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Dinosaur fossils help drive Montana tourism

BOZEMAN, Mont.

It's not difficult to imagine dinosaurs prowling the wide-open spaces of the American West. That's especially true here in Montana, where the state's plains go on and on and lonely highways weave ribbons through the vastness. At the crest of every rolling hill it wouldn't seem out of place to see a triceratops rumbling along.

Today we call it Montana Big Sky Country, but what has been unearthed down below is just as impressive. Perhaps more so.

I used to be quite a dinosaur geek, thanks to my son, who fell in love with the prehistoric behemoths as a preschooler. It's a common obsession of little kids, and we spent lots of time talking about terrible lizards (T. rex), earth shakers (seismosaurus) and all sorts of raptors (veloci-, pyro- and micro-). He outgrew his dino period quickly; they sank their teeth into me a bit longer.

So on a driving trip through Montana last summer, I grabbed the brochure for the Montana Dinosaur Trail (yes, there is such a thing) and plotted to visit as many of the 15 stops as I could. My goal of getting my "Prehistoric Passport" stamped at each locale was dashed when I was overruled by the other occupant of the car. Pick a couple, he said. (If we'd hit them all, we'd probably still be driving. That's one big state.)

So that's how I ended up plunking down $5 to see one of the world's largest dinosaur snaking around the inside of a prefab metal building in Bynum and then spending a day getting up close and personal with the fossils at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman.

The search continues

Some of the biggest dinosaur discoveries in the world have been in Montana. The first Tyrannosaurus rex fossil and the largest T. rex were discovered here. The world's "best preserved dinosaur," Leonardo the Brachylophosaurus, is at the Dinosaur Field Station in Malta. There's even a state fossil, the maiasaura.

While there are some Dinosaur World elements to the state's celebration of prehistoric creatures (the friendly and colorful dinos near the Ice Cream Parlor in Choteau look similar to those we see on Interstate 4 in Plant City), paleontology is a big and serious business. Scientists and graduate students toil on digs in their Indiana Jones hats, and there are summer programs where novices can help excavate prehistory. Some of the state's biggest discoveries have gone to large museums such as the Smithsonian.

About 75 dinosaur species have been found in Montana, more than any other state. The landscape during the Jurassic period, some 155 million years ago, was more coastal and swampy; the mountains of Glacier National Park were forming then. Think Pacific Ocean and Everglades. Cowboys and outdoor enthusiasts, both common Montana species today, wouldn't recognize the place. The dinosaurs survived in Montana through the Cretaceous Period and then — poof! — they were gone.

Sizing up seismosaurus

The state's most impressive collection of dinosaurs is at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, home to Montana State University and plenty of unique restaurants. When the weather is good, and that's always sort of a gamble, find a sidewalk cafe for a quick bite before or after your museum visit. On a July visit, I asked a server at Ted's (of Turner fame) Montana Grill when the snow comes to this part of Montana. She wrinkled her nose and looked at the sky. "Maybe tomorrow."

To get to Bozeman from Glacier, we first travel south on U.S. 89. In the rearview mirror are mountains, ahead of us undulating hills and that famous big sky. First I see the sign for Two Medicine Dinosaur Center and then another that promises the world's largest dinosaur. We are in Bynum, I guess, but there doesn't seem to be much else here except a rock shop and a metal building. That's where the 137-foot skeletal model of the seismosaurus lives. The "earth shaker" is 23 feet tall.

The center is cool and weird at the same time. It offers hands-on research opportunities in its lab and out in the field from May to September. There are two paleontologists on staff. For a time, I am alone with the big dinosaur, wondering what his skin looked like or if he would just swallow me whole if he could see me standing there.

A few other folks wander in and we all look up, mouths gaping slightly. It's hard to imagine that this big guy was running around out there. There are a few other exhibits, but the earth shaker is the star of this show.

Sounds of science

The Museum of the Rockies is a world-class science museum. While dinosaurs are the main draw, there is a planetarium plus an impressive permanent exhibit on the American Indians that roamed the northern plains. There is also a pioneer homestead outside and a great gift shop.

But it's the dinosaurs that speak to me. Literally. Scientists have re-created the rumbling, squeaking, moaning sounds they think the prehistoric creatures made. There are also exhibits of models with skin and features. Who knew they were so colorful?

The museum houses the world's largest T. rex skull and one of the first identified females. We spend a couple of hours with the big guys and then my guy gets fidgety.

I guess extinction has its limits.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8586.

. IF YOU GO

Montana's dinosaur land

• The state's Dinosaur Trail pinpoints 15 places where visitors can see dinosaur fossils and take part in excavation or restoration projects. (Check ahead for schedules.) Most of the stops are across the more desolate northern part of the state. For more information, go to mtdinotrail.org.

Two Medicine Dinosaur Center, where the skeletal model of the seismosaurus is on display, is on U.S. 89 in Bynum. Cost to check out the big guy and other exhibits is $5. The center offers hands-on programs in the summer and lab activities year-round, though the center is open in winter only by appointment. For information, call toll-free 1-800-238-6873 or go to tmdinosaur.org.

• The Museum of the Rockies, which is affiliated with Montana State University, is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily Memorial Day through Labor Day, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 12:30 to 5 p.m. Sunday the remainder of the year. Tickets are $9 to $13, free for children under 4. The museum, at 600 W Kagy Blvd. in Bozeman, houses one of the world's largest collections of dinosaur fossils. For information, call (406) 994-2251.

Bozeman has a college town vibe and there are lots of fun shops and interesting restaurants to check out. It's also a major winter sports hub. The city of about 40,000 is on Interstate 90, so there are plenty of major chain hotels near the highway. We stayed at a Hampton Inn for about $140 a night.

An outside table at Ted's Montana Grill (105 W Main St.; (406) 587-6000) is a good spot to people watch. Order a bison burger topped with Monterey Jack, jalapenos and guacamole (about $10).

On the other end of Main Street is the Montana Ale Works (611 E Main St.; (406) 587-7700). The expansive bar was jammed with people of all ages. The food is labeled "upscale comfort food," and I would concur. The meat loaf comes wrapped in bacon and draped with caramelized onion gravy. We liked the Fiery Cajun Calamari, which was dusted with Cajun spices and served with two sauces, garlic-chili aioli and a spicy red sauce ($10.95). Try a glass of Moose Drool Brown Ale, brewed in Missoula, Mont.

Dinosaur fossils help drive Montana tourism 02/19/11 [Last modified: Saturday, February 19, 2011 3:30am]

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