Fake palm trees along Woodland Park's main drag aren't cheesy; they're prehistoric. And the brand-new, just-opened Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center will show visitors how and why.
According to the Center's team, when visitors leave, they'll have a higher level of understanding of prehistoric life than they'd ever believe. And Colorado is just the place to learn -- 65 million to 20 million years ago, this part of what's now the United States was much closer to the equator. The weather was warmer and the flora more tropical. The proof beckons visitors into the Center: a giant palm fossil (found in Wyoming) seems to wave hello right inside the front doors. On the left, the 5-foot femur of an Apatosaurus points the way.
"We want to bring you back to that time," said curator Walter Stein. Stein is the author of So You Want To Dig Dinosaurs and discoverer of the renowned Sir William site in Montana, which contains the remains of the smallest Tyrannosaurus skeleton ever found. He has worked with the museum's founders/owners, Mike and J.J. Triebold, for many years.
The Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center was "a long time coming," beamed Mike Triebold at the ribbon-cutting ceremony on May 28. His company, Triebold Paleontology, has been active and present in Woodland Park for more than eight years, working with museums and scientific centers across the globe. From the American Museum of Natural History to the National Museum of Japan to Disneyworld, Triebold Paleontology has, for 15 years, provided cast skeletons for sale or rent, and has two traveling exhibitions available for booking. Now everyone can enjoy Triebold's expertise, just 18 miles west of downtown Colorado Springs.
The Center's displays are part of the whole team's work to transform what looks like ancient roadkill into valuable scientific and aesthetic re-creations. All of RMDRC's work is done in-house. Visitors are offered an intriguing peek into the process through a window into the fossil preparation lab, a work area where stacked crates line the warehouse walls like back stock at a bookstore. The crates are surrounded by the tools of the trade: plaster casts and what looks like enormous rock-polishing equipment. Ongoing projects, when completed, will be added to the existing collection at RMDRC.
The collection features not just dinosaurs, but ancient fish and water reptiles too. One of the exhibit rooms is dimly lit and filled with haunting whale song, a dramatic accompaniment to the astonishing Elasmosaur skeleton that seems to skim along the ceiling. Opposite is the world's first 3-D giant Xiphactinus, a fish from a Salvador Dali nightmare, strikingly painted by in-house artist Colin Gore.
The dinosaurs are astounding as well. Look for the giant North American Oviraptor, so newly discovered it hasn't been named yet. There's a huge plant-eater, Edmontosaurus, which has visible grooves on its lower jaw, remnants of an unsuccessful raptor attack. And the RMDRC proudly displays the world's only complete Pachycephalosaurus -- the guys with funny bumpy thick heads -- each lump lovingly preserved.
Videos of dig sites are shown in the Center's theater; this summer's ongoing field operations will be recorded and shared with RMDRC's guests.
"We'll film our work in the field, then play it here," said curator Stein, who will be returning to the Sir William site in Montana this summer. "It's much harder work than what you see on the Discovery Channel. Messy, dirty, smelly work. But it all pays off when you remove that last bit of sand from some perfect claw or tooth and realize that it hasn't seen sunlight in 65 million years."
The chance to participate in the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center's work is what sets the place apart. As Stein puts it, "You're gonna see a lot of things here that you'll never see in other museums."
And every member of the RMDRC team seems to feel the same. The Center has real skeletal specimens as well as cast mold skeletons, and open plaster field jackets hold "touch bones" to let people get their hands on prehistory. A children's corner has dinosaur-related games and tasks for even the smallest enthusiast. Giant, intricate geologic maps encourage both amateur and professional bone-hunters by showing specifically where one might find evidence of ancient marine reptiles and dinosaurs. The Center will also offer informative and entertaining seminars and talks by experts in the field. And if all that leaves you Philistines cold, there's Prehistoric Paradise, the center's fabulous gift shop.
This is a spectacular place, a new hidden treasure in the Pikes Peak region. If you want to day trip, consider the Cretaceous Era and RMDRC. As Center team member Freda Atkinson said, "Colorado has never seen anything like this!"
-- J.N. Nail
Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center
From Colorado Springs, take Highway 24 west 18 miles to Woodland Park. The Center is around the curve at the third light on the left.
Open daily, Monday Thursday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
$9.50 for adults; $8.50 for seniors; $6.50 for children ages 5 to 12; children under 5 are admitted free. Group rates and family memberships available.