Voices from the Road

The great American dinosaur road trip: 7 weeks, 10,000 miles, and countless roadside dinos

Four years ago, my 10-year-old son Henry and I hit the road for a 7-week adventure that would take us on a twisty-turny up-and-down adventure across the U.S. (and a bit of Canada) and back to see all things dinosaur—primarily his favorite dinosaur, ankylosaur. From Rhode Island, we went as far south as Memphis, Tennessee, as far west as American Falls, Idaho, and as far north as Drumheller, Alberta, Canada. My husband likes to travel but he doesn’t like the “getting there” part (the definition of a road trip), so he stayed home.

Henry loves dinosaurs and all things prehistoric. This love affair started when he was 6 years old and started watching Dino Dan on TV. He may have started his dino phase a little later than some kids due to some language delays from his autism—but he’s more than made up for it.  Henry also loves to swim, so another big item on our list was to stay at as many campgrounds with pools as possible. Pools hold a special place for Henry as they help him regulate and calm down after a day on the road. Being on the autism spectrum, routine is key. Sleeping in the same bed every night and having the same kind of schedule every day, even though the location was changing, worked for us.

Henry and I started by making a list of all the places that ankylosaurs had been found all over the world. He wanted to go see all these places—so we had a lot of traveling ahead of us!

Just weeks before we were due to depart, our car was rear-ended and totaled. A rapid used car search ensued and we replaced our Mitsubishi Outlander with a Toyota Highlander. It had a bit more oomph in the towing department as well as a rearview camera, which turned out to be indispensable when I was hooking up our 1998 Fleetwood Redwood pop-up camper by myself.  

I had been meaning to renovate the interior of the camper to remove things we didn’t use and replace it with useful storage space. Of course, I didn’t start until two weeks before departure—but it was serviceable enough for travel. 

My husband found a great list of “The Best and Weirdest Roadside Dinosaurs” to add to our own list, so now we had even more dinosaurs to see. We left on July 7 and returned two months later.

Close calls

There were a few people and things I wanted to see on the trip, squeezed in between the dino spots, including friends in Alexandria, Indianapolis, Calgary, and Chicago; the Laura Ingalls Wilder Homestead in DeSmet, South Dakota; and a visit to the gift shop at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin, for my husband, a Green Bay Packers fan.  

Our route was anything but a straight line across the country. We armed ourselves with our KOA and GoodSam directories and apps, our road atlas of the U. S. and Canada, and a very long route planned in the Roadtrippers app.

The plan was to be on the road by 8 a.m. and get to our campground in Virginia in the afternoon. But we left late, hit rush hour in New York City, missed some exits, and after a tollbooth in New Jersey, we ended up in a spectacular game of chicken with seven rows of vehicles all trying to get to exits that were on the opposite side from them.  

At 10 p.m., in the pitch black, we pulled into Lake Fairfax Park in Reston, Virginia. We planned to spend three nights there so we could have one day to visit the nearby water park and one day to go into D.C. to the Smithsonian museums. We almost lost the camper that first night. A campground neighbor had helped me reverse into the dark site, and then I was on my own. I flipped down the wheel on the tongue, unhooked the chains and flipped up the doohickey on the ball, and started cranking. Then the camper slowly started rolling backwards—I had forgotten to put the chocks behind the wheels! I hauled on the tongue with all my might and got the hitch back on the ball. Close call; lesson learned.

Boy in life vest jumping into pool

Since we had most of the summer ahead of us, I booked most campgrounds only a few days ahead, which allowed us a lot of flexibility in case Henry needed a day of downtime to play in the pool and zone out on his iPad. He also made at least 25 episodes of “Dinosaur Talk” on his iPad, where two of his favorite dinosaur toys interviewed other dinosaurs.

Wonderful dinos and humans

Henry’s favorite dinosaur stop was Dinosaur World in Cave City, Kentucky. Aside from a very inaccurate T. rex out by the road, there were some very good dinosaur models. Even better was the biggest dinosaur toy gift store he had ever seen. Henry spent a large portion of his dinosaur souvenir money there. (I knew it wouldn’t go far, and had budgeted for much more dinosaur paraphernalia over the rest of the trip.)

