Utah has an abundance of dinosaur riches, from famous fossil sites that are open to the public (e.g. Dinosaur National Monument, Jurassic National Monument (formerly the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry) to terrific museums (e.g. Natural History Museum of Utah, BYU Museum of Paleontology) that display dozens of mounted specimens. One of the most fun places to visit for dinosaur enthusiasts is the Museum of Ancient Life at Thanksgiving Point in Lehi, Utah.
Located about twenty minutes south of Salt Lake City, Thanksgiving Point houses a series of attractions founded in 1995 by Alan and Karen Ashton. A working farm, a beautiful garden, a restaurant and much more draw thousands of visitors, but our favorite attraction is the huge and wonderful Museum of Ancient Life (MAL). Opened in 2000, the MAL has been described as the “Taj Mahal” of dinosaur museums, and there is certainly some truth to that. It is large: there are a number of big rooms, all filled with dozens of dinosaur specimens. It also has a big-screen theater, a huge gift shop, and plenty of activities for children of all ages to enjoy.
The highlights at the Museum of Ancient Life start early and often. Upon entering, visitors often are treated to a dinosaur right in the front lobby. When we first visited years ago, there was a nice Allosaurus displayed there. On later visits we saw a Torvosaurus in that space. Next to the gift shop was a beautiful display featuring an Allosaurus fighting with a Ceratosaurus, who was flipped upside down. It was a very interesting display, and quite an unusual mount. And this is all before guests even enter the galleries!
Once inside the museum, visitors will follow a path that is roughly chronological, starting with some of the most ancient forms of life on earth, including stromatolites. In this area is a really nice display on trilobites, featuring numerous examples of them of all shapes and sizes, including one of the largest I’ve ever seen. As guests pass the eurypterids (sea scorpions) and other ancient denizens of the sea, they can look up to see life-size recreations of several ancient fish, the most impressive a life-sized Dunkleosteus.
There are a few sea reptiles, my favorite was a very small Chinese sauropterygian named Keichousaurus, which is fairly common but rarely displayed in American museums. The entire animal measured about 12-15 inches in length, but the beautiful skeleton allows viewers to very clearly see that it was indeed a marine reptile.
Just beyond are some of my favorite animals in the museum–the reptiles from the Permian period. One of my personal favorites is the Dimetrodon, and the display at the Museum of Ancient Life is terrific. Not only is this iconic creature shown in a life-like setting, but it is also shown next to three beautiful Eryops.
Just beyond the Permian animals lie the dinosaurs, and there are an awful lot of dinosaurs to see here. There are over 60 mounted skeletons, which is the most of any museum in North America. Early on along the path is Tanycolagreus, a dinosaur who holotype skeleton is here at MAL, and I have not seen it displayed elsewhere. This relatively small carnivore from the late Jurassic has been difficult to classify–it has been argued that it belongs to the tyrannosaur family, while others believe that it is a member of the coelurosaur family. Nevertheless, it is nice to see it on display, here shown hunting the small dinosaur Nanosaurus (formerly Othnielia).
Around the first big bend of the dinosaur rooms are two of the largest dinosaurs ever discovered in North America. The longest here at over one hundred feet is the diplodocid Supersaurus. It is very impressive, positioned against the back wall. Nearby are a number of great Jurassic dinosaur fossils, including an Allosaurus, Ceratosaurus, and the stegosaur Hesperosaurus.
The second large sauropod on display is just beyond the Supersaurus, and will be familar to most dinosaur enthusiasts. Not only is it one of the better known dinosaurs, but it had a starring role in the first Jurassic Park film: yes, I am talking about Brachiosaurus. Despite its history and fame, there are very few mounts of this great dinosaur in North America.
Another terrific dinosaur display features the Utah State dinosaur, Utahraptor. This large theropod in the dromaeosaur family is only found in Utah, and since the rock layer in which its bones were discovered is only exposed in one county in Utah, it likely will continue to only be found in the state. It lived during the Early Cretaceous, and is displayed in an active hunting pose. Nearby are two Gastonia, an adult and juvenile. These dinosaurs were early members of the ankylosaur family who lived during the same time as Utahraptor.
Toward the end of the large gallery are dinosaurs from the late Cretaceous period, including the iconic Triceratops. The stars of this portion of the museum, though, are the two Tyrannosaurus that are displayed fighting over the remains of a hadrosaur. Other dinosaurs featured here are Chasmosaurus, Thescelosaurus, and a pair of Edmontosaurus–one juvenile, one adult.
