It may take a leap of imagination to see the arid, rocky environment of western Colorado as the humid, swampy home to dozens of dinosaur species, but Fruita’s Dinosaur Journey will make it all seem real.

Well worth the stop if you are on the Western Slope, this hands-on, interactive museum is perfect for kids who love dinosaurs; parents may even find themselves learning a few things. Part of the Museum of Western Colorado, Dinosaur Journey is poised near several active dinosaur digs in a region rich with fossil history and dinosaur lore.

Begin your visit with a 20-minute video that sets the stage with the Triassic–Jurassic–Cretaceous timeline, during which different species of dinosaurs flourished. The film brings the prehistoric story to life with depictions of the giant meteors that spelled doom for the dinosaurs.

In addition to interactive exhibits, the museum offers real dinosaur digs in one- and five-day excursions.

Then, travel inside where large-scale robotic dinosaurs, dozens of fossils, interactive displays and views into working paleontology labs promise to entertain and educate guests of all ages.

The robotic dinosaurs roar and move, seeming to interact with visitors. Some of the displays are joystick controlled, letting kids control the movements, while others are of the “press a button and watch it happen” variety.

“We built the robotics to scale,” says John Foster, one of the museum curators, “in order to get them to fit in the building.” Commonly known species such as Stegosaurus and Triceratops are on robotic display, while real bones and cast skeletons include Velociraptor, the scary predator made famous in the movie “Jurassic Park.” Without spoiling the surprise, let’s just say that Hollywood took some creative license with this creature.

Other displays include hands-on fossils, leaf impressions and natural history interactive exhibits. A kid favorite is the water cycle feature, complete with flowing water, pebbles and bamboo shoots.

Youngsters make a beeline for the exhibit, where they can build a dam, float small objects through the current and watch eddies form and fall away. An excavation pit filled with crushed walnut shells yields fossils for young paleontologists. Nearby, an earthquake simulator rumbles into action with the effect of a 5.3 Richter scale quake.

An 18-foot-tall cast of the front limb of a Brachiosaurus is one of the cornerstone displays in the museum. The first such fossil ever discovered, it was found within the city limits of modern-day nearby Grand Junction. The massive hip and front leg tower over visitors as they imagine the size of the entire creature, twice as tall as the display.

The actual fossil is on display at Chicago’s Field Museum. “There’s plenty of real bone on display here,” explains Foster. “It’s just that it’s so heavy, it’s often impractical to mount.”

Visitors can experience roaring robotic dinosaurs, including a stegosaurus and a Velociraptor, the predator made famous in “Jurassic Park.”

Another powerful display is the re-creation of a full-size Tyrannosaurus rex leg, awesome in its size and strength. A full-size head is on display not far away; even viewed through the lens of millions of years, teeth the size of a banana are impressive.

Visitors can watch through windows as new finds are painstakingly released from the rock that has encased them for eons. Through the glass, row upon row of dinosaur bones are neatly labeled and ready for inspection. Seeing the lab even when it’s unoccupied can be compelling; a Coke can sitting next to a 150-million-year-old chunk of Allosaurus skull is a still life in its own right.

“One of the things that sets Dinosaur Journey apart is that we have a working lab on site,” says Foster. With reservations, museum guests can sign up for “Dino Digs” and take part in a real dig for one- or five-day excursions. “On the one day dig, we travel to the quarry, then come back to the lab later in the day,” says Foster.

The five-day trip takes visitors through nearby Colorado National Monument, with a hike to fossil sites unknown to the public. A rafting float trip affords access to more fossils, while the trip rounds out with several days of digging side by side with paleontologists.

The entire facility is stroller- and wheelchair-friendly, and while refreshments are limited to a couple of vending machines, there is a pair of “golden arches” within walking distance. A gift shop awaits visitors at the museum’s exit, with the requisite t-shirts, trinkets and dinosaur memorabilia.

Depending on where you begin your trip, it can seem like a very long drive to Fruita. However, considering the fact that these dinosaur fossils have been waiting to be seen for millions of years, a 5-hour drive from Denver doesn’t seem so bad.

If You Go

Dinosaur Journey, 550 Jurassic Court, Fruita; www.dinosaurjourney.com; (970) 858-7282

Hours: Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 4 p.m.

Admission: $7 for adults, $6 for seniors, $4 for children. Free to members. Combination tickets for the Museum of Western Colorado, Cross Orchards and Dinosaur Journey: $12 for adults, $10 for seniors, $8 for children

Kelly Smith, who is married and the mother of two daughters, is a longtime Denver resident. Kelly and her family embrace the Western life, enjoying skiing, whitewater rafting and the great outdoors. She is an editor at Colorado Parent magazine and a former editor at Mountain Living magazine. Her stories have appeared in Architecture & Design of the West, Colorado Homes & Lifestyles, Colorado Parent, Herb Companion, Log & Timber Style, Mangia, Mountain Living and Natural Home & Garden.

From the Editors: We spent a heap of time making sure this story was accurate when it was published, but of course, things can change. Please confirm the details before setting out in our great Centennial State.

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