Your Spring Road Trip: Montana’s Dinosaur Loop

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Montana's Dinosaur Loop
Photo courtesy Museum of the Rockies.

By HOLLY ENDERSBY

March and April are muddy months in Montana: snow’s melting, but trails are still impassable, and fishing’s not great as rivers are running high. Plus, it’s tough to schedule an outdoor adventure with the unpredictable weather. Sometimes, it’s best to just go with the flow and find another avenue for exploration.

Luckily, in Montana, we have the Dinosaur Trail that beckons one to follow along in the muddy months of spring. Montana has been the hot spot of dinosaur discoveries since the mid-1800’s and even today, new finds are being unearthed.

There are 14 stops along the official Dinosaur Trail, and a handy map is available online at mtdinotrail.org. The map highlights the dinosaur museums in the state and is a great way to plan a road trip in the spring.

The badlands of eastern Montana offer the motherlode of exposed dinosaur fossils in the world. Many of the giants that grace the halls of museums in Chicago, New York City, Washington DC, and Los Angeles came from our state.

North America’s first dinosaur discovery was made near Judith Landing in what is now the Missouri River Breaks National Monument. In 1854 naturalist Ferdinand Hayden discovered the Trachodor, a duck-billed dinosaur.

Another early paleontologist to explore Montana was Othniel Marsh, who discovered the first Triceratops and Stegosaurus. The world’s first Tyrannosaurus Rex was discovered in Hell Creek near Jordan in 1902 by paleontologist Barnum Brown.

Despite these discoveries and railroads shipping carloads of fossils east in the early years of paleontology, you can still find fossils in Montana today.

Makoshika State Park Interpretive Center near Glendive is a great first stop on your spring tour. Here, where the badlands are most steep and rugged, fossils are regularly found as rain and snow continually wear away soil to unearth the fossils hidden below. The center is operated by Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks and includes not only fossils but evidence of early human habitation in the area as well. Be sure to also visit the Makoshika Dinosaur Museum in downtown Glendive, where you will find life-size models of dinosaurs that roamed the area as well as fossils found locally.

Your Spring Road Trip: Montana's Dinosaur Loop

A preparation lab helps visitors understand the painstaking approach to preserving and displaying fossils. The museum offers arranged dinosaur digs: call 406-377-1637 or go to www.makoshika.com.

Montana’s first museum, the Carter County Museum in Ekalaka, has some original fossils, of dinosaurs on display. This includes a skeleton of a Hadrosaur, a complete skull of a Triceratops, and a miniature look-alike of the T-rex, called Nanotyrannus lanensis. All the bones were found in the nearby Hell Creek Formation. For hours of operation, call 406-775-6886 or go to www.cartercountymuseum-ekalaka.org  The museum offers guided digs during the summer.

Montana’s Hell Creek Formation in Southeast Montana is famous for its dinosaur fossils. While in most places dinosaur fossils are far under layers of earth, this formation is exposed due to a unique combination of erosion over time and ground upheaval as part of the Badlands geology. This formation is unusually large and continues into North and South Dakota as well as Wyoming.

The Two Medicine Dinosaur Center in Bynum features the first North American infant dinosaur bones found in 1978 near Choteau. In addition, the Center is dedicated to citizen science and offers the opportunity to work with professionals on digs throughout the summer. Check the Center’s website at tmdinosaurcenter.org or call (800-238-6873).

Bozeman boasts the Museum of the Rockies, which showcases one of the most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex that was found in 1997 in Fort Peck Lake. A cast of the fossilized remains is displayed at the Fork Peck Interpretive Center while the actual fossils are at the museum in Bozeman. Montanans can be proud of the fact that the Museum of the Rockies has the world’s largest collection of Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus Rex fossils as well as a mostly complete Brachylophosaur, measuring 33 feet long.

Of special interest to dinosaur buffs is “Leonardo,” a mummified Brachlophosaurus discovered in 2001 near Malta. This specimen has most of its body covered with fossilized skin, making it one of the most important discoveries of its kind. A cast of this dinosaur is displayed at the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum in Malta. The museum also offers summer digs, so call (406-654-5300) or go to dinosaur@itstriangle.com.

So, return to your inner child, that 10-year-old kid who was fascinated by dinosaurs, and hit the Montana Dinosaur Trail this spring. Or take the grandkids. You’ll be glad you did! MSN

Your Spring Road Trip: Montana's Dinosaur Loop