Some of the most easily accessible and dynamic dinosaur tracks in North America can be found just outside of Denver in Morrison, CO. Dinosaur Ridge has been designated a National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service and is located in the beautiful red rocks about ten miles west of Denver, right next to the famous outdoor music venue Red Rocks Amphitheatre. It is a beautiful area, great for hiking and biking, but also great for viewing dinosaur fossils and footprints.
Morrison is the town where Stegosaurus was first discovered in 1877 and also the namesake of the famous Morrison Formation, the particular layer of rock that was laid down in the western United States during the late Jurassic period roughly 150 million years ago. The formation has yielded a tremendous amount of dinosaur fossils, including species such as Allosaurus, Diplodocus, Stegosaurus, Camarasaurus, Brachiosaurus, and many more. On one side of Dinosaur Ridge, bones from those dinosaurs and others can be found in the Morrison Formation. On the other side, the rocks are from the Early Cretaceous era. There is less known about the dinosaurs that inhabited the area in that time period. Fortunately, those dinosaurs that lived there then left footprints behind in the muddy beaches of what was once a coastal region, and Dinosaur Ridge is the perfect place to see some of them.
Upon entrance to Dinosaur Ridge, there is a relatively small Visitor’s Center which has some fossils on display, a very nice gift shop relative to its size, and the ticket office for the Dinosaur Ridge bus tours. A lot of people choose to hike up Dinosaur Ridge to see the fossil & track sites by themselves. There is also a guided tour option for larger groups. The shuttle bus tour is a great option if you would like a guide, or if have children with you, or you just aren’t that eager to hike a mile or so up a pretty steep incline. For the shuttle bus tour, the cost is fairly low and we thought it was a great value and well worth doing.
THE BONES & TRACKS:
On the first stop of the tour, the shuttle goes up to the top of the hogback mountain that is Dinosaur Ridge and stops where guests can walk up and see (and touch) dinosaur bones that are still embedded in the rock. The quarry at the bus stop is part of the original Morrison Quarry that was surveyed in 1877 and where the first Stegosaurus was discovered by local professor Dr. Arthur Lakes and then described and named by Othniel Charles Marsh later that year. Today, it is one of the only places where the public is not only allowed but encouraged to touch the dinosaur bones that are still in the rock. They are easily visible, their distinctive reddish/purple coloring distinguishes them from the surrounding rock quite nicely.
There are a lot of visible bones in the rock, and everyone on the tour went to the wall to touch them. While the children on the tour were certainly excited to do that, I think most of the adults were as well. Some of the bones have little signs that say “Dinosaur Bone” next to them to help you understand what you want to be looking for when surveying the rock wall. The bones in the rock likely belong to Jurassic dinosaurs such as Stegosaurus and Apatosaurus.
Once you have finished exploring the bones in the rock at the quarry site, the bus tour makes two more stops at dinosaur track sites. The first offers some of the most interesting dinosaur tracks to be found at Dinosaur Ridge: these are called “Brontosaur Bulges,” where large sauropod dinosaurs left foot impressions as they sunk into the muddy beach they were once walking upon. The large holes were then filled and eventually preserved. When the rock formation was exposed it revealed these huge remnants of the underside of a “brontosaur” footprint. In the photo below you can see the spot in the rock where the footprint was made, it is apparent that the feet on this creature were very large!
The second bus stop takes you to the main dinosaur track site. Uncovered during the construction of the nearby West Alameda Parkway in 1937, the dinosaur tracks at Dinosaur Ridge are a spectacular sight for dinosaur enthusiasts. Once a relatively flat beach, the track site at Dinosaur Ridge was uplifted during a period of great geological change and now lies at a fairly steep angle. As you look up the hill, you can see hundreds of dinosaur footprints scattered across the mudstone (former) beach. In all, there are over 300 individual footprints representing several species of dinosaur, and at least one crocodile.
At Dinosaur Ridge the tracks have been artificially colored so they are easy to spot from the visitor’s viewing deck. This makes it quite dramatic for guests, and does not damage the tracks. At most track sites dinosaur footprints are relatively difficult to see from any distance beyond eight or ten feet; here the dark coloring makes them easily visible for at least sixty or eighty feet.
Calling the track site a “dinosaur highway” does not seem inappropriate…there are dozens of footprints in every direction, indicating this stretch of beach was regularly traveled by individual and even groups of dinosaurs. The track site dates to about 100 million years ago during what was the Early Cretaceous period. It is interesting to note that higher up the ridge the rocks are actually older, which is the opposite of what you might expect given the principles of stratification. But in this case the rocks high on the ridge have been subjected to tremendous tectonic activity, and the resulting uplift of the ridge between 50 and 80 million years ago (which also built the nearby Rocky Mountains) created the pattern you see at Dinosaur Ridge today.
