Over the past year and a half, my kids have entered a phase I like to call “All Dinosaur, All the Time.” Tyrannosaurs stalk our staircases and our dreams. It’s not the worst obsession — if I’m honest, my own love for prehistoric species will never go fully extinct. So when I read that it was possible to take your family out to a real dig site to dig for real dinosaur bones, my heart leaped.
Last summer, my husband, Taylor, and our two children found ourselves in Bynum, Montana, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town 50 miles southeast of Glacier National Park. We’d signed up for a dig with the Montana Dinosaur Center, where husband-and-wife team Cory and Stacia Coverdell aim to connect the public with dinosaur science, enlisting participants at three active dig sites on the fossil-rich Rocky Mountain Front. The center, founded in 1995 by paleontologist Dave Trexler (he goes by Trex) has a homey atmosphere and a huge metal statue of a daspletosaurus named Rusty out front. It’s also a base for active research: it displays bones found nearby and holds a lab in back. When we visited, recently unearthed dinosaur eggs were on display, awaiting further study.
After we booked our tour, Coverdell told us he'd recently been asked to help excavate a large find on private land nearby. We'd be joining him in uncovering what was likely to be a hadrosaur — a duck-billed herbivore of the Cretaceous period — and, adjacent to that, its predator, a tyrannosaur. Excitement in the car was intense. "Will we use pickaxes?" asked my 10-year-old son, Bennett. "What if we find a whole tyrannosaur?" Emeline, his six-year-old sister, wondered aloud.
At the center’s headquarters, our guide, Patrick Wilson, a Ph.D. student in geology, ushered us into a dusty, rumbling Chevy Suburban. I felt as if we’d entered an Indiana Jones movie, especially when he casually handed us the fossilized remains of a prehistoric squid to consider. The view outside was stunning: in the shadow of the Sawtooth Range, grasslands swelled in uneven waves. Wilson noted that we were, in fact, driving across an ancient seabed. “You’re only 75 million years too late for a beach vacation,” he said with a laugh. We drove down several dirt roads until we reached a steep bluff overlooking a rocky scree, where we met Coverdell and a few other diggers beside a gridded excavation site. “This is awesome!” Bennett said as he bounded out of the car.
I looked at the bright lichen and the purple blossoms, entranced not just by the bone but also by its role in hosting life on a prairie 75 million years later. The earth felt shimmeringly alive.
But before we could dig, we had to learn how to see. "Bones are sometimes pink, red, or even blue, depending on what minerals have crystallized in them," Wilson said. In bone, we'd see hardened striations that had once been blood vessels and nerve channels. Then there was the stick test. "Bone is still porous, so it sticks to a wet fingertip," he explained. The hillside where we stood was scattered with reddish fragments, and sure enough, one red shard stuck to my wet index finger. I could see the striations inside it. This was no stone, but a relic of life. I felt a dawning sense of awe — fractured bones were everywhere amid the pebbles beneath us. Wilson told us that we were walking on the edge of an upthrust lake bed, where silt had preserved the remains. The scattering on the surface was only the beginning — this clay might contain enormous whole bones as far as 40 feet belowground. "This dig will keep us busy for at least thirty years," Coverdell added.
We dropped to our knees, spotting fragments strewn in all directions. "Whoa!" Bennett said. A green-gray oval turned out to be the cross-section of a leg bone. "Hadrosaur," Wilson said. Our pace slowed. "Mama, look," Emeline called, handing me an iron-red disk with divots along its circumference. "Tyrannosaur vertebra," Wilson said, carefully noting the spot where we'd found it. We each took turns holding this piece of ancient spine. Though the size of a big man's palm, it was unexpectedly light.
Looking down, I spied an oblong gray rock coated in orange lichen, with sage and dwarf lupines growing out of its crevices. "That's the end of a hadrosaur tibia," Wilson said, adding that bones, which are spongy, harbor water. "They support these plants," he said. I looked at the bright lichen and the purple blossoms, entranced not just by the bone but also by its role in hosting life on a prairie 75 million years later. The earth felt shimmeringly alive.
Out of this reverie, Wilson called us to lunch, telling us to keep an eye out for bears, which roam the valley below. As we ate, we could also imagine huge hadrosaurs wading in a streambed 80 million years ago. The double vision was delicious.
After lunch it was time to dig. There would be no pickaxes, or even shovels. Instead, we'd be using small brooms to sweep away patches of ground "a couple thousand years at a time," Coverdell joked. We were each assigned a one-by-one-meter site and given clippers for gently cutting back plants. As we clipped and swept, we considered each piece carefully, putting bone fragments in one bag and mere rocks in another. The excavation, with its painstaking removal of soil, felt a bit like reverse gardening. We got low and patient: Bennett paired up to dig with Taylor, and in our square Emeline and I spent several hours chatting and looking for fragments. Our patch didn't yield much, but we couldn't complain. We were in a breathtaking meadow, and nearby, a hadrosaur hip bone was protruding from the soil.
A few hours in, the kids got restless. Wilson offered to take us all on a walk. He led us to the place where, only a week before, another crew had made a big find. Looking down toward the ground, I glimpsed a bit of hardened tree trunk, and then another.
"A petrified forest!" Bennett said, amazed. "We think ancient conifers fell into a river channel," Wilson explained. Again we ran our fingers across the preserved cell patterns. Seventy-five million years later, the tree's rings were sharp and clear, refracting a glimpse of ancient forest, and ancient light. I had known this trip would be amazing for the kids. I didn't know how much it would move me, too. In a time when we are often aware of the fragility of our planet, I was grateful to be reminded of the sheer magnitude of its life. We'd head back to town soon, but I didn't want to leave behind this sense of wonder. Just then, Bennett squeezed my hand. "On a scale of one to ten, this day is a million," he said. Looking down at the ancient forest and out at the vast, present-tense sky, I had to agree.
How to Dig For Dinosaurs
The Montana Dinosaur Center in Bynum runs half-day, full-day, and multi-day digs from May to September. From $85 for a half day.
Where to Stay
Cave Mountain Campground: The author’s family stayed at this remote but stunning camp site 40 minutes from Bynum. From $10.
Many Glacier Hotel: Combine your fossil hunting with a trip to Glacier National Park. This 1915 lakeside lodge is a classic. Open June – September, doubles from $225.
A version of this story first appeared in the April 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline That Day We Dug For Dinosaurs.