Montana is synonymous with dinosaurs. Why is Montana such a hotbed for dinosaur fossils. ?
Answer, it is atop the Hell Creek Formation, a 300-foot-thick bed of sandstone and mudstone that dates to a period between 66 million and 67.5 million years ago, the time just before dinosaurs went extinct. Stretching across the Dakotas and Montana (in Wyoming, it’s known as Lance), the formation—one of the richest fossil locations in the world—is the remnant of great rivers that once flowed eastward toward an inland sea. More than 65 million years ago, the Montana landscape was very different than it is today. A large inland sea covered much of the area that is now Montana. It created a semi-tropical flood plain not unlike the Everglades of Florida today.
Here are some cool facts: Paleontologists have discovered 75 different species of dinosaurs in Montana, more than any other state in America. The oldest dinosaur fossils are found in rocks of the Jurassic Period, which are 155 million years old. Most Montana dinosaurs come from Cretaceous Period rocks, including the “raptor” Deinonychus, made notorious by the 1993 motion picture Jurassic Park. About 80-75 million years ago, nesting dinosaurs lived in the coastal plains next to the inland sea. Many millions of years later, Tyrannosaurus rex, vast herds of horned Triceratops, and the armored Ankylosaurus all lived in Montana.
During the millions of years the dinosaurs ruled this region, the climate and geography were very different from today. Inland bays of the Pacific Ocean during Jurassic times and the Atlantic Ocean during the Cretaceous period provided Montana with a hot and humid subtropical climate. I didn’t know this information. I learned it when I attended the Dinosaur Trail spring meeting in Choteau. Attendees of this meeting represented the 14 sites across Montana that make up the Dinosaur Trail. Each location offers a glimpse at the historic discoveries in the state and provides visitors with a better understanding of the giants that once inhabited our planet.
Before we get to much further into the Montana Dinosaur Trail, it needs to be addressed by it’s correct name, the award winning Montana Dinosaur Trail. The Montana Dinosaur Trail won the Heritage and Cultural Tourism Award at the 2022 Montana Governor’s Conference on Tourism & Recreation!
The Dinosaur Trail meeting was one of the most interesting meetings I have ever attended in my 20 year career. In the room was Montana’s “Who’s Who” of museum curators and paleontologists led by Dr. John B. Scannella from Museum of the Rockies. Also at the meeting with Clayton Phipps. Despite having no formal training and no academic background, Phipps is one of America’s leading commercial fossil hunters. His nickname is the Dinosaur Cowboy. If you’ve heard of him, it’s probably because he’s one of the stars of Dino Hunters, a show that started its second season on the Discovery Channel this summer. Phipps is also famous for finding the Dueling Dinosaurs, a specimen containing the complete fossils of a 22-foot-long T. rex and a 28-foot-long triceratops that may have been locked in combat. It’s only the second set of fossils that has been found depicting a carnivore and a herbivore together. Phipps unearthed it in 2006, just 10 miles from Old Faithful. Tyler Lyson, a paleontologist with the Denver Museum of Nature & Science who’s seen the bones up close, calls it “one of the most remarkable finds in the last 50 years.” Phipps and two of his friends were the one that found the Montana Dueling Dinos. The ‘Dueling Dinosaurs’ fossil shows a T. rex and triceratops in a possible fight.
From Rudyard to Ekalaka you’ll find 14 unique dinosaur-themed locations making up the statewide trail. The journey is a combination of various stops like museums to state parks. Dinosaur enthusiasts can take their time exploring all the unique spots at their own pace. The Central Montana’s portion of the Montana Dinosaur Trail includes the following sites at Bynum, Chinook, Choteau, Havre, Harlowton and Rudyard.
Montana dinosaurs at the Montana Dinosaur Center include the world’s longest dinosaur, a full-size skeletal model of Seismosaurus halli (earth-shaker lizard); a Guinness Book of World Records listing at 137 feet long, nearly 23 feet tall at the hips. The Center also features the first baby dinosaur bones found in North America among its displays and is famous for its public hands-on dinosaur research and education programs. Advance registration required for most programs; some offer college credit. Programs available through the Montana Dinosaur Center are designed to allow participants to work beside actual research professionals and staff. Such interaction allows participants to learn current principles and techniques of fossil preservation, leading to better reporting and documentation of fossil discoveries.
