2012 Road Trip Photos #6: Fossils and Folly at Dinosaur Ridge

Our itinerary for Day Three continued from the Red Rocks Amphitheatre to nearby Dinosaur Ridge, less than a mile down the road as the crow flies. We’ve seen dinosaur fossils before at the Children’s Museum in Indianapolis, as well as the Natural History Museums in Manhattan, Chicago, and Washington, DC. Truth be known, simple fossil exhibits aren’t as exotic to me now as they were in my youth. The displays at Dinosaur Ridge offer a different take on the subject — their fossils and samples are outdoors and still embedded in solid rock, exposed ever so slightly for visitors to see them in their natural habitat instead of being reassembled on a dais or sealed inside a glass cabinet.

When I first learned of the Dinosaur Ridge premise, I imagined entire walls filled with a panoply of complete, recognizable skeletons. That’s not quite the reality. The entrance and welcome center set the stage just like any standard museum, with the prerequisite dinosaur statues and shelves of dinosaur toys. For an added flourish, off to one side is a stegosaurus pride parade.

The natural exhibits comprise the wall along a curvy, uphill mile of Alameda Parkway heading west from the visitor center. No cars are allowed up the ridge except the official Dinosaur Ridge shuttles. The shuttle ride is free, as is their tour guide who elaborates on any points of interest and keeps you focused on the marvels you’d hoped to witness. If you’d prefer to chart your own destiny, pedestrians and bicyclists are permitted to traverse the ridge as they see fit. Our family policy is we prefer to set our own pace and avoid trapping ourselves in other tourists’ schedules or paces. In some situations this can be advantageous if you know what you’re doing and have all the same exhibit access that the tour groups do.

In this situation, it meant a stubborn one-mile walk uphill, which mostly looked like this. Open highway plains to the left of us, rough terrain to the right.

Every several hundred feet, we’d arrive at something of note. This collection of preserved footprints wins Best of Show, Dinosaur Ridge Exhibit category.

If your child thinks ancient plants are as cool as dinosaurs, this selection of imprints may make an interesting poster.

Most of the long walk was decorated with naught save rocks, stones, pebbles, boulders, and suffering grass. In a few spots, helpful signs invited more specific attention to traces that are scientifically noteworthy, easily overlooked, and nearly invisible to the untrained eye.

Closer inspection could reveal greater detail, or stump the more impatient onlookers.

Thinking about chiseling your own souvenirs out of the walls? Think again! Guests are strongly encouraged to tattletale on other guests. Big Paleontology is Watching You. Amateur geology is ungood. We have always been at war with Eastdakota.

If you survive your one-mile uphill calisthenics, congratulations! Your reward is a breathtaking sight of other Rocky Mountains in your area. If you’re a seasoned hiker (which describes none of us), this was a cakewalk. If you’re my wife and you’re still acclimatizing to the thinner air at this elevation, a nearby bench offers a broad landscape view and a moment to reflect on your husband’s boneheaded decision to skip the shuttle.

The return trip downhill was thankfully easier and faster. The rematerializing storm clouds that dogged our heels certainly encouraged a brisker pace and inspired us to catch our second wind. By the time we reconvened at the car, the threat of downpour subsided and it was still only 11:30 a.m. MDT. Our long day in the Rockies was far from over. As you can imagine, walking requirements were negotiated down to a bare minimum at subsequent stops.

To be continued!

[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for previous and future chapters, and for our complete road trip history to date. Thanks for reading!]

2012 Road Trip Notes on the Go, Day 3: Misty Mountain Marathon

We’ve never been so happy to have rain on our vacation. Our various Colorado clerks and service reps were even more joyous for any weather other than “hot with a chance of combustion.”

Our entire day was spent in, around, and hugging the Rocky Mountains, which we finally located once the storm system lightened up. Fortunately all roads dried quickly, and temperatures stayed in the low 70s all day long. As the driver, I was afforded the opportunity to navigate the winding, twisting mountain roads with half my mind paying attention to the road and the other half overwhelmed by dozens of miles of looming, gargantuan majesty.

We started at the Red Rocks Amphitheater, a concert venue built into a mountainside, reportedly with fantastic acoustics. Numerous joggers convene there early in the morning for workouts, zipping up and down the stairs, back and forth across the rows. A setup crew was working onstage for tonight’s scheduled concert (weather permitting), the Beach Boys, on their 50th anniversary tour and far from their natural setting. The reverberations were keen enough that I could overhear one-half of a conversation between two joggers standing fifty feet away, one of whom was facing the side wall.

