these extremes. I tend to elevate museums in the rankings that have (1) lively displays, (2) active paleontology research programs, (3) extensive collections, (4) unique or important fossils, and (5) a breadth of coverage of prehistoric animals. Some museums have great dinosaurs but no Cenozoic mammals, for example. Others have wonderful sea reptile collections but few dinosaurs, or pterosaurs. Still others have great Cenozoic displays but few dinosaurs. Most museums fall somewhere in a range of coverage, but I tend to reward those that have the greatest breadth of coverage.
Is there room for argument about these rankings? Of course! I certainly struggled with the placement of some museums. But if taken in larger tiers, the rankings would fall pretty closely in line with most experts. That is, the top twelve or fifteen museums might fall in a different order for someone else, but those top museums are going to still be very high up on the list for anyone who knows natural history museums. The same is true for those ranked in the twenties and thirties, and those ranked toward the lower end of the list. Keep in mind, though, that EVERY SINGLE ONE of these museums is terrific in my mind, and well worth a visit. I truly love all the museums on this list–if I didn’t I wouldn’t have taken the time to visit them!
I hope when the pandemic comes to an end and life returns to normal, that people in North America will get out to see some of these great museums. Dinosaur (and other prehistoric creatures) fans are very fortunate on this continent–we have a tremendous number of great fossil museums, all of which offer something exciting for visitors.
First, an honorable mention to some of the museums that almost made the Top 50 list. Every honorable mention museum has some nice fossils on display. If you want to learn about the Triassic dinosaur Coelophysis, you’ll want to get to the Ruth Hall Museum at Ghost Ranch. If you want to see the largest Tyrannosaurus yet discovered, make a trip up to Eastend, Saskatchewan and check out the Royal Saskatchewan Museum’s T-rex Discovery Centre. Do you like terrific pterosaurs? The University of Colorado Museum of Natural History has one of the most complete Pteranodon specimens. How about fossils of two large male mammoths locked in a fight to the death? Check out the University of Nebraska State Museum Trailside Museum. And I could go on for each of these, where honorable mention is indeed honorable.
Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order)
Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre, Morden, Manitoba, Canada
Carter County Museum, Ekalaka, MT
Dinosaur Discovery Gallery, Tumbler Ridge, British Columbia, Canada
Fort Peck Interpretive Center, Fort Peck MT
Garfield County Museum, Jordan, MT
Great Plains Dinosaur Museum, Malta, MT
Morrison Museum of Natural History, Morrison, CO
Museum of World Treasures, Wichita, KS
Royal Gorge Dinosaur Experience, Cañon City, CO
Royal Saskatchewan Museum T. rex Discovery Centre, Eastend, Saskatchewan, Canada
Ruth Hall Museum of Paleontology at Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu, NM
San Diego Natural History Museum, San Diego, CA
Tate Geological Museum, Casper College, Casper, WY
Two Medicine Dinosaur Center, Bynum, MT
University of Colorado Museum of Natural History, Boulder, CO
University of Nebraska State Museum Trailside Museum, Crawford, NE
University of Wisconsin Geology Museum, Madison, WI
Utah Fieldhouse of Natural History, Vernal, UT
Virginia Museum of Natural History, Martinsville, VA
Now for the Top 50. All of these museums have great collections or displays, or both. A bunch of them are truly extraordinary. All of them will excite fans of prehistoric creatures, particularly children.
The Top 50
(50) Fryxell Geology Museum, Augustana College, Rock Island, IL
Highlights: There are quite a few highlights at this small museum, but my favorite has to be one of the “coolest” dinosaurs, the Antarctic carnivore Cryolophosaurus. Augustana professor Dr. William Hammer was part of the team that excavated this now-popular dinosaur from a cliff only 600 kilometers from the south pole. Now its cast stands at the entrance to the Fryxell Geology Museum. Other highlights include a nice Platecarpus, a Cretaceous mosasaur.
(49) University of Alberta Museum of Paleontology, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
Highlights: This museum, tucked away in the Earth Sciences Building on the University of Alberta campus, houses a lot of “bits and bobs,” various bones and small specimens of animals throughout prehistory. Visitors are greeted near the entrance by the fossil skull of the famous Devonian fish Dunkleosteus. There are a few fairly complete fossils, including one of the most complete pterosaurs yet discovered–a gorgeous Geosternbergia. There is also a Corythosaurus (albeit displayed with a Parasaurolophus pelvis), and a terrific little fossil of Stegoceras. The beautiful skull of the tyrannosaur Gorgosaurus is one of my favorites.
(48) Dinosaur Discovery Museum, Kenosha, WI
Highlights: The Dinosaur Discover Museum is affiliated with the Carthage Institute of Paleontology, part of Carthage College in Kenosha. Well-known paleontologist Dr. Thomas Carr runs the Carthage Institute as well as the museum. The DDM’s exclusive focus is on the connection between modern birds and carnivorous dinosaurs: the many specimens on display help tell that story quite effectively. Located in a beautiful building that once housed the Kenosha Public Museum, the DDM is packed with dinosaurs–there must have been at least twenty or so in one room, including several large dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus, Allosaurus, Acrocanthosaurus, and Suchomimus.
