Those oddly shaped monsters didn't look like the lions, tigers, elephants and zebras we saw at the zoo.
Without the fossil record, nobody would believe dinosaurs ever existed.
Recently I was offered a tour of dinosaur sites in Utah, one of the best places on earth of view the fossil record. I jumped at the chance.
Opened in 2011, the stone colored building is built into the hillside as though it were an ancient creature only half-excavated. The museum focuses on the history of Utah so the creatures and artifacts on display came from excavations in nearby areas.
In a kid-friendly way, the museum uses pictures and three-dimensional reliefs to show how rivers and mountains were created, what animals once roamed the valley outside and how massive earth events dramatically changed the landscape from a hot, tropical, wet climate to an inland sea and finally into today's dusty, bone dry desert.
Bones Don't Tell the Whole Story
Part of the museum's goal is to give visitors a sense of what life on earth looked like when dinosaurs weren't fossils but flesh and blood.
Which led me to ask our guide, Dr. Randall Irmis, a curator at the museum, "What's that smell?"
He pointed in the direction of the life sized replica of a triceratops being picked at by a small bird-like creature.
There are many diorama in the museum. The one we were looking at recreated the look, smell and sound of a late Cretaceous marsh, seventy-six million years ago in southern Utah's Kaiparowits ecosystem.
Irmis pointed to the duckbill dinosaur bones scattered under the glass floor in a exhibit opposite the marsh. This is "what it is like when you find a dinosaur skeleton."
The pile of bones looked like dried out scraps from a butcher shop floor.
Paleontologists are detectives. What at first sight looks like an odd shaped rock, they'll tell you is actually a knuckle bone and from that one bone they can draw a picture of the entire animal.
From the fossil remains, they can separate bones from different animals who lived thousands and sometimes millions of years apart.
Like the TV forensic scientists on CSI, paleontologists use skeletal remains to understand how, when and why these creatures died.
But there isn't always agreement about the explanations. Illustrating how one fact can lead to different explanations, in a video exhibit, three scientists argue about possible meanings behind a discovery that amazed the scientific world.
Excavated from the Cleveland-Lloyd quarry in Central Utah, almost four dozen Allosaurus skeletons were found together.
To one scientist that gathering of bones means Allosaurus were social animals, dying together like a herd of cattle in a catastrophe like a flash flood.
To other scientists that idea is too sentimental. After listening to their competing views, visitors are invited to vote for one.
There's lots to see at the museum so allow plenty of time for a leisurely stroll where a few steps carry you millions of years as you leave the world of dinosaurs and enter exhibits devoted to the rise of mammals.
Woolly mammoths, giant sloths, saber tooth cats, giant bisons and cave bears look more familiar to our modern eyes, but they are creatures of an alien world no less so than the dinosaurs they replaced.
To Vernal and Back in Time
Three hours east of Salt Lake, the small town of Vernal puts visitors smack-dab in the heart of the Green River Formation where dinosaurs lived in great abundance millions of years ago.
Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum, aka the Dinosaur Museum to locals, a mini-me version of Salt Lake City's Natural History Museum where you can get a quick overview of the fossils that have been recovered from the area and see how scientists work in the field.
Areas are set up for children to search in the rocks and sand pits to find pretend-fossils. Science is fun and there are park rangers at the museum who will happily answer questions about the plants and animals that flourished in the Late Jurassic Period (150-145 million years ago), the Eocene Epoch (55-34 million years ago) and the Cenozoic Era (65 million years ago to today).
Fortified with good food, now it's time to head to Dinosaur National Park just outside of town.
Dinosaur National Park
At the small farming community of Jensen, a turn off leads visitors alongside the Green River into Dinosaur National Park. The cost is $10.00/car to enter.
Quarry Exhibit Center or the wall of bones. Access to this protected area is by the shuttle which runs every fifteen minutes, leaving from the Visitor's Center where you can purchase the "Tour of the Tilted Rocks," a helpful guide about the park with directions to scenic spots.
Earl Douglass stumbled upon a vast deposit of bones.
Douglass used dynamite and pick axes to tear away at the earth, uncovering thousands upon thousands of specimens. As he carted away the fossils he realized he should preserve the site itself because it was as remarkable as the bones.
He ordered that a rich trove of fossils embedded in a rock wall almost as long as a football field and towering five stories be left untouched. Recently, the National Park Service rebuilt the two-story gallery protecting the wall of bones.
In that wall, hundreds upon hundreds of dinosaurs, some small, some mammoth are scrambled together in death, their bones deposited in easy reach of even the littlest of kids.
Park Rangers happily answer questions about the exhibit and visitors can stay as long as they like, but there is much more to explore in the area.
Dinosaurs and More
Having come all this way, you should stay awhile, as locals say.
The area around Vernal is home to a mix of federal and Utah state parkland recreational areas with opportunities for horseback, ATV and dirt bike riding, hiking, fishing, river rafting and boating.
Stand on the top of the mesa above Red Canyon and look down into the gorge created by the Green River as it cuts through the mountains, widening into a reservoir behind the Flaming Gorge Dam, a mini-sized dam that created a maxi-sized body of water stretching across three states (Utah, Wyoming and Colorado).
The kitchen is a converted house boat. The dining room is built on pontoons.
If that isn't enough to satisfy your craving for fat and spiciness, a cheese filled jalapeno popper is hidden under the bun. Quite a mouthful.
Definitely dinosaur-sized and big enough to share.