Wyoming is Where the Dinosaurs Roamed
And the Wyoming Dinosaur Center is where you can still find them
By Katie Jackson
Ironically, many of the Wyoming Dinosaur Center’s most satisfied visitors leave the property within minutes of arriving. They show up at 8 a.m. and are almost immediately whisked away to something most museums with world-class dinosaur exhibits don’t have the privilege of offering: active dig sites.
Anyone with an interest in dinosaurs couldn’t dream up a more surreal setting. The Wyoming Dinosaur Center is located in Thermopolis—the geographical heart of Wyoming and home to a fossil-rich landscape that inspired the creators of Disney Pixar’s 2015 film, The Good Dinosaur. In other words, the center’s backyard, at least within a 100-mile radius, is full of bones—really old bones. Millions of years ago, this part of the country was a real life Jurassic Park, sans the screaming humans, of course.
Be our guest paleontologist
Today, the majority of the loud sounds you’ll hear coming from the mouths of humans in the area are shrieks of surprise and utter joy when someone discovers a fossil. And it’s not always professional paleontologists unearthing the ancient treasures. Visitors who sign up in advance for the center’s Dig for a Day Program become guest paleontologists at one of the dig sites. They’re given the same responsibilities, and perks, of being a certified dinosaur hunter. After watching a brief orientation video at the center, the guest paleontologists—some as young as four years old—are assigned tools and find themselves immersed in one of the 130 active sites. Here, under the endless Wyoming sky and the watchful eyes of real paleontologists and archeologists, they can stake their claims for several hours of digging. It may seem like a long time to be sitting in a quarry, but by mid-afternoon when it’s time to return to the museum for the rest of the program, the guides practically have to take the tools out of the eager hands.
Open year-round, the center’s museum receives the most foot traffic. Don’t be fooled by the informative signs and the more than 30 dinosaur skeletons—including the only Medusaceratops in the world—that dwarf you; this is not simply a museum. It’s also a working lab, capable of operating 24 hours a day. In fact, the lab is the first stop for the fossils found in the dig sites. They are painstakingly catalogued, cleaned, molded and casted at the lab’s 10 different stations. Some eventually make it out onto the floor of the museum.
Dig for a Day Program participants are treated to a special behind-the-scenes tour of the lab. There, they can actually work alongside the technicians, using toothbrushes, dental picks and even micro power tools to tackle the removal of millions of years of sediment stuck to the bones. The process may be tedious—for every hour spent digging in the field, there are six hours spent in the lab—but it’s not done in vain. Every new find adds something to the big picture painted by scientists hoping to solve some of the world’s biggest mysteries.
Discover where history is made
The Wyoming Dinosaur Center has specimens from all over the world—including the country’s only Archaeopteryx, which was discovered in Germany. However, many of the center’s crown jewels come from its own backyard. After all, it was a discovery outside of Thermopolis nearly 25 years ago that gave birth to the idea of building a public attraction and research center completely devoted to dinosaurs in one of the country’s least populated states.
What Wyoming lacks in population, it more than makes up for with its potential to show us what life was like in prehistoric times. For example, in 2013 more than 1,000 dinosaur bones were found in Northeastern Wyoming. It’s debatable, but the 2003 discovery of “Sophie” received perhaps even more love from the press. She is the world’s most complete skeleton of a stegosaurus, one of the most well-known dinosaurs, but among the rarest in the world. Where did she spend her final days? Wyoming, of course!
You don’t need to be a statistician to realize the high probability of finding more Sophies, and her friends and foes, in Wyoming’s future. To keep up with discoveries, and the public’s demand to see them, the Wyoming Dinosaur Center is hoping to break ground on a new facility this spring. While it’s exciting news and the staff is looking forward to moving into a more modern building, they know the structure’s bones don’t draw the crowds. For that, the dinosaur bones get all the credit.
Create your own experience
The Dig for a Day Program, offered mid-May through mid-September, is definitely recommended for anyone who wants to potentially make a contribution to science. The center can’t guarantee that guest paleontologists will discover a toe, tooth, hip or even an entire skeleton. But, should a guest paleontologist come across such a find, their name will be recorded in the center’s bone registry—a living document of public history. Some of the best discoveries have come from the center’s visitors. Try to find a museum souvenir more brag-worthy than that!
But if dirt isn’t your thing, the center offers shorter dig site tours where visitors can simply witness the action. Also, museum visitors can observe the lab technicians at work through a glass partition, as they clean and catalogue dig site findings.
That’s the beauty of the Wyoming Dinosaur Center. However you want to walk amongst the dinosaurs, the center has a tour for you. It’s all about the visitor experience, so whatever your interest, timetable, age or family size, you can be sure the center is ready to accommodate your needs.
Discover the world’s center for dinosaur bones. You’ll really dig it.