(47) Harvard Museum of Natural History, Cambridge, MA
Highlights: There is one particularly spectacular fossil at the Harvard Museum–the giant sea reptile Kronosaurus, but it is worth the visit all by itself. The massive skull itself is at least seven feet long. Not that many fossils make my jaw drop, but this one did. Other specimens of note include a nice Edaphosaurus, a fairly large Pteranodon, and a Dimetrodon. I also enjoyed the series of ancient horses diplayed in their Cenozoic mammals section.
(46) McWane Science Center, Birmingham, AL
Highlights: Most of the natural history museums in North America focus on the dinosaurs of Laramidia, the western of the two large land-masses of North America that were split by the Western Interior Seaway during the Cretaceous period. The McWane Science Center focuses on dinosaurs that have been found in the south, and after my visit I came away with an appreciation for the dinosaurs of Appalachia. The most interesting dinosaur is the tyrannosaur Appalachiasaurus, and the display is very nice, it is shown stalking a juvenile nodosaur. There is also a nice collection of sea creatures, many of which have been found in Alabama and neighboring states.
(45) Fernbank Museum of Natural Sciences, Atlanta, GA
There are a lot of museums with more dinosaurs on display and active paleontological research laboratories that could be in this spot, but the one thing that puts the Fernbank here is their bold “Giants of the Mesozoic” display featuring casts of two Argentinian dinosaurs not typically seen in North American museums: the giant carnivore Giganotosaurus and one of the largest sauropods to ever walk the earth Argentinosaurus. There are nice displays of the pterosaurs Pterodaustro and Anhanguera flying overhead the exhibit which add a nice touch. Children will also enjoy the sculpture garden featuring a family of Lophorhothon, a hadrosaur from the Appalachian side of the Western Interior Seaway during the Mesozoic era.
(44) South Dakota School of Mines Museum of Geology, Rapid City, SD
Highlights: There are some really nice fossils at this relatively small museum. The highlight for me is the beautiful elasmosaur Styxosaurus, which shares the central position in the main hall with the large Cretaceous mosasaur Tylosaurus. Another ocean dweller from this time period is displayed on the wall, a nice specimen of the bony fish Xiphactinus. In addition, there is a nice geology section in the museum, and quite a few fossils from Cenozoic mammals including the beautiful brontothere Megacerops.
(43) Florida Museum of Natural History, Gainesville, FL
Highlights: Fossils from the state of Florida are the focus of the exhibit at the Florida Museum, and it is particularly well-done. Organized across time periods starting at the beginning of the Cenozoic Era, the exhibit features a number of great displays including a giant sloth and a mammoth. Quite a few fossil skeletons of ancient mammals are displayed in life-like poses, including the poor animal (oreodont?) that is about to be attacked by a giant terror bird. My favorite display might be the row of shark jaws. They range in size from quite small (although still scary) to the largest known shark, the giant Megalodon (Otudus megalodon) with 9-foot-wide jaws!
(42) Museum at the Black Hills Institute, Hill City, SD
No museum packs more punch per square foot than the Museum at the Black Hills Institute in Hill City, SD. Made famous by the legal dispute over “Sue” the T. rex back in the 1990’s, the Black Hills Institute museum is a small display site for the many discoveries of Peter Larson and his team at the Black Hills Institute. While “Sue” now resides in Chicago, much to the chagrin of just about everyone in Hill City, the museum has long displayed their own beautiful and important fossil Tyrannosaurus rex “Stan.” “Stan” is well-known outside of Hill City, his fossil cast is on display in numerous museums across the world. The actual fossil was recently sold, but “Stan” will live on forever with all his casts. In fact there are several T. rex skulls on display hanging on the walls of this small museum. Numerous other fossils more than fill the rest of the space, and even though it is small be prepared to spend at least a couple of hours in the building if you want to see everything. My sons particularly enjoyed the ancient, giant crocodile-like Deinosuchus and Sarchosuchus skulls, they are huge and very menacing!
(41) Museum of Paleontology, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT
This wonderful but small museum is located in a modest building across the street from the large BYU football stadium. While there is not a lot of room for display, the Museum of Paleontology really packs in some nice fossils. My favorite is probably the menacing Torvosaurus, one of the few on display anywhere. Other highlights include a nice Camarasaurus, the Utah state fossil Allosaurus, and some interesting parts of other dinosaurs, the majority found in the state of Utah. The Utahraptor foot is particularly memorable! One nice feature of the museum is a large window in which visitors can watch researchers cleaning and preparing fossils–and BYU is sitting on a large treasure trove of them found over the years by reknowned paleontologist Jim Jensen and his research teams. You won’t need much more than an hour here to see everything on display, but this museum is certainly worth your time.
(40) The Burke Museum, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
Highlights: The third museum on this list to have been reopened in 2019 after an extensive renovation (along with the Smithsonian & University of Michigan museums), the new Burke Museum has a lot to offer for dinosaur fans. A recently discovered large Tyrannosaurus skull is now on display, and full mounts of Jurassic stars Allosaurus and Stegosaurus are right nearby. There are also some beautiful mounts of Ice Age favorites such as a Columbian mammoth, the sabertooth Smilodon, and a huge ground sloth. There are quite a few fossils to see at the Burke, including a great collection of ammonites.
