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Jurassic journey: Follow the dinosaur trail

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Don’t just rent the "Jurassic Park" movie this summer. Live it.

Montana’s dinosaur scene is hotter than ever, and, with a little planning, you can create summer vacation memories that will never go extinct.

In fact, dino-tourism is catching on so fast that four of Montana’s state-coordinated tourism regions are pulling together "Montana’s Dinosaur Trail," a map to guide visitors through Montana’s paleontological attractions.

By KAREN OGDEN
Tribune Regional Editor

http://www.greatfallstribune.com/news/stories/20040627/localnews/729423.html

(Many thanks to Tod Kasten for passing this along- Russ)

For pocket change, you can hop in the car for a Sunday drive to Bynum’s Two Medicine Dinosaur Center to see Montana’s famous baby duckbill dinosaurs.

Travel another 60 miles to Browning, and check out the 74-million-year-old baby T. rex fossil at the Blackfeet Heritage Center next to the Museum of the Plains Indian.

Or plan a weeklong excavation excursion alongside the state’s finest paleontologists, a vacation idea catching on for everyone from home-schoolers to honeymooners.

"It’s amazing how much we have, and it’s not just static displays you can go see," said Gayle Fisher, Great Falls-based executive director of Russell Country Tourism. "There’s the opportunity to dig. There’s the opportunity to see prep work being done and the uniqueness and the different types of dinosaurs that are found in the different areas."

An idea from the tourism regions includes a paleontological passport that visitors could have stamped at each stop, Fisher said.

The regions plan to roll out a media campaign for the trail by next spring.

In the meantime, you don’t need a passport to plan your own dinosaur vacation, and get a firsthand look at some of the world’s most exciting paleontological research.

Here’s a look at what three dinosaur centers in our region have to offer:

Two Medicine Dinosaur Center/Timescale Adventures — Bynum

This paleontological treasure on the Rocky Mountain Front made headlines recently, when a collection of 77-million-year-old baby dinosaur bones — the subject of a long legal battle — was returned to Bynum.

The Trexler family, which operates the center, discovered the precious maiasauras fossils west of Choteau in 1978.

The museum also boasts a life-size model of seismosaurus halli, the "Earth Shaker." At 137Þ feet long and 23 feet tall, the beast has toes bigger than a house cat.

The center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week through Labor Day.

Visitors can watch staff prepare fossils or work on their latest model, a 35-foot-long daspletosaurus.

Admission is $3 for adults and $2 for military, children 12 and younger and seniors 55 and older.

For a more hands-on experience, the museum offers field programs ranging from three hours ($35) to 10 days ($850).

Participants in the 10-day tour can earn college credit through Loyola Marymount University or, occasionally, through independent study programs through other schools.

Paleontologist David Trexler teaches everything from where to look for fossils to how to prep and display your find. Students get hours of digging experience at one of the center’s excavation sites.

When planning your trip, don’t just include the kids.

"We’re seeing a lot more extended families," said Laurie Trexler, director of operations and David’s wife. "Grandparents are starting to travel with them or they take the kids, which gives the parents a vacation."

The center’s gift shop in the old Catholic Church next door features minerals, rocks, fossils, toys and a large collection of natural science books.

Make a "dinomite" day of it and combine your visit with a stop at Choteau’s Old Trail Museum, roughly 15 miles south on Highway 89.

To make reservations for a tour or for more information, call 469-2211 or visit http://www.tmdinosaur.org.

Old Trail Museum — Choteau

Choteau’s Old Trail Museum offers a plethora of paleontological programs.

Day-trippers can take a 2Þ-hour walking tour at the Egg Mountain preserve west of Choteau, one of Montana’s richest dinosaur deposits.

The terrain is flat and even, making it ideal for dino fans of all ages.

Participants will learn about maiasaurus, Montana’s state fossil, dinosaur nesting habits, local geology, land stewardship and other topics.

"We try to relate them into the whole big picture of things," said Erin Craney, geologist and senior field instructor. "Why it is important to conserve our land and what can we learn about ancient creatures."

Those who want to dig deeper can try the museum’s one- and two-day paleo programs. Prices range from $125 to $225.

Lucky prospectors can take home fossilized seashells they find in the limestone cliffs of the Rocky Mountain Front.

In the two-day program, students visit dinosaur excavation sites and practice dig techniques.

For the true dinophile, the center offers three- and five-day campout programs in the Missouri Breaks north of Lewistown. The cost is $1,195.

The Old Trail Museum campus offers a wide range of exhibits on grizzly bears, the Metis people and area history plus an ice cream shop.

For more information, visit http://www.oldtrailmuseum.org/dinodig.html or call 466-3431.

The Dinosaur Field Station — Malta

Home to Leonardo, the world’s best-preserved mummy dinosaur, the high-tech labs at The Dinosaur Field Station in Malta are buzzing with activity this time of year.

The center’s paleontological staff works side by side with volunteers to prepare and study specimens, using everything from air-powered tools to dental picks.

"It’s a changing environment, things come and go, so every time you come through it’s a different experience," said Program Coordinator Sue Frary.

The center’s high-tech lab, which includes a negative air chamber for work on Leonardo, is as impressive as its formidable fossil collection.

In addition to Leonardo, the center is home to two exceptional brachylophosaurus, or duckbill, fossils.

Little "Peanut" is a rare, juvenile specimen. "Roberta," an adult, is remarkable for her articulation, meaning her bones fossilized in the position in which she died.

The center gives tours on the hour from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with the last tour of the day starting at 4 p.m.

The cost is $5 for adults and $3 for children 12 and younger.

Tours are offered Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.

Be sure to stop at the Phillips County Museum next door, for a look at Elvis, a duckbill named for his intact pelvis. The museum offers extensive exhibits on outlaws and other area history.

Weeklong digging programs also are available, running from $800 to $1,200, including lunch and evening lectures.

Participants often return to volunteer at the lab and future digs.

Slots still are available in this summer’s weeklong programs, running from the Fourth of July through the third week of August.

For more information, call 654-5300 or visit http://www.montanadinosaurdigs.com/foundation2.htm.

Fort Peck Interpretive Center and the Fort Peck Paleontology Dinosaur Field Station — Fort Peck

Roughly 88 miles east of Malta is the new Fort Peck Interpretive Center.

Opened this spring, the $6.7 million, 18,000-square-foot facility features life-size models of Peck’s Rex, an exceptionally well preserved Tyrannosaurus rex fossil discovered in the area’s badlands in 1997.

A skeletal model and a fleshed-out, life-like model give visitors a full perspective on the 40-foot-long beast. The center’s floor-to-ceiling windows have a sweeping view of Fort Peck Lake and giant aquariums feature native Missouri River fish species.

Additional interpretive exhibits are expected by summer’s end.

To see scientists at work, visit the Fort Peck Paleontology Field Station, housed in the dam’s old laundry building just down the road.

The field station is a fossil repository for the state of Montana. On any given day, the staff is hard at work preparing, molding and casting specimens. Cast replicas of local fossils are available at the center’s gift shop. For tour information, send e-mail to [email protected] or [email protected] or visit http://www.fortpeckpaleo.com.

The Fort Peck Dam Visitor Center and Museum also features an informative exhibit on fossils and the area’s natural history, including a triceratops skull. A tour of the dam’s massive powerhouses is well worth the time. Tours are offered on the hour from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission is free. For more information, visit http://www.fortpeckdam.com.

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