The cast skeleton of a plant-eating Camptosaurus from the late Jurassic period stands in the Dinosaur Journey Museum in Fruita. In addition to bones, the museum features animatronic reproductions of dinosaurs that move, growl and, in the case of the Dilophosaurus, even spit water. © Dan Leeth
From Stegosaurs to steam engines, three easily overlooked Western Slope museums offer must-see glimpses into Colorado’s past.
By Dan Leeth
Originally published: March/April 2017
Colorado suffers no shortage of museums. From Pueblo to Fort Collins, Front Range communities host a myriad of galleries commemorating everything from the ancients to aerospace.
The Western Slope, too, sports a plethora of appealing museums, but with out-of-towners motoring down the highway, rushing from town to town, many are all-too-often overlooked. Here are a trio of worthy but easily missed Western Colorado museums examining three divergent periods of our state’s diverse past.
550 Jurassic Ct., Fruita, 970-858-7282
Located just off Interstate 70 in Fruita, Dinosaur Journey honors those primordial reptiles that roamed the area a few million years ago. It’s part of the Museums of Western Colorado’s trio of galleries, which also includes the Museum of the West in downtown Grand Junction, and Cross Orchards in the Fruitvale neighborhood of eastern Grand Junction.
“Fruita is one of the world’s premier places to find dinosaurs,” said Julia McHugh, the museum’s curator of paleontology. “We have dinosaur fossils from the Jurassic period and from the Cretaceous period. We have amphibian and crocodilian fossils from the Triassic period, and we have mammalian fossils from the Cenozoic era.”
The spacious museum, its displays arranged by geologic period, includes dinosaur bones along with full-size cast skeletons of more than a half-dozen of these bygone creatures. Visitors can see a model Stegosaurus—Colorado’s official state fossil—the reconstructed head of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and one of the largest Triceratops skulls ever found. Exhibits also feature dinosaur tracks and fossil fish.
A favorite for both kids and adults are the museum’s full-size animatronic reproductions of dinosaurs. These life-like creatures move, growl and, in the case of the Dilophosaurus, spit at its unsuspecting prey. Young boys hoping to gross out their sisters, no doubt, will love the replica of a fearsome Utahraptor dining on the severed head of its dinner entree.
One popular hands-on, or in this case feet-on, exhibit is the museum’s earthquake simulator. Guests can stand on a platform and feel the shake, rattle, and roll of earthquake-quivering ground. Unlike a real thing, there are no collapsing buildings to worry about here.
The museum houses a collections room where scientists study dinosaur specimens and a working laboratory where technicians fabricate casts and prepare bones for display. There’s a sandbox where youngsters can have fun making their own dinosaur tracks and a simulated quarry site where kids can uncover dinosaur bones. For those wanting to take part in the real thing, the museum offers summertime dinosaur digs.
“We do a pay-to-dig program, where we take kids as young as 5 and as old as 90 out to dig up dinosaurs with us,” explains McHugh. “We take them to pits where we’re still getting new species out.”
Hours: Through April 30, 10–4, Monday through Saturday, and noon–4 on Sunday; May 1–Sept. 30, 9–5, seven days a week.
27501 CO-184, Dolores, 970-882-5600
“A full-size example of what an Ancestral Puebloan pit house might have looked like sits in the Anasazi Heritage Center near Dolores. Built to hold and display artifacts unearthed before the building of McPhee Dam, the museum displays one of the state’s finest collections of Ancient Puebloan artifacts and serves as headquarters for Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. © Dan Leeth
Operated by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Anasazi Heritage Center outside Dolores holds one of the state’s finest collections of Ancient Puebloan artifacts, and serves as headquarters for Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.
Centuries ago, indigenous farmers lived in the Four Corners area, growing corn, squash, and beans along streams. Their residences evolved from half-buried pit structures to the elaborate stone complexes found at nearby Mesa Verde National Park.