Besides the Tyrannosaur face-off, there was also a battle between two Pachycephalosaurus. There is some evidence that these animals used their thick skulls to fight each other, probably during mating season, although it is likely that instead of straight-on head-butting, they were more likely to use their skulls to wallop the sides of their rivals, perhaps more like medieval jousting rather than straight ahead ramming which would probably have done significant damage to both of the animals in the fight.
Throughout the museum there are a number of pterosaurs as well. My favorite was probably the Anhanguera shown on a rocky outcrop, but the Pteranodon next to a wall painted like a sea cliff was fairly dramatic and a favorite of my older son.
The last few galleries in the museum were the favorites of my younger son, though we all liked them quite a bit. The first is a dramatic room that is designed to look like an underwater environment, and there are a few really great fossils to make that environment exciting, none more than the giant Cretaceous turtle Archelon, which dominates the center of the room. In addition, there are plenty of ancient sea reptiles and fish, including a very long Tylosaurus and a huge Xiphactinus.
The next room was quite memorable. Prior to our most recent visit it had been a couple years before our last one. I asked my younger son what he remembered from the museum and he immediately said “the Megalodon.” Indeed, the Megalodon display is likely to stick, especially for young children. While not a fossil, the life-size replica of the head coming out of the wall is enough to scare a lot of people. In my three visits to this museum, I have seen numerous children (and a few adults) who really don’t feel comfortable getting very close to the mouth of this enormous creature. It’s a great display.
The final galleries in the museum display animals from the Cenezoic Era, including well-known species of giant ground sloth (Eremotherium) and sabre-tooth cat (Smilodon). One of the most dramatic displays in the museum is located in the last gallery: a giant mammoth being hunted by five or six Homo sapiens.
IF I DON’T LIKE DINOSAURS, WILL I ENJOY MY VISIT?
The Museum is really all about dinosaurs and other extinct animals, and if you get tired quickly of looking at old bones, you might be better served to check out one of the other attractions nearby at Thanksgiving Point. The Butterfly Biosphere and the Museum of Natural Curiosity are particularly good for younger children. The working farm and Ashton Gardens are also part of the Thanksgiving Point complex and worth investigating.
WHAT COULD BE BETTER?
The Museum of Ancient Life is a fantastic place to see prehistoric life, and while at any museum there could always be more on display, MAL can hardly be criticized as it already displays more skeletal mounts that any other dinosaur museum in North America. Not only are there a lot of mounted fossils, but there are also some terrific displays. A lot of thought and creativity went into the design of the galleries, and each one is memorable in its own right. I suppose if there was anything that could be better it would be the on-site fossil prep lab. The last time we went it appeared that it was closed, and I haven’t heard much lately about research that the museum staff is working on. Is there still an active paleontology program housed at the museum?
DID MY CHILDREN ENJOY THEIR VISIT?
My children have enjoyed all of our visits to the Museum of Ancient Life. One feature that both my sons really liked was the opportunity to use an air scribe and clean a fossil fish to take home. The museum is very family friendly, and there is a lot of room for kids to be kids–I don’t recommend running through the place, but visitors have plenty of space to spread out and see things at their own pace. Another feature of the museum that my younger son immensely enjoyed was an area where the museum had numerous plastic dinosaurs out for children to play with. As soon as he saw that he made a beeline for it, and soon he was playing with two or three other children who came and joined him. That was a nice touch, although I’m not sure it still exists in the COVID era. If it’s gone, I hope it comes back in the future.
HOW MUCH TIME SHOULD I PLAN TO SPEND THERE?
We typically spend about two hours in the museum, and on two of our three trips we also spent an additional hour watching a movie in the museum’s Mammoth Screen Theater. The museum does a good job choosing appropriate films to show: we saw an ice age film the first time and a dinosaur film the second time.
The Museum of Ancient Life is full of wonderful prehistoric displays and is certainly one of the top dozen or so display museums in North America. Utah is full of dinosaur attractions, including both state and national parks, track sites, dig sites, and of course, research museums. While the top research museum in the state is the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City, it is remarkable to have two terrific display museums within about a half-hour’s drive of each other. If you love dinosaurs and prehistoric fossils, the Museum of Ancient Life at Thanksgiving Point in Lehi is a must-see stop on any visit to the Beehive State (or is it now the Utahraptor state?).
Rating Aspects of the Museum’s Fossil Displays:
Number of Fossils/Dinosaurs on Display: (9.5 out of 10)
Fossil Displays/Creativity/Visual Layout/Overall Scene: (9.0 out of 10)
Unique/New/Famous/Important Fossils on Display: (7.0 out of 10)
Educational Materials/Display Information/Signage: (9.0 out of 10)
Activities/Play Areas for Children: (8.0 out of 10)