It was about an hour into our dig under the blazing Wyoming sun that my 6-year-old, Henry, cried out, “I found one!”
The geologist working alongside him, Angela Reddick, cocked her head, raised her eyebrows and stepped off her small pad to inch in for a closer look. I was skeptical. Already, 4-year-old Silas and I, working nearby, had found scores of “bones,” only to hear the disappointing verdict that they were rocks.
We were digging in the midst of the Morrison Formation, a sedimentary rock sequence that’s among the most fertile sources of dinosaur fossils in North America. As we chipped away at the soft rock and earthen surface with dull oyster knives and trowels, sweat dripped down our necks. Beyond our mesh shade structure, the landscape rolled off into the distance, a sea of sage and red-dirt hills.
You would think that the odds were against us, an inexperienced trio with only one truly focused and committed member (Henry). But Reddick was examining his discovery with diligence. She ran her hand over the sleek, black material that Henry had partially unearthed and squinted. The three of us watched, breathless.
“Congratulations, Henry,” she said. “You found yourself a dinosaur bone.”
Sweeter words have never been spoken to a first-grader. Henry beamed as she created a small, white label to mark the bone, which she said was massive. There was no way we would dig it out in its entirety, she told us. Rather, we’d leave it for other teams to slowly liberate and then, when it was ready, professionals would wrap it in a plaster cast and transport it to the Wyoming Dinosaur Center’s laboratory, where it would be cleaned and catalogued.
Henry’s satisfaction was contagious, and we all were jolted with newfound energy. Silas exuberantly congratulated his big brother and then, in his excitement, tried to lift the bucket into which we had been tossing big rocks we pulled from the dig site.
Reddick immediately switched from lecturing scientist to astute guide and protector — a transformation she did effortlessly and frequently on the day we spent together — and relieved him of the heavy load. She dumped it away from the quarry and then returned to deliver high-fives all around. It was enough encouragement to keep us baking in the midmorning June heat of Central Wyoming for another hour.
Last spring, a friend from Fairbanks, Alaska, flew her family of five to Utah, rented an R.V. and set out on a western dinosaur tour that included Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and the Dakotas. Until she sent me an enthusiastic email raving about their stop in Thermopolis, I couldn’t have found the Wyoming town on a map. But it is home to the Wyoming Dinosaur Center, where kids and adults alike can join in authentic excavations and then get firsthand experience in a high-tech lab before touring the center’s impressive museum. There they’ll see “Jimbo,” a supersaurus, one of the largest dinosaurs ever mounted, and “Stan,” a 35-foot Tyrannosaurus rex, charging a triceratops. The museum has more than 30 mounted skeletons and hundreds of displays and dioramas.
In her email, my friend encouraged me to head north from my Colorado home, post haste, and to plant my kids in the shoes of a paleontologist for a day. What could be more interesting, more educational, more hands-on than excavating, cleaning and studying dinosaur bones in the field?
“You’re in the quarry, with the tools, hacking away at the rock,” my friend wrote. “It’s worth every penny. I would do it again in a heartbeat.” She ended her missive with a warning to make sure that the kids knew we wouldn’t be digging for a T. rex; the bones buried near Thermopolis come from sauropods.
I looked “sauropods” up in the dog-eared pages of Henry’s dino encyclopedia and learned that the name means “lizard-footed” and that this class of dinosaurs lived in the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, roughly 65 to 150 million years ago. They’re known for having extremely long necks, long tails and small heads. Oh yeah — they were also the largest animals to have ever lived on land. That sounded pretty cool.
What sounded even better was the chance to encounter the bones in the real world, far from the natural history museums where we could look at but not touch those compelling skeletons. But the Dig for a Day price was steep — $150 for me and $100 for each of the boys — and I wanted to make sure this would be a worthwhile endeavor before shelling out $350 for a one-day activity. I needn’t have worried. When I asked if they wanted to drive for eight hours into Wyoming to dig for dinosaur bones, the answer came quickly and unanimous: Absolutely!
Naturally. Ever since they could express opinions, Henry and Silas have clamored for books about dinosaurs. They’ve corrected me when I’ve mistaken arthropods for sauropods (rookie mistake). They wear dinosaur-decorated clothes, and their flip-flops leave archaeopteryx tracks in their wake. One sleeps with a stuffed triceratops, the other with a plush T. rex.
Two weeks later, we downloaded Disney’s “The Good Dinosaur” (the scientists at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center were consultants on the 2015 animated film, which takes place in what is modern-day Wyoming) onto the iPad and hit the road.
A privately owned facility, the Wyoming Dinosaur Center opened in 1995. It was the brainchild of a German-born, Switzerland-based veterinarian and amateur fossil collector, Burkhard Pohl, who vacationed in Wyoming in 1993. During his trip, Pohl fell in love with Thermopolis, which in addition to being a hub of oil and gas production is renowned for its elk hunting, fishing and hot springs. In that auspicious visit, Pohl and friends also discovered dinosaur bones on the ranch that he would subsequently buy and transform into the Wyoming Dinosaur Center.
Today, the center constitutes a 16,000-square-foot facility that includes a museum, fossil-prep lab and approximately 130 dig sites (roughly 20 are active). Construction on a new museum is slated to begin in April 2017.
