After a jostling ride with my husband and our three kids along a brick-red ridge just outside Thermopolis, Wyo., the view unfolded beautifully: rolling red hills, deep green grasslands and an intense blue sky with cottony clouds.
Standing on that ridge in a cap, flannel shirt and work boots, Chris Racay, collections manager for the Wyoming Dinosaur Center, pulled back a blue tarp that covered a swath of broken ground.
"Where you're walking, dinosaurs walked 150 million years ago," he said.
We crouched down to see the charcoal black treasures: a juvenile sauropod shoulder blade, tail vertebrae and parts of other bones, all which stood out against the gray-green soil.
Like a family from Oklahoma down the ridge from us, we were getting one-on-one coaching from a paleontologist and a chance to literally dig into history. With any luck, we'd uncover bones buried longer than humans have walked the Earth.
Over and over we gently wedged sturdy oyster knives into the dry soil, looking for bone fragments or teeth as our 5-year-old daughter Katie eagerly yet carefully brushed the unproductive dirt into a dustpan and took it to a discard pile. The work felt surprisingly satisfying and it wasn't long before our 9-year-old son cried out, "I found one!"
He continued to gently sweep away the crusty earth to reveal what looked like a black streak. Probably a rib bone, we were told.
Racay numbered it and entered it and Jonathan's name into the site log book. A little while later, Jonathan found another rib bone.
Halfway through the Dig for a Day program we were still happily digging for real bones with our three unpredictable kids, including Katie's twin, Kylie. As parents, we feared boredom and broken bones (not the kids'), but we should have known better. A simulated mammoth dig in Hot Springs, S.D., two years earlier ranked as that road trip's most talked- about experience.
A Jurassic hot spot
Former Swiss veterinarian Dr. Burkhard Pohl launched the Wyoming Dinosaur Center and Dig Sites 12 years ago, and it remains one of the few museums devoted exclusively to geology and dinosaurs. Pohl also plays a key role in China's Yizhou Fossil and Geology Park, where a well preserved dinosaur was discovered in 2004.
Quarry sites are scattered throughout the 7,700-acre ranch that surrounds the center.
While checking in on us at our dig site, excavation director Greg Willson surveyed the surrounding scenery. Beneath cattle grazing on quiet hillsides and wildflowers waving in the breeze, he saw layers of exposed earth revealing the entire Mesozoic Period. He was able to identify the grayish-green Morrison Formation (where we were digging) and the Chugwater Formation's brilliant red dirt, which harbors Triassic fossils.
During a guided tour of the museum earlier in the day, we got a crash course in geology that started with the "Age of Slime" and ended with the dawn of dinosaurs. A boy on our tour recited dinosaur trivia like it was a speed round of "Jeopardy!" while we tried to imagine an encounter with a 75-foot-long prehistoric shark.
The highlight of the museum tour, of course, was Jimbo, an enormous Supersaurus that was found about three hours away in Douglas, Wyo.
Discovered more than a decade ago, Jimbo spans 106 feet -- almost the full length of the museum -- and towers over the other 18 skeletons on display, including Tyrannosaurus Rex and a duck-billed Maiasaura with a fossilized nest of eggs.
Kids lined up to peek into the lab where museum staffers carefully cleaned and prepared bones for exhibits.
The museum's artifacts come from across the world, but Wyoming and nearby states -- Montana, Colorado and South Dakota -- have yielded some of the best discoveries.
Racay surmised that this part of Wyoming has become a productive excavation site because the area was once a 5-mile-long lake and was on the dinosaurs' migratory route.
Deciphering the clues
A short walk from our dig site is the ranch's largest dig site, which is packed with footprints, bones and at least 150 teeth. It's believed to have once been a feeding spot where close to a dozen Allosaurs (similar to a T. Rex but half their size) feasted on a Camarasaurus they killed or found dead. Among the finds was a well-preserved Allosaurus snout with teeth still intact.
It was exciting to know that anything we might find that day could reveal tales far more interesting than just a pile of old bones.
Racay agreed. During a picnic lunch inside the museum, he recalled visiting the area from his childhood home in Chicago and feeling drawn to these hills.
"I didn't realize it at the time, but the mountains were trying to tell me something," he said. "And they were. They had stories to tell."
Lisa Meyers McClintick is a freelance travel writer based in St. Cloud, Minn.