About twenty miles northwest of Colorado Springs lies a beautiful town in the Rocky Mountains called Woodland Park. Surrounded by gorgeous natural attractions such as Pike’s Peak and the Garden of the Gods, the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center is another place to admire the complex beauty of the natural world.
Paleontologist Mike Triebold is well known in the dinosaur museum world. In addition to having discovered numerous dinosaurs and other fossil specimens, his work at Triebold Paleontology, Inc. (TPI) has provided many of the world’s top natural history museums with paleontological services including excavation, molding, casting, and mounting dinosaurs and other fossils for exhibit. I have been to many museums that have exhibits created by TPI, and they are often among the most dynamic and beautiful displays. So it not terribly surprising, then, that Mike would eventually build his own dinosaur museum. Opened in 2004, the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center (RMDRC) in Woodland Park is that museum, and it is certainly one of the best places to see ancient fossils come to life.
I’m sure I’m not the first person to be awestruck by the natural scenery as one drives through the mountains on the drive to Woodland Park from Colorado Springs. Just about any day spent in the Rocky Mountains is usually a good day, at least it always has been for me. When you look at the majesty of the mountains up close, it’s easy to imagine that they have always been there, even in the primeval world. But that’s not the case, in fact the Rockies were just forming during the end of the Cretaceous period when dinosaurs last lived on earth.
At RMDRC, there are several rooms that contain fossil displays. The most unique of the them is the room that contains dozens of fossil creatures from the Western Interior Seaway of North America, a large body of water that essentially split North America into two separate island continents for millions of years. The relatively shallow, warm sea was the home to a huge variety of creatures, and RMDRC displays more of them than just about any other museum in North America.
While there are several fossils on the wall and others in display cases, a large number of them appear to be “swimming” in the room as they hang from the ceiling in this impressive room. There are several fossils of the large bony fish Xiphactinus and Pachyrhizodus, several fossils of the swordfish-like Protosphyraena, and the first mounted fossil of Saurodon, another large fish from the Cretaceous.
As scary-looking as some of the Cretaceous fish are, they were not the dominant predators in their environment. Ancient sea reptiles ruled the oceans, and there is no shortage of these great fossils at RMDRC. A very large Tylosaurus is particularly impressive, with huge jaws and large teeth. Very few ocean creatures would feel comfortable with that animal near. Another large predator hangs close by, the beautiful plesiosaur Dolichorhynchops. Ancient sharks and turtles are also included, my younger son was particularly enamored by a fossil of the second-largest species of all known sea turtles called Protostega. The mostly complete remains of a 20-foot-plus long, large shark named Cretoxyrhina can be seen on a wall in the exhibit–it is interesting how little of a large shark remains for fossilization compared to some of the more bony fishes exhibited in the room.
The ancient ocean exhibit is marvelous and one of the best anywhere, but there are plenty more highlights at RMDRC. Demanding attention in the middle of the main dinosaur exhibit area is a cast of the Tyrannosaurus “Stan,” one of the most complete specimens of the genus. The tallest dinosaur in the museum, “Stan” occupies the center of the hall and is always popular with children. In Stans’ shadow are some small raptor-type dinosaurs that are among my very favorite, called Dromaeosaurus. These agile creatures had wicked claws on each foot, and a mouth full of teeth made for slicing. They are relatively rare North American relatives of the more famous Mongolian Velociraptor.
While there are several relatively common dinosaurs on display such as Edmontosaurus, there are quite a few that are more unusual. One of the best-looking Pachychephalosaurus fossils can be found here, and visitors can get a very close up look at his thick, domed skull. It is not a huge dinosaur, but it is a real beauty, and one of the favorites of young visitors.
Another dinosaur that is quite rare and only recently described is an oviraptorosaur named Anzu, the name coming from a feathered demon from ancient Sumeria. When this fossil was first found it was referred to as the “chicken from hell”, owing to its large size and toothless beak. The original fossil is located at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, PA.
One of the nice things about the RMDRC is that the displays are frequently updated. The first time we visited we saw the English spinosaur Baryonyx on display, more recently a very large tyrannosaur (I am unsure if it was an Albertosaurus or Daspletosaurus). With fossil casts coming and going from the TPI lab to museums around the country, the RMDRC is able to swap out displays relatively often, and that helps keep the experience fresh for those who visit regularly. I am also a particular fan of the displays. Even though the rooms are quite crowded with specimens, there is a strong effort to include plants and other scenery that really make them look great.
IF I DON’T LIKE DINOSAURS, WILL I ENJOY MY VISIT?
Well, to be perfectly honest…probably not. The RMDRC is a dinosaur museum for dinosaur enthusiasts, and there isn’t really much to do there besides admire these ancient creatures. Fortunately, the museum is located in a beautiful area full of small restaurants and shops that are within easy walking distance.
WHAT COULD BE BETTER?
Like most museums, space is at a premium at the RMDRC. The dinosaur rooms have lots of specimens on display, but they feel appropriately spaced and it doesn’t feel particularly crowded with fossils. On the other hand, the ocean room does feel really crowded…there are so many fossils and displays in a relatively small room that it is almost overwhelming. It is also a little hard to see each of them, particularly some that hang from the ceiling where so many fossils are displayed that some get in each other’s way, at least when viewing from below.
DID MY CHILDREN ENJOY THEIR VISIT?
You bet they did! Their excitement started before we got inside…from the main road outside the museum you can see the life-size sculptures of a Daspletosaurus and Styracosaurus. My boys ran right over to them once we parked, they are a nice touch that lets the public driving past know what the building holds inside. On his first visit my older son loved seeing the Baryonyx, the only other such display I have seen is the original at the Natural History Museum in London. My younger son enjoyed the tiny but ferocious-looking Bambiraptor the best, it is a small meat-eating theropod dinosaur with long claws and is the perfect size for a six-year-old to imagine wrestling with. There is also a very large gift shop at the RMDRC, one of the best museum gift shops I have seen.
OVERALL RATING, Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center, Woodland Park, CO: 40.0/50.0
Rating Aspects of the Museum’s Fossil Displays:
Number of Fossils/Dinosaurs on Display: (8 out of 10)
Fossil Displays/Creativity/Visual Layout/Overall Scene: (8.5 out of 10)
Unique/New/Famous/Important Fossils on Display: (7 out of 10)
Educational Materials/Display Information/Signage: (8.5 out of 10)
Activities/Play Areas for Children: (8 out of 10)
Overall Rating Information:
40-50: Excellent, one of North America’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!