There are several ways to visit the center, and the Dig for a Day program, which runs mid-May through mid-September, is the most comprehensive (and most expensive). Other summer programs include a museum visit ($10), a dig-site tour ($12.50) or a combination of those two. During the winter season (mid-September through mid-May), the museum and lab are open, but the dig sites are closed.
Since the center’s inception, workers have removed more than 10,000 bones from the excavation sites. Reddick confirmed my friend’s information: Most fossils are from long-necked sauropods, which include the camarasaurus, diplodocus, camptosaurus and apatosaurus. The quarries sit atop a bone bed where an ancient stream washed bones together in a river channel and buried them in silt.
By late morning, even Henry had tired of the dirt so we headed back and ate our center-provided sack lunches in the museum’s massive, air-conditioned storage area, where industrial shelving held dozens of excavated bones awaiting cleaning and classification. Then we headed into the laboratory, where Reddick sat us down at a cluttered table, put practice bones in front of us and provided us with toothbrushes, small hooks and containers of water to chip away sediment and clean the bones.
If excavating outside had the potential for tedium, this activity held an even greater risk, as it demanded similar focus and concentration — hard to summon after the morning’s adventure. Our eyes were collectively glazing over. Reddick must have sensed our fading. Why else would she have brought out the drill?
Turns out that a more efficient method for removing plaster, sediment and grime from dinosaur bones is to use power tools. As Reddick handed the drill to my 4-year-old and pointed to where on the ancient fossil he should concentrate, I interrupted, fearful that he might, you know, make a mistake. She assured me that they set aside less-than-perfect bones for this exact scenario and then let him loose. He was thrilled, pressing the drill all over the bone and watching material flake away. There are few things in life more powerful for a preschooler than mechanized tools. (Silas also loves our vacuum). To be immersed in the lab with the freedom to work on his bone for as long as he liked was pure bliss for him.
Eventually we wrapped up our lab component and followed Reddick through the museum for a personal tour. The highlight was the center’s most valuable display: a fossilized archaeopteryx from some 150 million years ago, one of 10 in the world (the others are all in Europe). A birdlike creature that had teeth, a tail and wings, the archaeopteryx is roughly the size of a crow. Pohl, the center’s founder, brokered the private sale of the fossil in 2006 and today it sits, on loan, under bulletproof glass with an elaborate security system.
I had no idea that one of the world’s most valuable fossils was under lock and key in the middle of Wyoming, and I was transfixed. It was beautiful in a lacy, intricate way, and I peppered Reddick with questions as I read all the interpretive information posted next to the display.
That’s when the boys wilted. It had been a long day, and they were exhausted. So I sent them to the multimedia section of the museum, where a video was playing on a large screen, and continued to cram my brain full of dinosaur information I hadn’t even known I craved.
Afterward, I collected the kids, somewhat amazed at the unique adventure we had just completed. I recalled the email from my Alaskan friend and made a mental note to thank her for tipping me off to the center’s existence. A week later, home and rested, I typed a message and hit send. Then I reread her original email and realized that I had essentially parroted her enthusiasm back to her.
“Wow!” I wrote. “Never done anything like that before. Worth every penny. I’d definitely go back.”
Walker is a writer and editor based in Boulder, Colo. Follow her on Twitter at @racheljowalker.
More from Travel:
For more dining and lodging suggestions in Wyoming’s dinosaur country, visit washingtonpost.com/travel
Best Western Plus Plaza Hotel
116 E. Park St.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this modernized Best Western is located in Hot Springs State Park, next to the Big Horn River and near the Wyoming Dinosaur Center. Rooms from $93..
Days Inn Hot Springs Convention Center
115 E. Park St.
The interior of this Days Inn is filled with photographs of exotic hunting trips and big-game trophies collected over the original owner’s lifetime. Rooms from $110.
115 E Park St.
Located inside the Days Inn, the Safari Club Restaurant offers a variety of entrees, including homemade soups, salads and slow-roasted prime rib. My kids loved the hunting trophies mounted throughout. Entrees start at $13.
512 Broadway St.
Authentic Thai food that’s flavorful and affordable. Entrees start at $10.
Wyoming Dinosaur Center, Dig for a Day
110 Carter Ranch Rd.
Dig for a Day costs $150 per adult and $100 for kids age 12 and younger. Admission includes activities, lunch and transportation to and from the dig site.
Hot Springs State Park
538 N Park St.
Home to world-famous springs, revered by Native American tribes and which helped establish Thermopolis as an early 19th century medical center for their presumed healing powers, this state park offers swimming, hiking, playground and picnic facilities. There’s also a free bath house whose therapeutic pool is maintained at 104 degrees. Park entrance is free.
Legend Rock State Petroglyph Site
220 Park St.
There are more than 92 prehistoric petroglyph panels and more than 300 figures etched into the sheer, 400-meter long red rock cliff band at Legend Rock State Petroglyph Site. Visitors take a free, self-guided tour. The site is located around 30 miles northwest of Thermopolis and is open year-round.
Yellowstone National Park
The country’s first national park, Yellowstone is 135 miles (roughly 2.5 hours by car) from Thermopolis. Park entrance fees from $30 for a seven-day pass.