It was not long ago that Arizona captured the title of “fastest-growing state in the country.” But Arizona has long been a popular place to live – even since before it was Arizona. Even since before there was a North America.
The state’s popularity dates back 245 million years, when the landscape of the planet was very different and much more lush. The state was then home to dinosaurs such as Poposaurs, Aetosaurs and Phytosaurs.
More recently (recently on a geologic scale) there were Tyrannosaurus rex, Plesiosaurs and Dilophosaurus Wetherilli, a type featured in the movie Jurassic Park (although it’s highly doubtful this carnivore actually spit venom or had a frilled hood as depicted in the film).
While at times it might seem as if all traces of Arizona’s formidable former inhabitants are gone, the state is riddled with dinosaur fossils in places such as Bisbee, Tombstone, Mt. Elden and Peppersauce Canyon. There are so many fossils, in fact, that people who aren’t even looking for them find them. For example, a University of Arizona student found the first-ever Sonorasaurus fossil while hiking in a remote canyon in Pima County.
You can find an active “Dino dig” at almost any time somewhere in the state. And, while most of the dinosaur fossils found here have been sent out of state in the past, Arizona museums are now making it a priority to keep the state’s fossil finds closer to home.
Here are some of the best places to learn about Arizona’s dinosaur inhabitants.
Tucson Mineral and Gem World
There’s no dino scat here – at least not prominently displayed – but this shop and museum does have pretty much anything and everything else relating to dinosaurs and fossils, plus meteorites, minerals, artifacts and rocks. And it’s almost all for sale.
Opened in 1968, and still operated by the same family, Tucson Mineral and Gem World has an entire section devoted to fossils, many of which were found in Arizona, as were many of the museum’s meteorites. Don’t be afraid to ask the staff technical questions – most of them have museum backgrounds.
Arizona Museum of Natural History
The Arizona Museum of Natural History in Mesa (formerly known as the Mesa Southwest Museum) is home to the largest collection of dinosaurs in the state, but it offers more than just dinos. Exhibits cover all aspects of natural and cultural history starting from the beginning of the solar system and ending in the present day. See a Triceratops, armor-plated fish fossils and territorial prison cells, used to corral outlaws on the frontier.
Also, the museum’s six active paleontology excavation sites scattered throughout the state are open to the public. One of the sites is the excavation of the newly discovered Zuniceratops.
Tuba City Dino Tracks
Five miles outside Tuba City, you can follow in the footsteps of Arizona’s dinosaurs – literally. Hundreds of three-toed tracks belonging to the horse-sized, plant-munching dilophosaurus have been preserved in the desert floor (which was a flourishing forest when the dilophosaurus were wandering about).
At one particular spot, evidence of a prehistoric struggle has been preserved. The ancient tracks tell of a dilophosaurus family meeting a dilophosaurus-eating T. rex. Judging from the fossilized evidence, the T. rex caused quite a bit of damage: there are fossilized smashed dilophosaurus eggs jutting out of the earth as well as the fossil of a downed adult dilophosaurus.
But the T. rex didn’t cause these casualties without incurring a loss of its own. Look at the sandstone closely and you’ll see a five-inch claw that the T. rex didn’t mean to leave behind.
The Tuba City Trading Post is a good place to find a guide to the tracks as well as other ruins in the area. Whether with a guide or not, keep in mind that you are the guest of the Navajo and Hopi nations when in this area.