(39) Cincinnati Museum of Natural History and Science, Cincinnati, OH
Highlights: In the last decade, the CMNHS moved to its current location, the spectacular art deco Union Terminal train station in downtown Cincinnati. To go along with the amazing new space, the museum has acquired some amazing new fossils. A particular favorite of the museum is the one that a CMNHS team excavated and mounted, a largely complete specimen of the rare Jurassic sauropod Galeamopus. While the museum has several new fossil mounts on display, there is still room for a lot of growth here in the decades to come. Other favorites include three really nice, fairly well-known carnivores: Torvosaurus, Allosaurus, and Daspletosaurus. As the museum expands and adds more fossils, I expect it to rise up the rankings. The building itself is worth the visit, but the dinosaur hall is great and holds tremendous potential.
(38) Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology, Claremont, CA
Highlights: There are several dinosaur mounts on display at this interesting museum. The Alf museum is affiliated with The Webb Schools, a consortium of high schools in Claremont. In fact, the museum is the only accredited natural history museum on a high school campus. There is a nice Allosaurus on display, but my favorite dinosaur there is the baby Parasaurolophus nicknamed “Joe.” This important fossil was discovered by a high school student during a Raymond M. Alf Museum expedition to Utah in 2009. Another important display at the Alf Museum is the extensive collection of fossilized tracks. Ancient reptile, dinosaur, and mammal tracks, among others, can be found in the lower floor of the museum.
(37) Texas Memorial Museum, Austin, TX
Highlights: The Texas Memorial Museum has an extensive collection of Permian fossils, as one might expect given their abundance in the state. Dimetrodon, Edaphosaurus, and Eryops are represented along with others. My favorite exhibit at the museum is one of the nicest mosasaurs I have seen: a huge Mosasaurus referred to as the “Onion Creek Mosasaurus“, discovered in 1935 not far from Austin. It is indeed impressive, and at 30′ long is one of the largest non-Tylosaurus mosasaurs I have seen displayed. From 1940 until 2004, a large slab of dinosaur footprints on a trackway from the Paluxy River in Glen Rose, TX was displayed in a separate building next to the Texas Memorial Museum. Unfortunately, the building was not ideal for preserving the tracks and in order to save them it had to be closed. The trackway is eventually going to make its way back into the museum, hopefully within the next few years. The Texas Memorial Museum displays several dinosaurs, and parts of dinosaurs with a particular focus on Texas dinosaurs. There is a good-sized section on Cenozoic mammals, and another star of the museum hangs from the ceiling: the giant pterosaur Quetzalcoatlus, originally discovered in Big Bend National Park by a University of Texas team.
(36) Beneski Museum of Natural History, Amherst College, Amherst, MA
Highlights: The world’s largest collection of dinosaur tracks is found at the Beneski Museum, collected by pioneering geologist and early ichnologist Edward Hitchcock. The Hitchcock collection is amazing and worth a visit on its own. In addition to the tracks, though, there are also a few dinosaur fossils, including a great specimen of Dryosaurus. A fantastic collection of prehistoric mammals are on display as well, many coming from Amherst College expeditions to Wyoming, South Dakota, and Nebraska during the first golden age of paleontology.
(35) University of Wyoming Geological Museum, Laramie, WY
Highlights: There are some terrific fossils to see at the UW Geological Museum and the first one is impossible to miss–a beautiful Brontosaurus. Originally a Brontosaurus when discovered, then reclassified as an Apatosaurus, this important fossil was recently re-described as a species of the now-reclaimed genus Brontosaurus. Displayed in the center of the main hall, it shares the space with another great fossil, “Big Al.” Big Al is an Allosaurus that suffered numerous, visible injuries during its life. There are a number of other really nice fossils in the museum including mosasaurs, pterosaurs, and other dinosaurs, although a favorite for my sons was the terror bird, Gastornis.
(34) Burpee Museum of Natural History, Rockford, IL
Highlights: The Burpee Museum of Natural History in Rockford, Illinois is home to quite a few interesting exhibits, but two fascinating and important dinosaur fossils really stand out: the most complete juvenile Tyrannosaurus, “Jane,” and the most complete sub-adult Triceratops, “Homer.” The exhibits crafted around these two great fossils are world-class and well worth a visit. Each occupies a separate room, and each is exhibited near other, related dinosaurs. The museum does a great job highlighting their special fossils–just about every museum could learn some things from how the Burpee displays them.
(33) Museum of Western Colorado’s Dinosaur Journey Museum, Fruita, CO
Highlights: The Fruita/Grand Junction area has produced numerous fossil finds throughout history, including Fruitadens, one of the smallest herbivores yet discovered. The Dinosaur Journey Museum showcases numerous Jurassic fossils, including favorites such as Allosaurus and Stegosaurus. My children were thrilled with a surprise spritz of water from one of the animatronic dinosaurs–I won’t spoil the surprise.
