Garden Park Fossil Locality
Location: Fremont CountySize: 2668 acres Designated: February 1991Land Manager: Bureau of Land Management
Garden Park - Colorado's Jurassic Park
"Garden Park." It sounds like an idyllic suburb, but it may be the greatest Jurassic dinosaur graveyard in the world. Located eight miles north of Cañon City in south central Colorado, Garden Park's fossils helped to fuel the dinosaur craze that began in the 1890s and continues today. If you are looking for an explanation for why children who can't yet tie their own shoes have mastered words like "Diplodocus" and "Apatosaurus," look no further than Garden Park.
Bones of the great dinosaurs lie in a set of Jurassic rocks known as the Morrison Formation, exposed throughout much of the western US. The formation is a series of claystones, limestones and sandstones deposited by meandering rivers on a broad, rich alluvial plain between 145 and 155 million years ago. What makes Garden Park unique is that fossils are found throughout the 350-foot-thick formation, in contrast with the better-known quarry at Dinosaur National Monument, which is restricted to a single sandstone bed.
Dinosaur bones were first found in Garden Park by local residents in the 1870s. Word got back to the museums of the eastern U.S. and two of the greatest figures of American paleontology were soon involved. Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh played out a major chapter in their intense personal and professional rivalry in the quarries at Garden Park (see "Dinosaur Wars" article from the Smithsonian). Marsh was an amateur paleontologist who owed his professorship at Yale to a rich uncle. Cope was a professional associated with the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences. Former friends, their relationship ended in decades of slander, bribery and outright destruction of one another's fossil finds. However, because of the public nature of Marsh and Cope's dispute, and the tremendous collecting efforts that arose from it, the rest of the country became aware of the fascinating world of the Late Jurassic and its mighty dinosaurs.
The intense drive to publish first caused both scientists to commit careless mistakes, such as mixing up the bones of different species when naming a new animal. Marsh didn't even do most of his own fieldwork, instead hiring a local rancher, M.P. Felch, to do his excavating for him. Fortunately for science, Felch, although lacking formal training in paleontology, was a careful worker and a thorough observer. The type specimen of Stegosaurus stenops, Colorado's State Fossil, was recovered intact by Felch. It is now on display at the Smithsonian.
In addition to the Marsh and Cope quarries, at least four other fossil quarries pock Garden Park. Fossil dinosaur skeletons from Garden Park can be found in most of the natural history museums in the U.S. Researchers from the Denver Museum of Natural History and the University of Colorado continue to work the area. The quarries at Garden Park produced the type specimens of Camarasaurus, Allosaurus, Ceratosaurus, Diplodocus and Haplocanthosaurus, as well as at least 16 species of freshwater invertebrates. The skeletons of dozens of species of Jurassic mammals, fish, crocodiles and turtles have also been recovered.
Almost forgotten in the hullabaloo over fossils is the fact that Garden Park contains significant populations of three of Colorado's rare plants – Mentzelia chrysantha, Asclepias uncialis, and Eriogonum brandegei. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the plant populations is that they are isolated by many miles from other populations. Garden Park is also the site of the first oil well in the western U.S. (1862).
Once Cope and Marsh abandoned their quarries in the 1880s, Garden Park fell into relative obscurity. Small expeditions would arrive every few decades, quarry bone for a season or two, and carry away their findings. Nonetheless, Garden Park is one of the most important late Jurassic vertebrate localities in North America, because of the quality of its specimens and the breadth of time covered. The Garden Park Fossil Area was designated a National Natural Landmark in the early 1970s. In the 1980s, a group of amateur paleontologists formed the Garden Park Paleontology Society and began pushing for increased protection and recognition of the area's scientific and historic significance. Their efforts paid off. In 1990 Garden Park was designated a Research Natural Area by the Bureau of Land Management and a Colorado Natural Area by the state. The Society itself has blossomed and now boasts a small but high-quality museum, the Dinosaur Depot, in the heart of Cañon City.
Several rare plant species also occur on the property, including: Brandegee wild buckwheat (Eriogonum brandegei) and inch milkweed (Asclepias uncialis).
Please be aware that this site contains features of state-wide significance. Collection is prohibited at all times with out proper permits.
Colorado State Parks & Natural Areas by Frank WestonPublished September 1, 2008Click here to purchase.