The Dinosaur Journey Museum of Western Colorado is located in Fruita, a town at the base of the spectacular Colorado National Monument, about 20 miles or so east of the Utah border. While not a terribly large museum, it is a great place to visit (especially for kids) and see a variety of dinosaurs and other prehistoric fossils.
The trip from Denver to Grand Junction, CO on I-70 is one of the most beautiful drives on America’s interstate highway system. From the breathtaking cliffs of the Rocky Mountains to the gorgeous canyons cut from the Colorado River near Glenwood Springs, this stretch of area is surely among the most visually stunning in the United States. Once in the Grand Junction/Fruita area, the spectacular Colorado National Monument looms above. Overlooks along the road at the top of the monument allow visitors to enjoy the rock formations for many miles, and all the way down to the cities of Grand Junction and Fruita below, where dinosaur hunters have worked for nearly 125 years, finding some of the largest (Brachiosaurus & Apatosaurus) and smallest (Fruitadens) dinosaurs yet discovered.
Dinosaurs have been a part of the Fruita community for almost 120 years. Around the turn of the 20th century, Elmer Riggs of the Field Museum in Chicago first described the dinosaur Brachiosaurus from a specimen discovered about five miles from the future site of the Dinosaur Journey Museum (DJM). He also found a large Apatosaurus (formerly Brontosaurus) less than a mile from the museum, in an area now referred to as “Dinosaur Hill.” Plenty of dinosaur hunters have continued to work in the area, and other dinosaurs have been discovered since, including one of the smallest herbivorous dinosaurs.
At DJM, my children were excited as soon as we turned into the parking lot off of Jurassic Ct., all because of the colorful museum van decorated to resemble a Triceratops that was parked in front of the building. Once inside, dinosaurs of all shapes and sizes dominate the large room that makes up the bulk of the display area. Several animatronic dinosaurs immediately drew our attention; my younger son was enthralled with a huge Utahraptor that stands near the entrance with the head and neck of a large sauropod dinosaur in its bloody mouth. It’s a far cry from the “Barney” type of display that we sometimes see that can occasionally make huge meat-eating dinosaurs look almost cuddly. At DJM, there are several animatronic dinosaurs, and they were very popular, particularly with the elementary-school crowd. Look out for the animatronic dinosaur that has a surprise for visitors!
While the animatronics are fun, there are quite a few real dinosaur fossils in the museum, including a beautiful Allosaurus. Like many of the exhibits in the DJM, the Allosaurus comes from the Late Jurassic time period. Others from this time on display include a flock of Rhamphorhynchus, a relatively small pterosaur with sharp needle-like teeth, and a great display of a cast skeleton of Stegosaurus.
The Stegosaurus is particularly appealing, posed in a modern style with the tail up and the front legs lifted slightly off the ground. There is no agreement on whether or not Stegosaurus could or regularly did rear up on its hind legs in order to eat tall plants and leaves. The Houston Museum of Natural Science displays one fully rearing on its hind legs. While it is amazing to see, I also like the display at DJM, which suggests that the animal might be able to rear up…a position many paleontologists would agree with–at least until more evidence is collected and analyzed.
A number of cast skeletons can be found around the Dinosaur Journey Museum. The well-known juvenile Camarasaurus that was found at Dinosaur National Monument in Utah (and is on display at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh) hangs from a wall inside, and an adult Camarasaurus stands over visitors near the entrance to the museum. One of my favorites at DJM is the ankylosaur Mymoorapelta, a medium-sized tank-like dinosaur that lived in western Colorado during the Late Jurassic. Other dinosaurs on display include a cast of the popular Velociraptor, and a well-done display of the Jurassic herbivore Camptosaurus. Additionally, throughout the museum are individual skulls and femurs of other dinosaurs. Some of the skulls include Triceratops, Pachyrhinosaurus, Gastonia, Edmontosaurus, and a recently recognized species of Allosaurus.