(32) North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Raleigh, NC
Highlights: One of the most dazzling dinosaur mounts in North America can be found in the rotunda of the North Carolina Museum. It is an Acrocranthosaurus, the great predator of the Early Cretaceous period shown stalking a large sauropod while pterosaurs fly overhead. It’s a great display. There are other dinosaurs to be found in the museum, as well as some fossil mammals and pterosaurs, but the Acro is certainly the star attraction. As great as the Acrocanthosaurus display is, it is possible that an even more dynamic set of fossils will be coming soon to the NCMNS. In November 2020 it was announced that the museum will display the famous “Dueling Dinosaurs” fossils that have been known for quite a few years to paleontologists but soon will (finally!) be accessible to the public. The “dueling dinos” appears to be a scene in which two complete fossil skeletons of a young Tyrannosaurus and a young ceratopsian (Triceratops?) are locked in battle when both were killed and buried by a natural disaster. The NCMNS is a really good museum to visit now; with the resources they have put into building a top paleontology program, I fully expect this museum to continue to rise in the rankings and become a truly great place to see dinosaurs.
(31) Arizona Museum of Natural History
Highlights: The Arizona Museum features one of the few galleries in North America devoted strictly to pterosaurs, and it is very impressive. Although many of the displays are casts, there are some notable fossils among them, including a rare juvenile Pteranodon. Some terrific dinosaur mounts include a large Tarbosaurus (or Tyrannosaurus bataar) and several ceratopsians, including Psittacosaurus, Protoceratops, Zuniceratops, Triceratops, and Pentaceratops.
(30) Utah State University Eastern Prehistoric Museum, Price, UT
Highlights: At the USUE Prehistoric Museum, the highlights start quickly–visitors are immediately greeted by an amazing mount of a Utahraptor. It’s one of my very favorite fossil displays. Once inside, there are plenty of other great fossils to see. On the left is a room featuring some Cenezoic mounts, including Arctodus (the short-faced bear), Smilodon, and a wonderful mammoth known as the “Huntington Mammoth.” A great collection of dinosaur mounts can be found on the other side of the museum. Stegosaurus and Allosaurus highlight the Jurassic collection in the main display area on the first floor. I was even more excited about some of the less-frequently displayed dinosaurs on the second floor which include the hadrosaur Prosaurolophus, the ceratopsian Chasmosaurus, and a couple of rare nodosaurs: Animantarx, and the larger Peloroplites. If you’re in Utah and love dinosaurs it’s well worth your time to make a side trip to Price to see this great museum.
(29) Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum, Wembley, Alberta, Canada
Highlights: This is the newest museum on the list: it opened to the public in 2015. Named after the famous paleontologist Dr. Philip Currie, the museum was created near the prolific dinosaur bonebed called Pipestone Creek where a wide variety of dinosaurs, sea reptiles, and pterosaurs have been discovered. The museum displays several dinosaurs that are rarely on display, such as Gasosaurus. The Gorgosaurus is really nice, and the numerous large sea reptiles, fish, and pterosaurs overhead really help fill the large space. My favorite highlight of the museum is the dinosaur display that has a bubble in the middle where children can go and pop up to see the exhibit from inside the middle of the display!
(28) Sternberg Museum of Natural History, Fort Hays State University, Hays, KS
Highlights: The Sternberg Museum specializes in fossils from the Western Interior Seaway which covered most of Kansas during the Cretaceous period. The museum features some terrific fossils. Among them are sea reptiles like Dolichorhynchops and Tylosaurus, ancient turtles and the most famous specimen of the huge Cretaceous fish Xiphactinus. There are several examples of Xiphactinus fossils containing another fish inside its belly, but none is as large or visible as the one at the Sternberg Museum. They even have a display model of George Sternberg excavating the specimen! Several pterosaurs are also featured here, including the beautiful holotype fossil of Geosternbergia.
(27) Perot Museum of Nature and Science, Dallas, TX
Highlights: There are some really nice fossils to see in this beautiful and relatively new building in downtown Dallas. The largest display features the Texas sauropod Alamosaurus fending off a Tyrannosaurus. Other dinosaur mounts reflect the museum’s research in Alaska: a Pachyrhinosaurus, a Troodon, and the world’s only display of the medium-sized tyrannosaur Nanuqsaurus. There are several nice sea reptiles and a small collection of Cenozoic mammals as well.
(26) Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA
Highlights: America’s first natural history museum, the Academy of Natural Sciences went through some down years but has bounced back and is now in partnership with Drexel University. The very first dinosaur bones found in North America are mounted here (a Hadrosaurus), and a beautiful Elasmosaurus (on which Philadelphia native and legendary paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope once famously put the head on the wrong end) hangs above the lobby. There are several nice dinosaur mounts and a very good collection of ancient sea reptiles, fish, and turtles.
(25) La Brea Tar Pits Museum, Los Angeles, CA
Highlights: While you won’t find dinosaurs at the La Brea Tar Pits Museum (or in the tar pits themselves, for that matter), you will find one of North America’s most outstanding collections of fossils from the Pleistocene epoch. Thousands of bones from hundreds of individual dire wolves and sabertooth “cats” have been recovered. The wall featuring hundreds of dire wolf skulls is particularly memorable. Large animals such as mammoths, horses, and camels found in the tar pits are also displayed. Other super predators recovered from the tar pits are an extinct American lion and the giant short-faced bear Arctodus. While the museum represents a relatively small time period in the prehistoric world (animals were trapped from about 40,000 years ago up until about 10,000 years ago), it has provided an incredible window into the flora and fauna of the Pleistocene epoch in North America.
