Kanab, Utah (CNN) — Eighty million years ago, a ferocious predecessor of Tyrannosaurus Rex stalked the western shore of an ancient seaway that flooded through North America, slicing the continent in two.
Named Lythronax, or “king of gore,” this 2.5-ton tyrannosaur stood a menacing eight feet tall and 24 feet long. Its powerful jaws could swiftly grab prey and tear it apart.
Lythronax is one of many magnificent new dinosaurs that paleontologists have unearthed across the northern Colorado Plateau, helping them piece together a complex evolutionary history.
Gazing across these stark desert landscapes, it’s hard to envision a lush, verdant Jurassic Park. Yet in Utah alone, scientists have identified more than 100 dinosaur species just since the mid-1990s, says James Kirkland, Utah’s state paleontologist.
“We’re in the golden age of paleontology right now,” said Kirkland. “These past 25 years, we’ve had a five-fold increase in numbers of dinosaur species identified in Utah. We now have more [known] dinosaur species than any other state in the nation.”
Between about 220 and 65 million years ago, dinosaurs on what’s now the Colorado Plateau endured dramatic geologic and climatic changes that moved continents, transformed swamplands into sand dunes and created the inland sea where the fearsome Lythronax hunted. To survive, they diverged into a wondrous array of creatures that left behind ample evidence of their presence.
Let’s journey back in time to the dawn of dinosaurs in this region.
1. Horns, wings and the ‘king of gore’
A new species of tyrannosaur unearthed in Utah went on display at the state’s Natural History Museum in 2013.
Al Hartmann/The Salt Lake Tribune/AP
Most of the dinosaurs are locals, excavated in Utah, including an 80-foot long Barosaurus and groundbreaking new finds like the horned Utahceratops and Lythronax. After its discovery in 2009, the “king of gore” made waves when a research team concluded that this type of tyrannosaur, closely related to T. Rex, had evolved some 80 million years ago, 10 million years earlier than previously thought.
Visitors can watch staff prep research specimens in the lab and even take on the role of a paleontologist at a dig.
2. Meet Supersaurus
The Museum of Ancient Life is home to one of the world’s largest dinosaur displays.
Courtesy the Museum of Ancient Life
Kids can pretend to be paleontologists unearthing ancient fish fossils in the Junior Paleo Lab. In Dinosaur Revolution, they can mimic dinosaur behavior and undertake “Mesozoic missions” to learn more about these ancient creatures.
3. Dinosaurs frozen in time
Dinosaur bones protrude from a sandstone quarry wall at Dinosaur National Monument.
Dinosaur National Monument/National Park Service
These include the formidable predator Allosaurus, the long-necked, plant-eating Diplodocus and the armored Stegosaurus. The Quarry Exhibit Hall encases a massive sandstone wall where visitors gaze in awe at some 1,500 dinosaur bones in situ — meaning in their original place — still embedded in rock after tens of millions of years.
4. Grand discoveries in the Grand Valley
An easy loop hike around Dinosaur Hill marks the site where a 70-foot, 30-ton Apatosaurus was excavated.
First explored by paleontologists in 1899 after the railroad arrived, Colorado’s Grand Valley quickly became famous for dinosaurs when Elmer Riggs excavated a 75-foot giant called Brachiosaurus in 1900. A trail circles Riggs Hill and marks the sites of two excavations, including Riggs’ big discovery.
Visitors can peer into a working paleo lab and touch actual dinosaur bones and a footprint containing a dinosaur skin impression. Sign up to spend a day at the Mygatt-Moore Quarry, an active dig site where you can volunteer alongside working paleontologists.
5. Track an Allosaurus
Visitors to the Mill Canyon dinosaur track site can walk along an elevated boardwalk above Early Cretaceous-era tracks and contemplate illustrations such as this one by artist Brian Engh.
Check out Copper Ridge, featuring Jurassic-era tracks that include sauropods — long-necked herbivores — and the feisty Allosaurus, likely walking along a riverbank. The Poison Spider track site features 10 different carnivorous dinosaurs.
The crown jewel is Mill Canyon, where you can walk an elevated boardwalk above hundreds of younger Cretaceous-era tracks made 110 million years ago. Panels along the boardwalk feature vivid artwork depicting these dinosaurs in formerly lush, watery landscapes teeming with crocodiles.
“It’s probably one of the best dinosaur track sites you can visit in the United States,” said paleontologist Rob Gay, director of education at the Colorado Canyons Association.
6. The ultimate dinosaur graveyard
Perhaps the largest single dinosaur site in North America, it’s chock full of skeletons — so many that full excavation could take centuries. After just a decade, the quarry has produced everything from tiny prehistoric animals to 70-foot-long giants.
Like Dinosaur National Monument, the Hanksville-Burpee Quarry was once part of a big river system that buried and preserved remains, which helps explain the rich diversity of specimens. “It’s one of the most beautiful dinosaur sites of the Jurassic that I know of,” said Kirkland.
7. Astonishing new discoveries
Over the past 20 years, the Kaiparowits Plateau has yielded some of the most remarkable paleontological discoveries in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
Keep your eyes peeled for a sign along the byway announcing The Blues, a panorama of blue-gray shale badlands that have produced many of the monument’s recent dinosaur discoveries. The Blues are evidence of the inland Cretaceous sea that divided North America, creating a separate continent called Laramidia.
The BLM visitor center in Big Water features an exciting exhibit of horned dinosaurs adorned with giant spikes and shields, including Triceratops. Don’t miss the Twenty Mile Wash Dinosaur Trackway, where hundreds of tracks and even tail marks spread out across a pale sandstone outcropping.
8. Largest collection of dinosaur swim tracks
St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site is home to life-size models, a unique collection of dinosaur swim tracks and enormous rock slabs containing preserved dinosaurs.
St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site
You’ll see enormous rock slabs that preserve dinosaurs in situ. Scientists have found evidence of local dinosaurs sitting on the edge of a vast prehistoric lake, and the museum claims the world’s largest collection of dinosaur swim tracks. Recovered fish bones and scales suggest some ate fish and shared the lake with crocodiles.
9. The mystery of 12,000 bones
Since it was first excavated in the 1920s, some 12,000 bones belonging to at least 74 dinosaurs have been unearthed at Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry, now the site of Jurassic National Monument.
The museum features an enormous Allosaurus along with skulls of Diplodocus, Stegosaurus and Camarasaurus. At the quarry, peer over a balcony into light gray limestone to pick out the jet-black bones. Scientists are still unraveling the mystery of why so many dinosaurs died here.
10. The quarry and the ancient sea
Before you go: Remember that removing dinosaur and other vertebrate fossils from public lands is illegal. When in doubt, ask.
Autumn Spanne is a Barcelona-based journalist with roots in California and the American Southwest. She writes about science, the environment, education and travel. Her work has been featured in National Geographic, The Guardian, Reveal and The Daily Climate, among others.