The western half of Dinosaur Ridge is just a small part of the Morrison Formation, a vast stretch of rippling sedimentary rock strata with outposts in virtually every land-locked state with heavy concentrations in Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah. In 1877, Arthur Lakes, a professor from the Colorado School of Mines in nearby Golden, unearthed bones dating back over 150 million years to the Late Jurassic age. This sparked a general enthusiastic interest in 19th century American dinosaur explorations and helped to later establish other world-renowned fossil sites such as Dinosaur National Monument in Utah. The digs along the Morrison Formation also ignited the notorious Bone Wars between rivaling paleontologists O. C. Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope. Although Lakes was employed exclusively by Marsh, he provided both men with his ancient finds causing each to sabotage and ruin potentially important historical discoveries.
Among the many dinosaurs dug up along this section of the Morrison Formation, the following were the most prevalent and noteworthy. The world’s first tail-spiked stegosaurus was recovered here, classified by the aforementioned Marsh, and later named the official State Dinosaur of Colorado. The long-necked Apatosaurus (a.k.a. Brontosauras) used to dwell here before making an appearance as Littlefoot in The Land Before Time. His counterpart, the scary bipedal predatory Allosauras (think of a smaller version of a T-Rex) once roamed the ancient rocks side by side with the horizontally-figured, whip-tailed Diplodocus. While most of these primordial remains rest in museums across the globe, they all helped to establish the Morrison Formation as the most fossil-rich earth in North America.
The eastern side of Dinosaur Ridge is assumed to be a satellite portion of the Cretaceous Dakota Formation, an ancient shoreline and seaway spanning from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico and reaching as far east as present-day Missouri. In 1937, the city of Denver broke ground on the West Alameda Parkway, an access road from the main highway I-70 to Dinosaur Ridge’s neighboring attraction, Red Rocks Park. The project was halted when workers discovered hundreds of footprints left by the lizard-like Iguanodon species embedded in the rocks. These tracks are slightly younger than the finds at the Morrison Formation, dating back about 100 million years. Paleontologists believe the tracks found here are merely a sliver of what still lies beneath the earth in the Dakota Formation running between New Mexico and northern Colorado. After much vandalism, the calcified tracks were beautifully restored and are now highly visible and interactive.
After visiting Dinosaur Ridge, the surrounding area of Morrison begs to be explored as well. Now familiar with the lay of the land, tourists and natives alike flock to Red Rocks to become dwarfed by massive, soaring striped rocks which forms a natural amphitheatre drawing large music acts every summer. The town of Morrison is a mini-frontier hamlet with quaint shops, cafes, and bars catering to the after-concert crowd. One restaurant in particular, the Fort, lies directly beneath Red Rocks and provides a sweeping view of Denver from it’s expansive dining room. Situated in a recreated Indian dwelling, the Fort serves up buffalo, elk, rattlesnake, and those infamous, yet tasty Rocky Mountain Oysters. For those in need of quick and easy elevation, head to Green Mountain. A lovely jeep trail accessible from the West Alameda Parkway makes for a light hike to the summit of almost 7,000 feet. The panoramic view is unparalleled on the Front Range, boasting uninterrupted views of Denver to the east (and on a clear day, Boulder to the north and Pikes Peak to the south) with the craggy peaks of the Rockies to the west.
This article was contributed by Amy, staff writer at Hansisgreat. Check out her writing portfolio at her blog.