(24) University of Michigan Museum of Natural History, Ann Arbor, MI
Highlights: The great collection in Ann Arbor is now housed in a beautiful, airy new building, opened in 2019. The museum features a little bit of everything, including ancient reptiles, prehistoric fish, pterosaurs, dinosaurs, and prehistoric mammals. As soon as visitors enter, they are treated to the display of a wonderful pair of mastodons (one male and one female) and a very rare mastodon trackway. Among the dinosaurs, a highlight is the new mount of Majungasaurus, the large carnivore from Madagascar. The museum also exhibits one of the most complete displays of ancient whales and their evolution, including full skeletal mounts of Dorudon and Basilosaurus.
(23) University of Kansas Natural History Museum, Lawrence, KS
Highlights: While there are some dinosaurs at the KU Museum, the real stars here are the wonderful collection of fossil sea reptiles, fish, and pterosaurs. Many fossils from the Western Interior Seaway have been found in Kansas, and the University displays some terrific specimens, particularly the enormous Tylosaurus that hangs above the lobby as well as one of the great Pteranodon fossils I have seen. There is also a nice collection of prehistoric mammals on display which includes a terrific collection of sabertooth cat skulls (including Smilodon and Barbourofelis). The University is working to collect more of a Tyrannosaurus that a KU field team uncovered, hoping to put that amazing dinosaur on display in the coming years. But there is one interesting part of a Tyrannosaurus already on display in the museum: the first bone ever found of a T. rex–a toe bone discovered by KU alum and legendary paleontologist Barnum Brown!
(22) Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, Indianapolis, IN
Highlights: The growing collection at the Children’s Museum has some terrific specimens. The “Dinosphere” exhibit features the young Tyrannosaurus “Bucky” and a cast of the Tyrannosaurus “Stan” surrounding a Triceratops nicknamed “Kelsey.” The sound and light effects in the former IMAX theater make the exhibit one of the most memorable dinosaur exhibits anywhere. There are several other nice dinosaurs here, including the holotype fossil for Dracorex (which is probably a juvenile Pachycephalosaurus) and a Brachylophosaurus with amazingly well-preserved skin. The museum has a clever strategy (as one might expect of the world’s top children’s museum): they have chosen to focus their dinosaur collection on juvenile dinosaur specimens. It’s an interesting idea, I’m curious to see how it develops at this great museum.
(21) Science Museum of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN
Highlights: While it is not a huge collection, there are some very impressive fossils at the Science Museum of Minnesota. One of the largest and most complete Triceratops can be found here, as well as an 82′ long Diplodocus that was discovered by Minnesota high school students. Stegosaurus, Allosaurus, and a large Camptosaurus make this a nice collection of dinosaur mounts, and there are also sea reptiles and prehistoric mammals on display. One of the largest pterosaurs to exist, Quetzalcoatlus, hangs from the lobby at the entrance to the museum–don’t forget to look up!
(20) Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center, Woodland Park, CO
Highlights: Mike Triebold is a paleontologist who has made a number of discoveries, but he is also well known in the field of paleontology for building a company (Triebold Paleontology) that specializes in fossil molding, casting, and preparing dinosaur mounts for museums all over the world. In 2004, Triebold Paleontology opened the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center to feature replicas of the huge variety of dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and marine reptiles that the company had discovered or prepared. The result is a wonderful museum, with a regularly changing cast of characters on display. Some of the more interesting dinosaurs we have seen there include the most complete Pachycephalosaurus ever found, the great English spinosaur Baryonyx, Thescelosaurus, Dromaeosaurus, and Bambiraptor. A variety of pterosaurs have been on display, and the museum exhibits a large collection of sea reptiles and fish from the Cretaceous period. The marine room is amazing–a huge Tylosaurus looks down at dozens of mounted fish and sea reptiles, as well as turtles and even diving birds. The walls are painted a marine blue and the animals look great “swimming” around the exhibit.
(19) Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Cleveland, OH
Highlights: There are some terrific fossils in Cleveland’s Kirtland Hall of Prehistoric Life. One well-known fossil is the original (and Cleveland native) specimen of Dunkleosteus, named for David Dunkle who was a curator at the CMNH. Great dinosaur mounts include the holotype fossil of the sauropod Haplocanthosaurus, as well as Allosaurus, Triceratops, Coelophysis and a cast of “Jane,” the juvenile Tyrannosaurus. There are also Permian reptiles, sea reptiles, pterosaurs, and a decent collection of fossil mammals on display. Make sure to visit the gallery focusing on human evolution; CMNH has long been a world leader in that area of research and has some terrific specimens on display.
(18) Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, Norman, OK
Highlights: Two of the largest dinosaurs from the Jurassic take center stage in the Hall of Ancient Life at the Sam Noble Museum. Saurophaganax may have been the largest predator during the Late Jurassic, and it is posed stalking one of the largest sauropods to live in North America, Apatosaurus. My favorite dinosaur at the museum is a Titanoceratops (the museum still refers to it as a Pentaceratops) with a massive skull, the largest ever found of a land-based animal. There are some other dinosaurs to see as well, and a few terrific sea reptiles and ancient fish (I particularly love the Xiphactinus display). Prehistoric mammals include a mammoth, a scene featuring Smilodon and Arctodus fighting over the remains of an ancient bison, and a large shovel-tusked mammal called Gomphotherium.