“If you would have been here 800 years ago, you would have seen homes stretching all through the valley up the slopes toward Mesa Verde,” said BLM museum specialist David Kill. “Various estimates have put the prehistoric population at between 30,000-40,000 people. That’s more than live here now.”
The museum, which opened in 1988, came as a result of building nearby McPhee Dam. Before the Dolores River valley could be flooded, the law required an archaeological assessment to be done. The resulting endeavor yielded more than a million artifacts, with the Anasazi Heritage Center built to house and display them.
The main gallery offers a chronological timeline ranging from approximately 8,000 BC through the late 1200s, when the people migrated from the area. It sports a full-size example of what a pit house might have looked like—complete with pottery, baskets and fire pit. Glass-encased cabinets display an extensive collection of pottery in an evolving series of styles.
In addition to the visual displays, the museum offers interactive exhibits. Guests can grind corn using rocks just as the Ancient Puebloans did, and a loom where guests can learn to weave.
Outside, the Anasazi Heritage Center features two Ancestral Puebloan sites named after the famous pair of Spanish priests who visited the area in 1776. The Dominguez ruin, which lies near the front entrance of the center, contains four rooms outlined with low stone walls. A far more extensive ruin, Escalante Pueblo, lies up a half-mile, wheelchair-accessible paved trail. Built atop a hill, the site features almost 30 rooms and a large, circular kiva.
Hours: 9–5, March–Oct.
479 Main Ave., Durango, 888-872-4607
Engine 42 sits on display in the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum in Durango. Built in 1887, it was used by the Rio Grande Southern Railroad from 1916-1952. Before landing in the museum, it was displayed at a motel in Alamosa, an amusement park in Golden, and a bank in Monument before returning to Golden as a Heritage Square restaurant centerpiece. © Dan Leeth
The museum sits behind the Durango & Silverton Depot in downtown Durango, and surprisingly, it seems to be overlooked by passengers and locals alike.
“It’s probably the best-kept secret in Durango,” said museum attendant Dennis Berkey. “My doctor has lived here for years and didn’t know it existed.”
Naturally, the museum displays a lot of railroad equipment. Locomotive 42 was used by the Rio Grande Southern on tracks that ran from Durango to Ridgway by way of Mancos, Rico and Telluride. It was retired in the 1950s.
Nearby looms locomotive 478, which kids and adults love because they can crawl into the cab and pretend to be Casey Jones. Other rolling stock includes the General Palmer car, built in 1880 as a business-class car; the 0500 Caboose; and a baggage car from the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. If it’s not too busy, attendants will take guests back to see the emigrant sleeper car once used to transport foreign families to mountain mining towns.
Besides railroad gear, the museum sports Durango’s first motorized fire engine and a half-dozen automobiles, five of which are vintage, and one that definitely is not—a solar-powered race car that was built as a class project by students at Principia College in Missouri, using solar cells scrapped by the space program.
Hanging overhead is a full-scale replica of a 1913 Curtiss Headless Pusher Model “D” aircraft whose goggles-wearing pilot looks as if he’s riding a winged motorcycle. It was the first airplane to fly in Durango and taking off from the town’s 6500-foot base, the plane quickly set a winged-aircraft altitude record.
For many, the highlight of the museum is the sobering military memorabilia display reminding guests that “Freedom is not Free.” It features a series of miniature, hand-painted dioramas depicting various battles, beginning with the Revolutionary War. Weapons, some real and other replicas, lie scattered within. The exhibit ends with models of modern-day armament, and a stirring, three-minute video.
“Every time I see and listen to it,” Berkey said, “I get tears in my eyes.”
While freedom may not come free, the museum does. No admission fee is charged to visit.
Hours: Through April, 1–4 on days the train is running (see train schedule at durangotrain.com); mid-June through Sept., 7–7; May, early-June and Oct., 7–6.
Dan Leeth is a writer/photographer from Aurora and frequent contributor to EnCompass.