Southern Utah is home to some brilliant desert scenery. While certainly beautiful, it can be difficult to imagine the landscapes as anything but the sun-drenched hills and valleys, dotted with dry brush and framed by red sandstone cliffs. However, millions of years ago, this land was very different. For example, in the late cretaceous period (somewhere around 75 million years ago), half of Utah was under water, while the other half was part of the island continent of Laramidia, the western portion of what would eventually be North America.
Before that, during the early Jurassic period 200 million years ago, Southern Utah consisted of a floodplain 2, where lakes, streams, and mudflats would form and evaporate on a seasonal basis. These waterways were frequented by dinosaurs, who left behind evidence of their existence in the form of tracks made in the soft mud and river sediments. Many of these tracks were preserved after the water all dried up, and can be seen today in a number of track discovery sites around St. George, UT.
Here are two of the best places to see them for yourself:
Warner Valley Dinosaur Track Site
In 1982, a site containing dinosaur footprints was discovered by Gary Delsignore while he was exploring Warner Valley. Upon initial examination, the site was thought to have around 160 tracks. However, it was reevaluated in 2010, when paleontologists discovered the site actually contains over 400 tracks, and 23 trackways (which are a series of tracks left by the same animal) 3.
While they cannot know the exact species of dinosaur just from footprint alone, paleontologists use the sizes and shapes of the tracks to tie them to groups of dinosaurs who may have made them. The tracks at Warner Valley fall into two types called Grallator and Eubrontes, and paleontologists have theorized what specific dinosaurs may have made them.
All of this information and more can be found on panels at the site, which is accessed by a short hiking trail near Hurricane, UT. The site is free to visit, and most of the tracks are congregated in one area indicated by signs. The trail is under a half mile round-trip, very easy to navigate, and consists of a short, steep hill before reaching the site itself. It’s a great hike to bring your kids, who will love the sense of exploration and discovery as you come right up to the tracks themselves.
Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm
What better way to escape the summer heat than a dinosaur museum? The Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm is located in St. George, UT, and contains a multitude of well-preserved tracks and other fossils. It was discovered in 2000 when Dr. Sheldon Johnson was leveling a hill on his land, and found tracks preserved between the layers of sandstone. He and his wife worked to protect the location, and eventually donated the tracks and land to the city of St. George.
The museum was built on top of the site. While a bit on the small side, it hosts thousands of tracks and is full to the brim with fun and educational things to see and do. It includes a preparation lab where trained volunteer’s clean fossil samples, and a classroom with rotating exhibits and activities.
Viewing of the tracks themselves begins with a short video about the site and what’s to be found there. After that, visitors are free to stroll around a boardwalk built over the original track surface. There are several plaques along the path to explain what to look for and where (some of the tracks can be hard to spot without the helpful guides). Besides the footprints, there are also marks identified as tail dragging, swimming tracks, and even prints from dinosaurs sitting or lying down.
Towards the end of the boardwalk path there are many other fossil types and replicas to view and learn about, and there are some beautiful murals throughout the facility. The museum is staffed by friendly volunteers who are happy to share their knowledge about the site and the species that lived there long ago. All in all, this museum is a fun and intriguing peek into what life may have been like when dinosaurs roamed the land.
- & 2. Information taken from panels at the Warner Valley Dinosaur Tracks Site