(17) University of Nebraska State Museum, Lincoln, NE
Highlights: Morrill Hall at the University of Nebraska State Museum houses some terrific fossils, including the largest exhibit of prehistoric elephants in North America, which includes one of the largest Columbian mammoths ever discovered. Nebraska is one of the best places on earth to find prehistoric mammals, and the collection here is fantastic–rhinos, horses, a camel, and many others found in the state are displayed here. There are also a few dinosaurs, including a Chasmosaurus, a nice Stegosaurus and Allosaurus (as well as a juvenile Allosaurus). If you like prehistoric marine animals, the collection here is also very good. The neck and head of a plesiosaur is embedded in the floor and visible through glass, and pterosaurs and sea reptiles hang nearby, as well as a large Xiphactinus. The museum’s fun Bizarre Beasts exhibit features numerous prehistoric animals that developed unusual physical features. Recently, the museum added a 4th floor display that showcases more fossils including an ancient Bison.
(16) New Mexico Museum of Natural History, Albuquerque, NM
Highlights: A terrific collection of Permian and Triassic reptiles and synapids are among the many highlights at the NMMNH. There is also a block from the quarry at Ghost Ranch near Abiquiu, NM containing remains of the state fossil, Coelophysis. Visitors to this wonderful museum are probably most excited about the Jurassic gallery, which features three large dinosaurs–a Saurophaganax, a Stegosaurus, and a large Diplodocus (labeled as a Seismosaurus). Although it was not on display when we visited, NMMNH normally exhibits a native tyrannosaur called Bistahieversor. Prehistoric mammals on display include a mammoth, Smilodon, dire wolves, and a North American camel Camelops.
(15) Yale Peabody Museum, New Haven, CT
Highlights: The Yale Peabody Museum is one of the oldest natural history museums in North America, and housed here are some wonderful fossils that were found during the “bone wars” between Yale’s O.C. Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope of Philadelphia. The Brontosaurus-then Apatosaurus-now perhaps Brontosaurus again in the main dinosaur hall is a beauty, particularly now that it features a proper skull (it was displayed for years with the wrong skull). The great Cretaceous turtle Archelon draws gasps from visitors, and the Deinonychus in one corner of the gallery was the dinosaur that helped spawn the “dinosaur revolution” of the 1970’s. The Peabody collection has a little bit of just about every major dinosaur family, as well as pterosaurs, early reptiles and synapsids, and sea reptiles. The mammal gallery is also outstanding. Among my favorite features of the Peabody are the outstanding (and massive) murals painted in the mid-1940’s by famed paleoartist and Yale alum Rudolph Zallinger. The “Age of Reptiles” spans the entire Mesozoic time period and is one of the largest murals in the world at 110′ long, and has been featured on a U.S. postage stamp! NOTE: The fossil halls at the Peabody Museum are currently closed as the museum undergoes a major renovation.
(14) Canadian Museum of Nature, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Highlights: The wonderful collection at the CMN features many great fossils, particularly Late Cretaceous dinosaurs from the Dinosaur Provincial Park area in Alberta. The large collection of ceratopsian mounts and skulls are particularly noteworthy: the Styracosaurus displayed is one of few such full skeletal mounts anywhere. One of the great fossils on display here is a relatively rare Daspletosaurus, an earlier relative of Tyrannosaurus. There are a number of other dinosaurs, and a good collection of prehistoric mammals. A favorite is the beautiful marine gallery featuring several sea reptiles, including a plesiosaur and mosasaurs such as Platecarpus and Kourisodon, although many guests are most fascinated by the cast of the giant turtle Archelon which hangs nearby.
(13) Museum of Ancient Life, Lehi, UT
Highlights: It has been described as the “Taj Mahal of Dinosaur Museums,” and that tag is not off target. This terrific museum is full of mounted dinosaurs, but it also displays a large group of archosaurs and synapsids, pterosaurs, sea reptiles, and ancient mammals. The holotype of the dinosaur Tanycolagreus is here, and dinosaurs from all eras and families can be found throughout the museum. Many of the museum’s displays are very creative; one memorable scene depicts a dead Stegosaurus being scavenged by several rarely displayed crocodile-like reptiles called Goniopholis. The Museum of Ancient Life is very large, which is necessary because two large sauropods are on display–Brachiosaurus and Supersaurus. Some of the most memorable displays come fairly late on the pathway: in the Cretaceous gallery two large Tyrannosaurus threaten some ceratopsians. Nearby, the huge ancient shark “megalodon” was very popular with visitors during both of our trips, and the mammoth display is fantastic and unusual–it shows a group of humans attacking it with spears.
