GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. (AP) — The sounds of hammers hitting prehistoric rock and children’s laughter rise with the dust and heat haze between two hills in the Colorado desert.

It’s more than 100 degrees in the Mygatt-Moore Quarry just this side of the Utah state line, but 6-year-old Nicolas Otal doesn’t seem to notice.

He’s digging for dinosaurs. Real dinosaurs — not the kind of simulated dig in an air-conditioned museum to be found, then covered again for the next visitor — but actual undiscovered pieces of bone fragment and fossilized plant matter hidden deep inside rock from the Jurassic period.

It’s a dream come true — and the best vacation ever.

“Come on, look, we found actual prehistoric pebbles,” Nicolas said with elation as he handed over a deep gray rock to his father, Carlos.

The pair traveled from Ashburn, Va., just northwest of Washington, D.C., to experience what it was like to be a paleontologist.

“This was one of the only ones in the country that I found that would take kids this young,” Carlos Otal said.

As a parent, he wanted to encourage his son’s interest in a real learning environment, even if that meant a trip across the country. Their visit included two days of dinosaur digging at the quarry, exploring Colorado National Monument, and a day in Glenwood Springs.

“The driving force here is kids,” said Nehali Dave, field assistant for Dinosaur Journey, the Fruita-based branch of the Museum of Western Colorado.

“We bring customers out, tell them about the area, then demonstrate some digging techniques,” said Dave, a student at Whitman College.

Digging for dinosaurs is much harder and less glamorous than Hollywood depicts it.

“You break rocks to find dinosaurs,” Dave explained to 10-year-old Ben Radford of Ojai, Calif.

Ben and his mother, Amy, were on a three-week camping adventure to discover all things ancient in western Colorado.

Their visit included a trip to Dinosaur National Monument and Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in the southwest part of the state.

“Next week we’ll be digging for more human artifacts,” Amy Radford said.

Just over a hill, Brody Lehr, 8, from Parkland, Ill., was carefully whisking dirt away from the giant femur of a plateosaurus.

He likes dinosaurs but hopes to be a herpetologist when he grows up.

“My grandparents say I’m a great cutter of stones, but I like reptiles a lot because they’re more bloody than dinosaurs,” Brody said.

It’s taken three years to uncover the large femur bone.

“It’s 1.87 meters long and we haven’t found the end of it yet,” said Krista Brundridge, field coordinator for Dinosaur Journey, “It’s one of the larger bones we’ve ever pulled out of here, and it takes a long time to get it out.”

It’s another point, the painstakingly long process of digging, that Brundridge hopes children take away with them.

Even after 30 years of digging, the Mygatt-Moore Quarry is a treasure trove of dinosaur bones. More than 20 individual dinosaurs have been discovered so far.

The quarry is believed to have been a large pond where dinosaurs congregated and fed, often on each other.

“Some of the bones have bite marks on them from predators, so we might not find more than one bone,” Brundridge said.

The quarry is a valuable research area because of its large sample size and the vast number of fossils and bones hidden within it, she said.

More than 5,000 specimens have been uncovered so far, mostly by families wanting a down and dirty Jurassic experience.

Almost as valuable is that the quarry and Dinosaur Journey, which houses the specimens, bring a large number of tourists and recognition to the Grand Valley, said John Foster, curator of paleontology for the Museum of Western Colorado.

The site is one of the top five dinosaur quarries in the country, Foster said. Interest is high because “dinosaur appeal is timeless,” he said.

Dinosaur Journey and the quarry attract 50,000 visitors to the Grand Valley each year, Foster said.

The number of people wanting to dig has doubled since 2001, according to museum officials.

“Interest has been building every year. It dropped a little in 2008 when the recession hit, but we are far busier today than we were 10 years ago,” Foster said.

“We hope to continue to build the program,” Foster said. “Everybody likes dinosaurs.”

LINK: Dinosaur Journey

– By RICHIE ANN ASHCRAFT, The Daily Sentinel

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)


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