By RICH GRANT
If you happen to be looking for a pretty ocean beach where you could get some fresh clams, octopus and squid, you might try Dinosaur Ridge, just outside of Golden, Colorado. Of course, you would be 100 million years too late. Back then, this site was a pretty shoreline of an inland sea that stretched to the “Artic Circle” (there was no ice anywhere on Earth back then). But there was lots of seafood we still eat and beautiful surroundings of conifers, palm trees and ferns.
And, oh, yes, 18-foot long crocodiles. And 30-foot long, four-ton flesh-eating dinosaurs.
Golden has become world famous to scientists, who give it a Number One rating as the most important dinosaur track site in the United States.
But you don’t have to be a scientist to enjoy this geological wonder. There are four trails that let you walk through and experience 150 million years of history. The west side of Dinosaur Ridge is an outdoor geological laboratory of life 150 million years ago. The east side lets you learn about animal life from 100 to 95 million years ago.
Then drive a few miles to the Triceratops Trail and enter a place that is frozen in time from 68 million years ago, a period when the world’s largest flesh-eater – the 40-foot long, 15-ton Tyrannosaurus Rex – walked this very same ground.
Since dinosaur fossils were first discovered in this area in 1877, Golden has been a special place to geologists and paleontologists, and, today, the U.S. National Park Service has declared it to be the Morrison-Golden Fossil Area National Natural Landmark, which attracts almost a quarter of a million annual visitors.
Here’s what to see:
It was here on the west side of the ridge in 1877 that Professor Arthur Lakes from the Colorado School of Mines in Golden and other geologists from Yale University discovered some of the first major dinosaur fossils dating from 150 million years ago.
This set off what was called the “Dinosaur Gold Rush,” and scientists from all over the world came to Golden and the West in search of more fossils.
Amazingly, in the 1930s, a road was built over Dinosaur Ridge to provide easier access to Red Rocks Amphitheatre. This road uncovered some of the largest and best preserved tracks of dinosaurs and other animals from 100 to 95 million years ago.
The discovery was more important than the road, so the road has been closed to traffic. Today, on the east side, there is a small museum, gift shop and parking area, easily accessed from Golden on Rooney Road.
You can hike the 1.5 mile long “Dinosaur Freeway,” or bike it, and there are informational markers along the way explaining the geology and animal history. For a small fee, there are walking tours with knowledgeable guides. Since the road climbs several hundred feet in elevation, you can also take a guided, socially-distanced bus tour, which leaves every half hour and includes stops and a chance to get out at five major sites.
You’ll see hundreds of dinosaur tracks (charcoal dust is rubbed in the tracks to make them more visible), view dinosaur fossils still embedded in rock, and learn how this former ocean bottom is now part of a mountain 6,000 feet high.
There are spectacular views of Red Rocks to the West, and Denver to the east, and the visitor centers (one on each side of the ridge) have fun dinosaur-themed gift shops, free picnic areas and full-size replica dinosaurs.
It’s a little difficult to find, but worth the effort. Park on the east side in the area around 19th and Highway 6 (the main exit for downtown Golden).
Follow the bike trail that parallels the highway south to the Triceratops Trailhead. Here, a gravel path winds through a former clay mining pit along the western edge of Fossil Trace Golf Course.
It takes a little imagination to realize that 68 million years ago, these large vertical sandstone rocks were once the bottom of a marshy area along a river.
Over eons of time, mud formed on top of sand, and then more sand on top of that.
The sand turned to rock, the mud became clay, and the whole thing was pushed up vertically when the Rocky Mountains were formed, 72 million years ago.
The clay was valuable and mined to make bricks, which built Denver’s East High School and the Colorado Governor’s Mansion.
Along the trail you’ll see the first Triceratops tracks ever discovered, and what is possibly a very rare T-Rex track.
Triceratops was the first horned dinosaur found. It was a virtual four-legged tank weighing up 13 tons, and with its three horns is often pictured doing incredible battle with the T-Rex.
The two dinosaurs certainly knew each other, but signs indicate they were unlikely to have fought each other, and rather than weapons, the Triceratops horns were more for refrigeration of the body and for courtship, like antlers on deer and elk.
There were probably very few battles between T-Rexs and Triceratops, though they remain two of the most popular dinosaurs for toy figures and films.
The trail also provides wonderful views of the whole Clear Creek Valley and Fossil Trace Golf Course, ranked as one of the most beautiful public courses in Colorado. The Geological Viewpoint is one of the top views in Golden.
This historic town was the first capital of the Colorado Territory and now makes more beer than any other place on Earth. From this 68 million-year-old viewpoint, you can see Coors Brewery, the largest single brewery on the planet.
I-70 Geologic Rock Cut
To build Interstate I-70 west, the highway department had to cut right through the Dakota Hogback, creating a geological marvel that displays 250 million years of history. Located at Exit 259, just south of Golden, the half-mile-long cut on I-70 is 400 feet high. Some 25 million tons of rock had to be removed from here. There is free parking on both sides of the Interstate and trails on both sides provide an upclose look at the geology of the region. Interpretative signs along the way tell the story of the rocks.
Red Rocks is the only completely natural Amphitheatre on the planet and is more famous for hosting rock concerts than for the rocks themselves. Everyone from the Beatles to Bruce Springsteen has played here, ad the theatre was the venue for up to 160 concerts a year before the pandemic.
But the rocks themselves are 250 million years old and have a fabulous backstory. They were once the beach of a great inland sea 100 million years ago.
Compressed into stone and colored red by iron, they were uplifted 72 million years ago when the Rocky Mountains were formed. Being softer sandstone, they were pushed up at an angle.
A wonderful one-mile trail on the north end of the park has geological markers and climbs, up through and around the colorful stone, explaining the geological history of the area.
When you get done hiking, nearby Golden has eight beer gardens that have all been expanded during the pandemic to allow for social distancing. Two lanes of the main street have been closed to traffic to socially distanced outdoor cafes – all with panoramic views of the strange rock formations and mountains that circle the town.
Golden is just 12 miles from downtown Denver. For information: Visit Golden.
All of the abovementioned areas are open and outdoors, with easy social distancing. Masks are required to enter exhibit areas, gift shops and tour buses. Currently, Colorado law requires masks be worn in all public places.
Unfortunately, the museum is currently closed due to covid-19.
It was started in 1874 by Arthur Lakes, the same man who found the first dinosaur fossil on Dinosaur Ridge. The museum contains thousands of fascinating exhibits on rocks, geology, gold and gems. You can enter a uranium mine, see pieces of rock from the moon and Mars, and view Miss Colorado’s crown, which has 600 gemstones, including 21 diamonds. Check the website for updates on opening.
…Aug. 14, 2020