(12) Wyoming Dinosaur Center, Thermopolis, WY
Highlights: The Wyoming Dinosaur Center is one of our favorite places to visit. The staff is extremely friendly and loves to engage visitors, and there are a lot of great dinosaurs on display. One of the unusual aspects of this museum is that it is located right next to an active dinosaur quarry, and a highlight of a visit includes taking a bus to the top of the quarry and inspecting a dig site. Bones from several Jurassic dinosaurs have been found here, including Allosaurus, Camarasaurus, and Diplodocus. In addition to bones, there are dinosaur tracks as well–one of the very few places in the world where tracks and bones have been found together in what was theorized to be an Allosaurus feeding site. Inside the museum, the displays span the entirety of life’s history on earth, from early plants to trilobites, ancient fish and amphibians, sea reptiles, pterosaurs, and, naturally, dinosaurs. The museum is also home to the only Archaeopteryx fossil in North America. The “Thermopolis Specimen” is considered one of the three or four best Archaeopteryx fossils in the world.
(11) Museum of the Rockies, Bozeman, MT
Highlights: If this ranking were based simply on dinosaurs alone, the Museum of the Rockies would be among the top five. The collection is amazing; for dinosaurs of the Late Cretaceous, there is no better museum in the world. The growth-series display of skulls from both Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops are among the best dinosaur exhibits anywhere. The museum displays plenty of other dinosaurs, too, including relatively rare (or unique) displays of Tenontosaurus, Saurornitholestes, and an unusal burrowing dinosaur called Oryctodromeus. There are a few sea reptiles, ammonites and other prehistoric marine animals, but the collection is really all about dinosaurs, and it is absolutely fantastic!
(10) Denver Museum of Nature & Science, Denver, CO
Highlights: The wonderful Denver Museum of Nature & Science houses an impressive fossil collection, particularly of Jurassic dinosaurs from the nearby Morrison Formation. Stegosaurus, Allosaurus, and Diplodocus are some of the stars here, but there are also plenty of earlier reptiles and dinosaurs as well, including Dimetrodon and Coelophysis. There are a number of ancient sea reptiles and fish to admire, including two elasmosaurs hanging in the large lobby outside the Prehistoric Journey exhibit. The museum also has a large collection of prehistoric mammals and some interesting diorama’s displaying ancient scenes from the American west.
(9) Natural History Museum of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT
Highlights: One of the best fossil museums in North America can be found on the northeast corner of the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City. The new building which houses the Natural History Museum opened in 2011, and this fantastic center provides much larger galleries so the museum could display many more fossils. One terrific display includes several Allosaurus attacking a large sauropod. Nearby, is a display about the Allosaurus graveyard at the Cleveland-Lloyd Quarry in central Utah, which helps explain why this awesome dinosaur is the state fossil. Just past the Allosaurus exhibit is a wall containing a couple dozen skulls of ceratopsians, and it shows the family linkages between them. It’s a great display. One of the things I love about the NHMU is that it works hard to display recent discoveries. Relatively new dinosaurs can be found throughout the exhibit, many of them discovered in the state. Teratophoneus, Utahceratops, Kosmoceratops, Lythronax, and Falcarius are some of these on display. While there aren’t a lot of pterosaurs or sea reptiles in the exhibit, the NHMU does have a solid collection of prehistoric mammals in very creative displays.
(8) Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Ontario
Highlights: The fantastic Royal Ontario Museum displays fossils from all of prehistory, although it specializes in dinosaurs from the Late Cretaceous, many of which come from the fossil-rich badlands of Alberta. The hadrosaur collection at the ROM is amazing; the Parasaurolophus, Lambeosaurus, and Corythosaurus mounts are surely among the best in the world, and the collection of ceratopsians is also terrific. Chasmosaurus, Triceratops, and the newly discovered Wendiceratops are standouts. The museum also boasts two of the largest sauropod dinosaur mounts: a giant Barosaurus nicknamed “Gord” is the centerpiece of the Jurassic gallery and a huge Futalognkosaurus from Argentina greets visitors in the main hall. The ROM also displays an excellent collection of ancient sea reptiles, fish, and turtles. The mammal collection is also outstanding, and includes a rarely displayed sabertooth cat called Dinictis among the many animal mounts.
(7) Houston Museum of Natural Science, Houston, TX
Highlights: The recently renovated (2012) Morian Hall of Paleontology at HMNS is one of the more amazing places to see prehistoric fossils. Follow the history of life on earth through the hallways, which include an incredible collection of trilobites and Permian and Triassic period reptiles and synapsids. The dinosaurs on display are terrific: many are posed in interesting ways (like the rearing Stegosaurus and the walking Quetzalcoatlus family), and there are some great specimens, including a Triceratops that left skin impressions which are displayed near the mount. There are a lot of great dinosaurs on display at HMNS: some are very large like Tyrannosaurus and Acrocanthosaurus; some are very small like the as-yet-scientifically-undescribed dromaeosaurid nicknamed “Julieraptor.” The collection of prehistoric mammals is also quite good and includes a leaping Smilodon as well as the Cretaceous period Didelphodon, among many others.
(6) Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Los Angeles, CA
Highlights: In 2011, the Natural History Museum opened up its newly renovated dinosaur hall, much to the delight of fossil lovers everywhere. Within it is perhaps the most beautiful dinosaur display in North America: a Cretaceous scene in which three Tyrannosaurus rex fossils circle a hadrosaur carcass. Each of the Tyrannosaurus are at different life stages and sizes, showing the dramatic growth that this popular dinosaur went through during its lifetime. This display alone is worth the price of admission, but there is a lot more to see. An absolutely beautiful Triceratops mount greets visitors to the Dinosaur Hall, and next to it is sauropod named Mamenchisaurus whose incredibly long neck amazes. There are plenty of other dinosaurs, plus a really great collection of sea reptiles which includes some very important specimens. The Pteranodon on display is one of the best I have seen, and the museum also has a large collection of dinosaur eggs.
