ST. GEORGE — There are few places in the world richer in dinosaur fossils than Utah. Dinosaur lovers in this state, or even those of us with a passing interest, can find at least a dozen major dinosaur sites less than a day's drive from our front doorstep.
That's pretty cool.
The St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm is a relative newcomer to Utah's list of dinosaur attractions. This important site was discovered in 2000 when Dr. Sheldon Johnson found a large rock slab covered with perfectly preserved dinosaur footprints while excavating his land for development. The Johnsons quickly contacted their friendly neighborhood paleontologist, and eventually preserved and donated the land for scientific research.
The St. George Dinosaur Discovery site has been called "the most important in the world for researchers working on Early Jurassic footprints."
Today, a museum has been erected over part of the site and visitors are welcome. Those daring enough to visit St. George during the summer will perhaps delight in the air-conditioning at Dinosaur Discovery even more than its educational opportunities.
My family first discovered Dinosaur Discovery several years ago when my children were preschool and toddler-age. We were tagging along to St. George with my husband, who was attending a professional conference, and I was looking for interesting and uniquely local activities to fill our day.
Having passed signs for the dinosaur site on previous trips, I decided that its day had come.
After maneuvering my big double stroller through the front doors I was happy to find flat, wide paths, activities for children and selected dinosaur prints that children and their curious grown-ups are welcome to touch.
St. George Dinosaur Discovery is meant to be enjoyed slowly. A walk to the end of the building and back only takes a few minutes, but by stopping to read the signs on the self-guided tour, I better understood what I was seeing and could attempt to translate the information for my young children. Docents are on hand to answer questions.
What makes dinosaur footprints so interesting? They give us ideas about how dinosaurs moved and behaved. Tail drag marks — or lack thereof — at the site tell us whether a dinosaur dragged his tail behind him or carried it in the air. Skin impressions show what the outside of a dinosaur looked like.
Visitors to the St. George Discovery site will find more than just dinosaur footprints. A reconstruction of a dilophosaurus has recently been added to the collection, perfectly sized and positioned to match his footprints. Another reconstructed dinosaur will be unveiled in May 2013.
Fossils of dinosaurs, fish, shells and plants are also on display to offer visitors a broader picture of the ecosystem than existed here many, many years ago. Special exhibits change every few months. Flying dinosaurs are the subject of the current special exhibit.
I may be the only one in my family who still remembers that outing, but I am a believer that excursions like these make our family smarter. Family field trips help build connections in young brains that prepare them for later learning. They also keep adult brains active and vital.
I enjoyed our visit to Dinosaur Discovery enough that we returned with the whole family a year or two later during another trip to St. George.
The St. George Dinosaur Discovery at Johnson Farm is still a work in progress. According to Rusty Salmon, Executive Director of Dinosaur Discovery, an outdoor play area is in the works. More importantly, the current building only covers some of the dinosaur prints at this site. As attendance and funding at Dinosaur Discovery increase, this attraction is sure to become even bigger and better.
Know Before You Go
Where: 2180 East Riverside Drive, St. George
When: Open Monday-Saturday year-round. Open on Sundays March-September. Hours change seasonally; check website for details.
How Much: Adults - $6.00, Children (ages 4-11) - $3.00 Children (under 3) - Free
How Long: 2 hours
Tourist in Your Hometown is a column celebrating great destinations inside the State of Utah.
Allison Laypath is an expert on family travel and author of the family travel blog tipsforfamilytrips.com. With her family, Allison especially enjoys road trips, national parks and local field trips. Email Allison at email@example.com.