Newly named The Montana Dinosaur Center to include the world’s longest dinosaur, a skeletal model display of a Seismosaurus, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Dave Trexler, Two Medicine paleontologist designed and built this natural-looking 137 foot model with a curved the neck and tail. Other displays include the first baby dinosaur remains found in North America, recently featured on CNN, and the actual remains of other new dinosaur species. The Blaine County Museum’s Paleontology Department displays a dozen Judith River Formation exhibits including Hadrosaur, Gorgosaurus and Ankylosaurus fossils from the area. Remains of gigantic marine reptiles Mosasaur and Pleisosaur are featured, along with invertebrates from the area’s ancient ocean (75-500 million years past). In the Look, Touch and Wonder room, guests can handle fossils of sea creatures, plants and dinosaurs that roamed this area millions of years ago
Many dinosaur discoveries of world-wide significance have been found in Montana and along the Montana/Canadian border. One such find, 75 million year old dinosaur eggs with embryos found in the Judith River Formation, is on display in the H. Earl Clack Museum. Research suggests these eggs were laid by a Lambeosaur, a large duck-billed, plant-eating dinosaur that grew bigger than most of the meat-eaters of its time.
The Rudyard area has provided dinosaur specimens for the Museum of the Rockies (MOR) and other premier institutions for years. Now an MOR affiliate, the Depot Museum’s signature display is the “Oldest Sorehead,” a fully articulated Gryposaurus found near here. The facility’s lifelike duckbill dinosaur and egg nest display places you right next to these ancient creatures. Other permanent and changing dinosaur exhibits. Open Memorial Day to Labor Day.
The Upper Musselshell Museum in Harlowton is also part of the Dinosaur Trail in Central Montana. The museum’s centerpiece is a full-size replica of a skeleton found in the Judith River Formation near Shawmut: an Avaceratops, the first dinosaur found of its kind. The Avaceratops had a short, deep snout with a thick and powerful lower jaw. The museum also has a Hadrosaur tibia and fibula, a cast of a Gypsonictops jaw, a large ammonite (coiled chamber shell of an extinct mollusk), and much more.
The last stop on the Dinosaur Trail in Central Montana is located near the Two Medicine Formation along the Rocky Mountain Front. The Old Trail Museum in Choteau features a “Dinosaurs of the Two Medicine” paleontology gallery. The area west of Choteau is where egg shell fragments and baby dinosaurs were found thirty years ago, forever changing how the world thinks about dinosaurs.
You really should complete the Dinosaur Trail. You can see the eight other places along the trail at the Dino Trail website.
Did you Know: Former Museum of the Rockies Curator of Paleontology, Dr. Jack Horner is the scientific adviser for all the “Jurassic Park” movies?
Can you Dig It?
Three of the 14 Montana Dinosaur Trail facilities provide public paleontology field dig opportunities: Montana Dinosaur Center, Great Plains Dinosaur Museum and the Carter County Museum.
Get the Prehistoric Passport. If you need help organizing your dinosaur adventure, you may be interested in the Prehistoric Passport. This handy tool can be used to learn about each of the primordial displays, exhibits, and activities at all 14 stops. The passport also includes a fun interactive opportunity to get a “Dino Icon” stamp to verify your visit to each location.
Once you have received all 14 stamps, you will receive a gold seal and an exclusive Montana Dinosaur Prehistoric Passport T-shirt made just for those who complete the trail.
- North America’s first identified dinosaur remains were found in Montana in 1854, near Judith Landing in the Missouri River Breaks National Monument. Naturalist Ferdinand Hayden found the remains of what paleontologist Joseph Leidy attributed to a duck-billed dinosaur called “Trachodon.
- The world’s first identified T. rex was found in the Hell Creek area near Jordan, MT, in 1902 by paleontologist Barnum Brown.
- North America’s first baby dinosaur bones were found in 1978 near Choteau, Montana at Egg Mountain. They are now displayed at the nearby Montana Dinosaur Center in Bynum, Montana.
- “Leonardo,” the “mummy” Brachylophosaurus, found in 2001 near Malta, Montana, with the majority of its body covered in fossilized skin, is recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the best preserved dinosaur ever found. A cast of the specimen is on display at the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum in Malta.
- “Montana’s T. rex,” found near Fort Peck Lake in 1997, is one of the most complete T. rex specimen ever found. A cast of the specimen is on display at the Fort Peck Interpretive Center in Fort Peck, Montana, and the real skeleton is displayed at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana.
- Montana’s first county museum was created in 1936 to display dinosaur remains found in Carter County by amateur paleontologists. The Carter County Museum is in Ekalaka, Montana.
- The Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana has the world’s largest collection of T. rex and Triceratops specimen.
- “Elvis”, a nearly complete and articulated hadrosaur was found near Malta, Montana in 1994. It was named for the Rock-n-Roll Legend because its hip was found first. The 33-foot long Brachylophosaurs fossil is on display at Malta’s Phillips County Museum and Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman.
- The most complete juvenile T. rex was found in Carter County, Montana, in 2001. A cast of the specimen is on display at the Carter County Museum in Ekalaka, Montana.
- Wyrex, discovered in 2004 in Fallon County, Montana, was the first T. rex to have a complete third metatarsal. A cast of the specimen is on display at the Carter County Museum.
Central Montana Tourism
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