Arizona has long been a popular place to live—even before it was Arizona. Even before there was a "North America."
The state's popularity dates back 245 million years when the landscape looked a lot less like a desert and was more lush. At least 15 different species of dinosaurs, including the famed Tyrannosaurus rex, called the area home, according to the types of fossils found here.
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. 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.
Recreated dig sites, fossils and other kids' play
Opened in 1968, and still operated by the same family, Tucson Mineral and Gem has pretty much anything and everything relating to dinosaurs and fossils, as well as a selection of meteorites, minerals, artifacts and rocks. And it's almost all for sale.
Its section of fossils includes many 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.
The Arizona Museum of Natural History in downtown Mesa 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.
For a more hands-on experience, head to the museum's Paleo Dig Pit where kids can dig and discover fossils in a recreated dig site. The DinoZone features tunnels, slides, video and other interactive elements to continue the prehistoric fun.
In Scottsdale, Pangaea Land of the Dinosaurs is an immersive experience that's part of a larger set of attractions that include an aquarium, laser maze and the largest butterfly conservatory in the country. Guests can take part in a fossil dig, explore replicas of 14 different dinosaur species and even make their way through an inflatable T-Rex obstacle course. Upgraded tickets include a dinosaur ride and art stations.
Five miles outside Tuba City off of State Highway 160, you can follow in the footsteps of Arizona's dinosaurs—literally. Hundreds of three-toed tracks belonging to what is believed to be the horse-sized, plant-munching dilophosaurus are preserved on the desert floor—part of what's now known as the Moenkopi Dinosaur Tracks located on the Navajo Nation.
You'll even find evidence of a prehistoric struggle with tracks that tell the story of a dilophosaurus family meeting a T. rex. Fossilized smashed dilophosaurus eggs can be spotted near the fossil of a downed adult dilophosaurus. Look a little more closely and you'll also see a five-inch claw the T. rex didn't mean to leave behind.
Bonus tip: After you've finished touring the tracks, head about half an hour southwest to the stunning and alien-like rock formations of the Blue Canyon in Moenkopi Wash. The little-known canyon is located within Hopi tribal land, and so you'll need a guide, but the surreal views are worth the trip.
Who can resist taking a picture next to a dinosaur at a roadside stop? Add to your vacation photo slide show with these attractions along and near iconic Route 66.
Holbrook, the gateway city to the Petrified Forest National Park, boasts a few terrible reptiles within three blocks of the visitor center on Navajo Boulevard. They're there to greet customers of the Rainbow Rock Shop, which sells rocks (naturally), petrified wood pieces and, of course, fossils.
East of town on Interstate 40, follow the signs for "Free Petrified Wood" to Stewart's Petrified Wood Shop where giant, homemade dinos attract potential shoppers and lovers of roadside kitsch.
Originally called Dinosaur City, the underground Grand Canyon Caverns, 20 miles west of Seligman on Route 66, maintains the dinosaur theme with a couple of T. Rex statues out front and a skull near the gift shop. Photos are free, or you can buy tickets for the cavern tour and get a glimpse of the largest dry caverns in the U.S.—210 feet underground.