It’s hard to envision when looking at the Front Range of foothills, but millions of years ago those mountains were at the bottom of an inland sea, an area that is now rich with dinosaur fossils and other prehistoric features. Many species of dinosaurs and other wildlife used the corridor to travel north and south across the continent. Visitors can reach back in time to an era 100 million years ago as they walk along Dinosaur Ridge, a one-mile interpretive trail arcing along the hogback, a spine of Dakota Sandstone that marks the boundary between mountain and prairie.
Joe Tempel founded the non-profit Friends of Dinosaur Ridge in 1989 to preserve the area and educate others about the abundance of resources along the Dakota hogback. Now executive director, Tempel recommends that dinosaur enthusiasts begin their exploration at the Visitor’s Center, tucked in at the bottom of the hill that marks Dinosaur Ridge. “It’s a nice place to get familiar with what you will see on the ridge and get a trail guide,” says Tempel.
The Visitor Center provides those guides and more, with numerous fossils and artifacts, books and films. And, of course, there are fun gift items and souvenirs, with puzzles and t-shirts to help kids remember their visit. It’s a popular place; “We have about 50,000 people a year move through the visitor center,” Tempel says, “with another 50,000 visiting the trail.”
The grounds at the center offer a respite from what can be a sunny, windy location; shady picnic tables are just outside the door, and cold drinks and restroom facilities are close by. Several “painted dinosaurs,” 6-foot-tall Stegosaurus models painted in bright motifs, enliven the grounds.
Up the road, Dinosaur Ridge offers a path into the past. While it is possible to drive along the trail, parking is limited, and stopping on the road is both illegal and dangerous. Walking the trail is highly recommended. The terrain is fairly easy to travel with kids and strollers; the road is paved, although it is an uphill journey to the top of the ridge. The one-mile trail features marine and plant fossils and trace fossils, or trails and burrows of small invertebrates.
A kid favorite is the dinosaur track “wall,” a near-vertical area with over 300 footprints of plant-eating and carnivorous dinosaurs, silent reminders of the dinosaurs that populated the area long ago. Other popular stops along the trail include ripple marks in the rocks, with evidence of waves and currents along Cretaceous-era beaches; “Bronto Bulges,” Jurassic dinosaur tracks in cross-section; and the final stop on the west side of the trail, the site of the 1877 discoveries of dinosaur bones from Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus and Allosaurus.
An excellent way to visit Dinosaur Ridge with children is on Dinosaur Discovery Days. Scheduled monthly in the warm-weather months, Discovery Days is a dinosaur “open house,” with West Alameda Parkway closed to traffic from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., making it much easier to navigate the trail. Interpretive guides are available at each of the trail stops to answer questions and bring the dinosaur stories to life. Admission is free, and a shuttle bus will transport visitors from the Visitor Center to the trail for $2.
Meanwhile, in Golden, Triceratops Trail at Fossil Trace is Dinosaur Ridge’s newest offering. It’s a ½-mile each way loop trail next to Fossil Trace Golf Course. The trail is more rustic than Dinosaur Ridge, with no restroom facilities. The path is gravel and stroller-friendly, and offers an easily-accessible window into the “trace fossils” left by dinosaurs, birds, mammals, beetles and plants in this ancient, swampy habitat.
“The fossils are a great reason for people to visit us here,” says Tempel. “Another reason to come to Dinosaur Ridge and Triceratops Trail is for the education, to learn how this area was formed. It’s all about connections. You touch time, make connections and learn to respect the beauty that is here.”
Dinosaur Ridge, 16831 W. Alameda Pkwy., Morrison; (303) 697-3466;
Visitor Center hours: Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
The trail is open every day, 24 hours a day. Admission to the trail is free; donations are accepted.