Like the dinosaurs that came here long before them, the scientists and investors behind Paleosafari Moab Giants are leaving a big mark on the area.
The open-air dinosaur track park and museum about nine miles north of Moab held its soft opening last week, giving visitors the first glimpses of a project that has been in the works since 2008.
It’s the world’s only museum devoted to ichnology – a branch of paleontology that’s devoted to the study of trace fossils – and it puts a special emphasis on dinosaur tracks from the Moab area, as well as surrounding sites in Utah and Colorado.
“Moab Giants is all about the tracks,” Moab Giants Science Director and paleontologist Dr. Gerard Gierlinski said.
Co-owner Filip Licota, whose family also owns three dinosaur-themed parks in Poland, said that Moab is a natural fit for the development, which is surrounded by world-renowned dinosaur track sites at Mill Canyon, Arches National Park and Potash Road.
“We think there isn’t a better place in the world than Moab with dinosaur tracks,” he said.
Co-owner Karolina Otko said she’s grateful for the warm local welcome to the community, adding that she fell in love with Moab the first time she visited the area.
“Almost every corner is surprising to me,” she said.
First-time visitors to Moab Giants might say the same thing.
As they make their way past the entrance, one of the first destinations they’ll reach is an indoor museum, where interactive exhibits tell visitors all about fossilized dinosaur footprints from around the globe – including an important discovery that Gierlinski made more than two decades ago.
While many people believe that the first feathered dinosaurs were found in China in the mid-1990s, the museum highlights a discovery that Gierlinski published shortly beforehand.
His work began in a basement at Amherst College in Massachusetts, which houses the collection of the 19th Century geologist Edward Hitchcock. As Gierlinski sorted through the collection in the early 1990s, he found specimens of footprints that belonged to prehistoric “sandstone birds” – or so Hitchcock thought.
But Hitchcock – a pious man who refuted Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution via natural selection – was wrong. Gierlinski found that the “bird” tracks actually belonged to a sitting dinosaur that had feathers.
“It’s important to know here in America that the first proof came from the United States,” he said. “Not China, and not in 1996, but in the mid-1800s (in Massachusetts). It’s probably the most important story in our museum.”
From the museum, visitors step out into the glare and then back into the darkness of the nearby Gateway Theater, where a short 3-D movie traces the origins of the universe and the history of dinosaurs.
A wide courtyard beyond the museum and theater houses a small memorial to the long scientific partnership between Gierlinski and Moab Giants Museum Director Dr. Martin Lockley, highlighting their strong connection to the area.
Gierlinski joined Lockley in the field for the first time in 1990, and 11 years ago, they set up a camp site on the property that would become the future home of Moab Giants.
“It was easier for us to make a camp site here,” he said. “We didn’t know that it was private property for sale.”
At the time, they never bothered to look for dinosaur footprints at the site, Gierlinski said, although they later turned up some impressive finds.
In 2008, Lockley discovered a track that belonged to an allosaurus – a large predator at the top of the food chain in North America’s Morrison Formation. Gierlinski, meanwhile, discovered a rare stegopodus track and just last year, construction workers unearthed a “beautiful” allosaurus track that is now on display in the courtyard area.
“This is very personal (for me),” Gierlinski said.
As a privately run “leisure park” and museum, Moab Giants’ emphasis is on science and research, but in a way that is accessible to everyone.
“We think we can do something to explain, to re-create and to present (the exhibits) in normal language – not just scientific language,” Lichota said.
Perhaps the best way to get a feel for things is to wander along a trail that loops around the 45-acre property. It begins at the Late Triassic period about 230 million years ago, and ends at the Late Cretaceous period about 65 million years ago.
More than 130 life-size models of dinosaurs line the route, and interpretive signs tell the story of dinosaurs like the Saltasaurus, which has a local connection. The armored, herbivorean sauropod had been documented in Argentina, but it was unknown elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere until researchers discovered its tracks in the Mill Canyon area just north of Moab Giants.
“Something like this had never been found in North America,” Gierlinski said.
For younger visitors, there are designated digging areas along the trail where kids can uncover replicas of dinosaur bones, giving them hands-on lessons in paleontology.
“We always want to combine the playing with learning something,” Gierlinski said.
Moab Giants Executive Director Darek Gazdzinski said that Moab Giants will ultimately complement the range of activities that bring people to places like Arches and Canyonlands national parks.
“When people come to Moab, this is going to be one of the attractions for visitors,” he said.
A paleoaquarium next to the Moab Giants cafe and gift shop is still in the works, and the owners continue to make small improvements to the property ahead of its official grand opening next March.
Future activities may include museum nights for kids, as well as guided trips to nearby track sites.
The property still has ample room for future expansions, and as ongoing research yields discoveries, Gazdzinski said that visitors can expect to see different things.
“It’s not going to be static,” he said. “It’s going to be changing based on new exhibits and new studies.”
Dinosaur track park and museum is open for business
“We think there isn’t a better place in the world than Moab with dinosaur tracks.”
When: Monday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Where: Intersection of U.S. Highway 191 and state Route 313
Cost: Varies; go to moabgiants.com for more information
For more information, go to www.moabgiants.com.