Hunting for Dinosaurs

Jul 10, 2015 | 0 comments

I’ve kept a journal since I was 8 years old. One of the first entries I ever wrote was about how I wanted to become a scientist when I grew up, and find evidence of dinosaurs. Although my dreams of making groundbreaking scientific discoveries has long since passed, part of that dream did come true yesterday, in the best way possible.

Two of my friends, Jessica and Ashley, and I set out for the day to find Denali’s dinosaur tracks, which were discovered in the park just 10 years ago — a very recent discovery by many standards! The story goes that in 2005, a college class from Fairbanks was visiting the area and the professor was explaining that this part represented the Cantwell Formation, which should display evidence of dinosaurs from the late Cretaceous period, about 70 million years ago. Although nothing had ever been found, remarked the professor, we would expect to see things like plant imprints and dinosaur footprints around here.

“Like this?” asked one of the students, pointing to a footprint in rock they were standing next to. Just like that, the student discovered the first of thousands of dinosaur footprints since found in the park.

Wildflowers everywhere!

Because the discovery is so new, and in the designated Wilderness portion of the park, its location is not widely publicized in order to help protect it. Fortunately however, Ashley had gotten a chance to see the prints with the park paleontologist the day before, so she took us back out to the spot. It was still really hard to find, but our route along the creek was absolutely gorgeous with the brilliant colors of wildflowers in all their summer glory.

Giant bluebells!
A heart shape of forget-me-nots!

As we followed the creek back into the mountains, we watched for the color of the rocks to change. They started out orange, the color of the Teklanika Formation, but after a mile or so, everything turned black and gray, indicating we had entered the Cantwell Formation. It was time to start hunting for dinosaurs.

The first thing we found was a tiny prehistoric plant imprint. After that, it seemed like ever rock I looked at had some kind of fossil evidence in it, but I had no idea what I was looking at. We picked our way along the rocks and the creek, trying to find the Dinosaur Dance Floor, a rock wall rumored to have a large number of dinosaur footprints in it.

As luck would have it, we spotted the paleontologist climbing up one of the hillsides in the distance ahead of us. We shouted out to her, “WHERE’S THE DANCE FLOOR?”

She shouted back, pointing, “RIGHT BELOW ME!”


Dinosaur print (3-toed, upside-down)
Clambering across the rocks, we quickly found it and just like that my dreams came true. I’ve seen dinosaur tracks once before, when I was 10 years old — my family had taken a vacation out to Arizona, and we paid to go see dinosaur tracks on a Navajo reservation in the desert. Of course, it was super cool, but this felt entirely different. Something about the fact that we had to find it ourselves and that it’s hidden off from the rest of the park made it feel extra special.
The Dance Floor!

In the photo above, you can see the whole Dance Floor. The most obvious footprint is the one I’m pointing to, upside down, and there’s another mostly whole footprint just above my hand, right side up. Can you see any others? I keep looking, trying to find more!

I literally could have wandered around that area for hours looking for more fossils, but the weather was holding out and so we decided to take advantage of it and summit the 6,000′ mountain nearby.

Naturally, half way up the skies closed in and a fairly violent rainstorm hit. Freezing rain began pounding in sideways with the wind from the east, and great rumbles of thunder threatened nearby. We became starkly aware of how exposed we were out on the open ridge. I didn’t take any photos until we made it to the top, because it was just too cold and wet and windy to do anything but put one foot in front of the other. 
There were a couple false summits before we reached the peak, and each one I seriously doubted my ability to make it up to the next. Fortunately, both Ashley and Jessica are extremely hardcore hikers so I was motivated to press on and not wimp out on them! 
Pan of the weather we came through, to the left!
Miraculously, as soon as we made it to the true summit, the sky opened up again and the weather cleared as quickly as it had come in. We stopped for a break at the top to take in the view, let our clothes dry, and eat a well-earned snack. 
Fresh snow out there! And my new favorite view in Denali

Exhausted, but proud
Climbing back down was just as hard, but at least we had a spectacular view and were getting warm and dry again. 
Going down
By the end of the day, we had hiked about 6-7 miles in 5 hours, with a 2,000′ climb in the middle, in just about every type of weather Denali has to offer. In other words, it was one of my favorite hiking days yet! 


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