One nice feature of the museum is the terrific job they do with educational material. Many of the displays have the standard placards you might find in any dinosaur museum, but almost all of them at DJM have quite a bit of additional reading material that describes each dinosaur, how and where they lived, and some interesting facts about them. There are also some nice educational tools–my sons particularly enjoy the big red cube that shows the size of various dinosaur hearts.
A highlight of our trips to the DJM is that each time we have visited, there has been a terrific national touring exhibition on display. The first time we went it was an exhibit called “Super Crocs” and featured the giant Cretaceous alligator relative Deinosuchus. The second time, the touring display featured the giant Paleocene snake Titanoboa, the largest snake ever discovered. The huge constrictor from Central America lived shortly after the demise of the dinosaurs, around 58 to 60 million years ago. Both of these displays were very popular at the museum, and my sons really liked each of them, even though we had seen the Titanoboa display previously at another museum.
Before we could leave, we had to see one of the more recent dinosaur discoveries from the Fruita area, the tiny heterodontosaurid dinosaur Fruitadens. One of the tiniest dinosaurs discovered from the Jurassic period, an adult Fruitadens was only about two feet long and weighed just over a pound. Heterodontosaurids (meaning “different toothed lizard”) were small dinosaurs that had teeth designed for chewing, an evolutionary advantage that allowed them to eat a wider variety of plants (and possibly animals) than other herbivorous dinosaurs. The Fruitadens fossils are located in the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, but at DJM there is a nice display featuring a life-size recreation of this interesting little fellow.
IF I DON’T LIKE DINOSAURS, WILL I ENJOY MY VISIT?
Probably not so much. This museum is one of several among the Museums of Western Colorado, and it is focused almost entirely on dinosaurs and other prehistoric life. The good news: the Fruita/Grand Junction area is full of things to do, particularly if you like hiking, camping and other outdoor activities. The terrific Colorado National Monument is only a couple minutes from the museum’s front door, and I highly recommend a trip through the park–the views are fantastic.
WHAT COULD BE BETTER?
There are a surprising number of full skeletal displays at the DJM, even if most of them are casts rather than real fossils. The educational elements in place at the museum are well above average, and there are fun surprises throughout the museum. I would have liked to see a little more about the Riggs fossils–perhaps more cast bones or even a cast skeleton of one of the large dinosaurs. While Fruitadens is a great little ambassador for the area for dinosaur enthusiasts, Brachiosaurus and Apatosaurus are two of the most iconic dinosaurs, and having a large cast of one of them would be really spectacular for this nice museum. Nevertheless, the museum does a great job with the resources it has and is a fun place to visit.
DID MY CHILDREN ENJOY THEIR VISIT?
We have been to the DJM twice now, and both times my children enjoyed it quite a bit. One of the animatronic dinosaurs has been a favorite of my younger son since he first saw it, and he was thrilled to get to visit it again. My older son enjoyed the dinosaur tracks displays and the Fruitadens exhibit, but also the touring exhibitions which were very well done. Both boys spent some time on the 2nd floor looking through the window of the working paleontology lab where they could watch volunteers working on various fossils. There is a nice little play area for small children which includes some climbing equipment and dinosaur toys and books. My sons didn’t spend much time there, but it was quite popular with younger children. If your child wants an authentic dinosaur experience, the DJM has a series of “Dig for a day” programs in the summer for all ages to explore a working paleontology site in the area–check their website for details before your visit.
OVERALL RATING, Dinosaur Journey Museum of Western Colorado, Fruita, CO: 34.5/50.0
Rating Aspects of the Museum’s Fossil Displays:
Number of Fossils/Dinosaurs on Display: (6.5 out of 10)
Fossil Displays/Creativity/Visual Layout/Overall Scene: (7.5 out of 10)
Unique/New/Famous/Important Fossils on Display: (5 out of 10)
Educational Materials/Display Information/Signage: (8.5 out of 10)
Activities/Play Areas for Children: (7 out of 10)
Overall Rating Information:
40-50: Excellent, one of the world’s top museums.
32-39.5: Very Good, well worth spending half a day.
25-31.5: Good, worth spending a couple hours.
Below 25: Hopefully, a museum on the way up!