One year ago today, I started this blog with a list ranking the Top 25 Dinosaur Museums in North America, and now I provide a list ranking the Top 25 Prehistoric Fossil Museums in North America. Some museums have wonderful fossil collections but don’t specialize in dinosaurs; some dinosaur museums have terrific dinosaur collections but very little other ancient life on display. If you love fossils, here are the museums you should try to visit.
Every museum is different: their mission, their history, their budget, their visitors, and of course, their collections. Some museums have high admission fees that support vast research budgets and fund expeditions to continually expand their collection, while others charge no admission and rely on funding mostly from university budgets and research grants. Regardless of how they operate, there are a wide variety of museums that hold large fossil collections and display them for the public. Here are the Top 25 in North America (and a few that deserve honorable mention as well).
(H.M.) 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 terrific sea reptiles like Dolichorhynchops and Tylosaurus, ancient turtles and the most famous specimen of Xiphactinus. Pterosaurs are also featured, including the beautiful holotype fossil of Pteranodon sternbergi.
(H.M.) 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 and a Brachylophosaurus with amazingly well-preserved skin.
(H.M.) Beneski Museum of Natural History, Amherst College, Amherst, MA
Highlights: The world’s largest collection of dinosaur tracks is found at the Beneski Museum, and there are 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’s history of funding expeditions west during the first golden age of paleontology.
(H.M.) Museum of Western Colorado’s Dinosaur Journey Museum, Fruita, CO
Highlights: The Fruita/Grand Junction area has produced numerous fossil finds throughout its 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.
The Top 25
(25, Tie) Science Museum of Minnesota
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!
(25, Tie) 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.
(24) 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.
(23) 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.
(22) University of Kansas Natural History Museum, Lawrence, KS
Highlights: Although 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. 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!
(21) 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 leader in that area of research and has some terrific specimens on display.
(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) 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.
(18) University of Michigan Museum of Natural History, Ann Arbor, MI
Highlights: The great collection in Ann Arbor features a little bit of everything, including ancient reptiles, prehistoric fish, pterosaurs, dinosaurs, and prehistoric mammals. The Permian period reptiles and synapsids are fantastic, and include animals such as Edaphosaurus and Dimetrodon. A rarely displayed Triassic aetosaur called Desmatosuchus can be found here, and dinosaurs include Allosaurus and a large Edmontosaurus. The museum also exhibits the most complete display of ancient whales and their evolution, including full skeletal mounts of Pakicetus, Maiacetus, and Basilosaurus. Among the many mammals exhibited are mastodons and a rare mastodon trackway, as well as a recently discovered mammoth that was found about 20 miles from Ann Arbor. The University is building a new home for the museum which is planned to open in 2019.
(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 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.
(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) 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 dinosaur casts, 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 a large project to uncover what appears to be a mass Utahraptor grave is now underway in the museum’s lab. 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.
(14) Canadian Museum of Nature, Ottawa, ON
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) 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!
(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 tram 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. Inside the museum, the displays span then 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 one of the two or three 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) 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, 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.
(9) Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC
Highlights: How do you rank a museum whose main fossil galleries are closed? The Smithsonian’s amazing fossils rank at or near the top of any list of such collections, and once the new National Fossil Hall opens in 2019 I expect this ranking to shoot near the top of this list. Currently, visitors can see dinosaurs in an exhibit called “The Last American Dinosaurs.” I also highly recommend a visit to the spectacular Hall of Human Origins, where visitors can see what is likely the world’s greatest exhibit on human evolution.
(8) 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.
(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 that are displayed near the mount. There are a lot of great dinosaurs on display at HMNS, some very large like Tyrannosaurus and Acrocanthosaurus; some very small like the as yet scientifically undescribed 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) Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, ON
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.
(5) 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 series 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.
(4) Royal Tyrrell Museum, Drumheller, AB
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 dark minerals that fossilized the animal. 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. A relatively recent addition is Atrociraptor, a small raptor-type dinosaur found near Drumheller. While there is a good collection of sea reptiles and prehistoric mammals, the focus at the Royal Tyrrell is certainly on dinosaurs. If you love dinosaurs, you certainly won’t be disappointed.
(3) 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 stands in the great hall, there are a lot of other wonderful fossils upstairs in 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. Terrific mammal fossils abound, and The Field Museum is one of the few to display an extensive collection of Cenozoic birds and fish as well. Hanging throughout the Evolving Planet exhibit are many wonderful, large paintings by legendary paleoartist Charles R. Knight.
(2) 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.
(1) 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, and the Allosaurus display is a particular favorite as well. Recently the museum has displayed a huge 120′ as-yet-unnamed titanosaur–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, put the AMNH on your bucket list yesterday. Plan to spend a lot of time if you hope to see them all!