WHO MADE THE TRACKS?
It is very clear that there are several different dinosaurs involved in making the tracks. The majority come from some type of ornithopod, likely related to Iguanodon. On the sign at Dinosaur Ridge it says that the tracks may have come from a dinosaur called Eolambia, a possible early relative of hadrosaurs that may have lived in the approximate area and during the right time period.
There are several other sets of tracks as well, including small and large theropods. The small theropod tracks seem to belong to an early member of the ornithomimid family, the “bird mimic” Ornithomimus a later relative. The best guess for the larger theropod tracks is that they were made by an Acrocanthosaurus, the largest predator of the Early Cretaceous and the only known theropod that lived at the time and was large enough to make the tracks at Dinosaur Ridge.
ARE THERE OTHER ACTIVITIES AVAILABLE AT THE TRACK SITE?
There are a LOT of activities near the dinosaur tracks at Dinosaur Ridge. Every year hundreds of thousands of people take in music concerts at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, If you are in the area for a concert, it would be easy to arrive a couple hours early and take in the sights at Dinosaur Ridge first. At Dinosaur Ridge, hiking and biking are very popular activities and on a nice day you will see dozens of people making their way up and down the ridge. The trails around the ridge offer beautiful scenery and some fantastic views at the top.
On site, there is a small but very nice Visitor’s Center that has some dinosaur fossils on display, as well as some casts of dinosaur bones that children can touch. The first time we went my son got a kick out of “trying on” a cast of Triceratops horns. There are also dinosaur displays and interactive kiosks that explain how Dinosaur Ridge and the fossils and tracks were created and preserved. In addition, the gift shop is very good, and my sons could have spent a lot more time than we had playing outside in the excellent dinosaur dig pit. The dig pit is quite large and features the “bones” of an Edmontosaurus for children to explore with their plastic shovels.
A new addition to Dinosaur Ridge opened in 2014 on the other side of the ridge on West Alameda Parkway–the Dinosaur Ridge Discovery Center. This new building houses some nice exhibits about dinosaur fossils and tracks and has some nice hands-on opportunities for children to enjoy. There is a gift shop at the Discovery Center as well.
VISIBILITY OF THE TRACKS:
The tracks at Dinosaur Ridge are easily visible. Right now the Friends of Dinosaur Ridge are trying to raise money to pay for a much-needed cover for the main tracksite. The cover will help preserve the tracks from the freeze-thaw process that currently is damaging them, and would also allow an indoor viewing area that would make the tracks visible to the public year-round. But make no mistake, if you go to Dinosaur Ridge to see dinosaur tracks, you will see them.
EDUCATIONAL MATERIALS/DISPLAY INFORMATION/SIGNAGE:
The information in the Visitor’s Center is very helpful, and the shuttle tour operator/guide was really good, too. The group we were with asked many questions and our pleasant and knowledgeable guide/driver was happy to answer them all. The bone quarry, brontosaur bulge and track sites have very helpful signs for visitors.
DID MY CHILDREN ENJOY GOING?
My children thoroughly enjoyed Dinosaur Ridge both times I have taken them. The entire shuttle bus tour was great–not too long, but long enough to spend enough time at each stop. Touching the dinosaur bones in the rock was fun and the brontosaur bulges captured their imaginations, but the track site was the most memorable highlight for them. I should also add that it took quite a bit of coaxing to get my youngest son out of the dinosaur dig pit near the Visitor’s Center, he enjoyed digging around and playing in there very much.
HOW MUCH TIME SHOULD I PLAN TO SPEND THERE?
There are plenty of things to do here: plan on spending a couple of hours. I strongly recommend the shuttle bus tour, and the Visitor’s Center and Discovery Center are worth spending extra time in as well. If you have children, they will enjoy the dig pit and find plenty of dinosaur souvenirs they can’t live without in the gift shop!
Dinosaur Ridge is one of the best places to see dinosaur tracks in North America. Not only are the tracks easily visible and impressive, but they are located very close to a major urban center. If you like dinosaurs, this is a must-see site.
Rating Aspects of the Dinosaur Tracksite:
Visibility of the Dinosaur Tracks on Display: (10 out of 10)
Ease of Getting to/Seeing the Tracks: (10 out of 10)
Educational Materials/Display Information/Signage: (10 out of 10)
Activities/Play Areas for Children: (9 out of 10)