The drive up Alameda Parkway to the amphitheater was scenic in its own right. Back at ground level, the same parkway leads in the other direction directly to Dinosaur Ridge, but Google Maps hadn’t taken into consideration that this straightforward route was permitted only for pedestrians, bicyclists, and shuttle buses. That meant we had to leave the parkway, drive back north to the interstate, drive to the very next exit, then drive back south to where we nearly began. The folks at the gift shop were among the friendliest we’ve met this week, but we made the mistake of taking a self-guided walk up the ridge rather than taking the optional shuttle bus with a helpful, informed tour guide.

Without the bus or the guide, our experience amounted to an uphill one-mile walk to view one set of dinosaur footprints, several examples of variegated stratification, some plant fossil imprints, and one or two very tiny, singular fossils embedded in the cliff walls, no full sets of skeletons. After missing out on whatever the tour guide told the paying customers, we found the subsequent one-mile downhill walk back to the car a little disappointing. The healthier, better equipped bicyclists zipping past us up and down the route each added just a few grains of salt to our wounds. That salt was then washed away when the rain returned for a few minutes. This was not our finest hour.

From there to Lookout Mountain was a jaunt of less than ten minutes, thankfully by car and not by foot. We weaved through a network of posh mountainside homes to reach the Buffalo Bill Museum and final resting place of the man, the myth, the legend, and his wife. Since the only other restaurant along the way had been shut down, our lunch wound up being at the museum’s Pataska Tepee cafe, decent diner food at gift shop prices. Mr. Cody’s gravesite, adjacent to a panoramic lookout, notes his accomplishments as a husband, an Indian fighter, and a Masonic lodge brother.

Even more fun than all of the above was the adventurous trip down the other, more dangerous side of Lookout Mountain. That led us northward through Boulder (which resembled some of our upper-class suburbs back in Indy, except Colorado has ten times as many bicyclists), up through Lyons and into Estes Park, where we later stopped to check out the famous Stanley Hotel, Stephen King’s inspiration for The Shining and filming location for the Steven Weber TV adaptation (not Kubrick’s version). Alas, its lot is gated, secured, at at first glance not welcoming to any busybodies without reservations. Also odd: whereas the fictional Shining hotel is isolated from civilization, the Stanley is a stone’s throw away from a dense, sprawling conglomeration of tourist shopping traps.

Estes Park is also the eastern gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, a natural smorgasbord of mountains, more mountains, animals, and still more mountains. Mostly I remember miles upon miles of looking and staring and pondering and then staring some more, with an occasional sidelong glance the road in front of me to confirm I wasn’t colliding with anything. In addition to the Alluvial Fan falls and the bighorn sheep meadow (empty today, alas), we also saw several squirrels, one weird black-and-white bird, and two sleeping snakes we didn’t dare disturb. By this time our legs were all damaged to varying degrees, so we enjoyed God’s grand works more from the car than I would’ve preferred, but it was a direct consequence of overextending ourselves. Enjoyed immensely, sure, but overextended nonetheless.

This is not unusual for us. Every one of our road trips has had its share of setbacks, oversights, and moments of humility. We accept the situation, note the results mentally for future reference, and make sure we took plenty of photos anyway. Today’s lessons learned the hard way:

1. Mind your altitude changes. The drive up Alameda Parkway, the walk up to the amphitheater, the excited walk down its sixty-odd steps, and the beginnings of the walk back up said steps combined with the thinner atmosphere to leave my wife dehydrated and struggling to breathe. We had all expected me, the least healthiest of us three, to succumb to illness first. No one would have bet on her to draw the short straw. I made the trip back to the car, fetched two bottles of water, and returned to where she left off, thankfully without falling ill myself. After some resting and drinking, her condition improved, but we paid more attention to our physical statuses the rest of the day. (Rest assured the subsequent Dinosaur Ridge two-mile round trip was marched at an extremely slow pace, foolhardy though it might’ve been nonetheless.)

2. Let your credit card company know your travel plans. My wife faithfully notifies her provider every year. I’ve always interpreted this as a polite courtesy on her part, not a mandatory task. When we tried to check in Sunday night at our hotel, my card was declined without comment. I wrongheadedly dismissed it as a card reader error. When we stopped for gas today in Boulder, lightning struck twice. Sure enough, after one unhappy phone call to my provider, I found my card had been flagged for “suspicious activity” because I’m out of town. We’re all straightened out now, but I was not excited about having to make other arrangements. I should be grateful that they’re watching out for my interests, but those two awkward moments in hindsight feel more as though I were subject to the whims of an overprotective parent.

3. Remember your time zone at all times. I keep forgetting we’re in Mountain Daylight Time rather than Eastern Daylight Time, and consequently failed to do the math in time to realize that Bunheads started at 7 p.m. here, not 9 p.m. I’ve another item to add to my back-home to-do list, then.

4. If someone offers you a shuttle bus that’s inexpensive or free, you say YES.

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