(5) Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh, PA
Highlights: The Carnegie Museum is a terrific place to see fossils. The museum was one of the first to display dinosaurs among appropriate flora and fauna for each time period. The “Dinosaurs In Their Time” features separate large galleries for Jurassic and Cretaceous dinosaurs, which follow the entry area that features Triassic reptiles and early dinosaurs. The Jurassic gallery is amazing; two giant sauropods (Apatosaurus and Diplodocus) dominate, but great fossils of Allosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Camptosaurus are wonderful as well. The lush greenery around the dinosaurs adds an element of nature to the exhibits that you don’t often get at other museums. Located between the Jurassic and Cretaceous galleries are displays featuring marine reptiles and prehistoric fish. There is a beautiful scene with the plesiosaur Dolichorhynchops chasing a large turtle that stands out. The Carnegie Museum has it all, though, with a large selection of pterosaurs as well as a full gallery of ancient mammals.
(4) The Field Museum, Chicago, IL
Highlights: When you think of fossils and The Field Museum, most people think of the most famous dinosaur in the world, “Sue” the Tyrannosaurus. While “Sue” is amazing and now stands in a room specially designed for “her,” there are a lot of other wonderful fossils throughout the museum’s “Evolving Planet” exhibit. Following the history of life on earth, the exhibit features the museum’s large collection of Paleozoic fossils. Particular favorites include a group of synapids from the Permian period, including Dimetrodon, Edaphosaurus, and Sphenacodon. The dinosaur gallery is large and features numerous mounts, including a beautiful Parasaurolophus and the tyrannosaur Daspletosaurus. The Cenozoic displays are world-class, and feature all the iconic animals of the post-dinosaur period. Terrific mammal fossils abound, and The Field Museum is one of the few to display an extensive collection of early Cenozoic birds and fish as well. Hanging throughout the Evolving Planet exhibit are many wonderful, large paintings by legendary paleoartist Charles R. Knight. If you love prehistoric fossils, the Field Museum should be high up on your bucket list.
(3) Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC
Highlights: The new Fossil Hall (opened 2019) is a wonderfully designed space created to show off some of the vast collection of The Smithsonian. While the old fossil hall was terrific, it also needed to be updated. The halls were dark, some of the fossils hard to see, several mounts incorrect according to newer scientific discoveries, etc. Now, the space is light, bright, and maximized to fit an amazing number of fossil displays into a relatively small area. The most popular new display features “The Nation’s Rex” (formerly the Wankel Rex) a Tyrannosaurus that is shown taking a chomp out of a defeated Triceratops. There are many wonderful displays, some in relatively unusual poses–the Allosaurus is shown sitting, protecting a nest full of eggs. In addition to the great Fossil Hall, I also highly recommend a visit to the spectacular Hall of Human Origins, where visitors can see what is one of the world’s best exhibits on human evolution.
(2) American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY
Highlights: There are so many highlights at the AMHN it is difficult to even begin to list them. Fossils from just about every prehistoric animal group, including many holotypes, can be found in the halls on the 4th floor. Among the numerous displays are ancient fish and amphibians, archosaurs, dinosaurs, pterosaurs, sea reptiles and an extensive collection of prehistoric mammals. I personally love the Tyrannosaurus; the Allosaurus display is a particular favorite as well. Recently the museum has displayed a huge 120′ titanosaur named Patagotitan. It is the longest dinosaur displayed in North America. It is so long the head literally sticks out of the display room into the hallway. There are so many important fossils to see here that it is hard to single them out. Needless to say, if you love fossils, get to the AMNH ASAP. Plan to spend a lot of time if you hope to see them all!
(1) Royal Tyrrell Museum, Drumheller, Alberta, Canada
Highlights: The Royal Tyrrell Museum is my favorite dinosaur museum. It is a wonderful facility, built within a short hike of the badlands of Alberta that have provided so many important dinosaur specimens. There are dozens of dinosaurs on display, including some gorgeous mounts of tyrannosaurs, including a nearly complete Gorgosaurus skeleton and two Tyrannosaurus rex mounts, one of which is the fantastic “Black Beauty” specimen whose bones are tinted with the dark minerals that fossilized them. Many of the displays feature beautiful action poses and creative backdrops, and the museum works very hard to be as interesting and fun for children as it is for adults. And it is really fun for adults! Not only are most dinosaur families represented in the collection, but many of the specimens are important discoveries and holotype fossils. Several dinosaurs are unique to the museum, including Atrociraptor, a small raptor-type dinosaur found near Drumheller, and Borealopelta, a member of the ankylosaur family that is one of the best preserved fossils in the world. While there is a nice collection of sea reptiles and prehistoric mammals, the focus at the Royal Tyrrell is certainly on dinosaurs. If you love dinosaurs, you definitely won’t be disappointed.