Later, we were happily cruising along I-40 west of Memphis when a “road gator” appeared right in front of us, and I couldn’t veer out of the way. The car rode over it easily but it popped up and struck the front left corner of the camper. From the side of the interstate, I phoned my handy brother in Canada and came up with Gorilla Tape as the solution.

Having never traveled in the Midwestern U.S. in the summer, I was unprepared for the heat and humidity, especially in an old pop-up camper with no AC. We camped for most of the trip except for a 5-day stretch going through northwestern Arkansas and Kansas. When we left the Memphis KOA, it was 100 degrees in the pop-up camper. I decided that day that we would have to stay in a hotel that night because I could not keep Henry cool enough even in the car. A few days later, even after staying in hotels, he was getting overheated in the car with the AC going.  

When we arrived at the Quality Inn in Van Buren, Arkansas, the hotel clerk said, “You’re from Rhode Island? I’m from Rhode Island!” When he realized that we had to stay in hotels due to the heat, he gave us coupons for that hotel chain for the number of days we needed. There are wonderful human beings in this world.

Just north of Van Buren was the Mountainburg Dinosaur Park, where we found some new additions to the weirdest roadside dinosaur list.

Henry has always been very confident in his dinosaur facts. He is so confident, in fact, that he will correct people who work at museums, like he did at the Museum of Nature & Science in Denver, Colorado. They truly meant it when they suggested that when he’s a bit older, he should come back and work for them in the summer. Of course, the highlight of the Denver Zoo was the dinosaurs.

Junior Dino Dig

Some of my favorite parts were seen from the road. West of Denver, we made our way to Steamboat Springs by the winding route that heads into the mountains from Berthoud Falls.  The KOA in Steamboat Springs was the only campground on the whole trip where there were active bear sightings, and we had to close everything up tight at night. From there, we made our way down to Rifle and then Palisade, Colorado. The spiny ridges of rocks were just stunning.

In Fruita, Colorado, we found another dinosaur that should have been on the weird roadside dinosaur list. But when you’re 10, even inaccurate dinosaurs are fun! A couple of days later, we headed north to Vernal and Dinosaur National Monument in Utah via the Douglas Pass.

Henry’s favorite pool—and the biggest he had ever seen—was at Indian Springs Resort and RV Park in American Falls, Idaho. It was huge and had a slide. It was actually the local community pool, and the water flowed in directly from the hillside. There was a little creek right behind our camper with fish and crawdads in it. They enjoyed our expensive beef jerky!

My husband flew out and joined us for a long weekend in Yellowstone National Park. The downside for Henry was that there was no WiFi at the campground in Yellowstone and worst of all, no dinosaurs. We made up for it by finally finding him a swimming hole.

Henry’s favorite museum by far was the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta. A mummified fossil of his favorite dinosaur was on display there. He also got to participate in a half-day Junior Dino Dig program. I was a little worried since I couldn’t prepare him for what would happen on the excursion, but I spoke to one of the organizers who assured me that it wouldn’t be a problem. Her little brother was also on the autism spectrum and she would keep an eye on Henry. I had an entire half-day to myself in the museum.

A big milestone

I always like to take the road less traveled, even when towing a camper. We came back to the U.S. via Medicine Hat, Alberta, and then through the Onefour Heritage Rangeland Natural Area.  It was beautiful and rolling and full of pronghorn antelope. We crossed the border at the Wild Horse Border Crossing. The only downfall was that there wasn’t much of a view from all the forest fires burning nearby.

We stayed at the Edgewater Inn and RV Park in Malta, Montana. Here, bugs rushed into the car every time I had to pop out to check my placement as I reversed the camper. It was late after a long day’s drive and Henry was starting to melt down. I went into the main office and asked if we could stay in the inn that night and set up the camper for the next night. No problem. We even got to use the pool, which normally only the inn guests have access to. I saw how shallow one end of the pool was and suggested to Henry that this would be the perfect pool to try swimming without his life jacket. He has been wearing one for years due to the risk of aspiration because of his swallowing delay. He has also taught himself to swim and put his face in the water. Those things had to be learned when he felt comfortable doing them. Henry thought about it, and with great panache he unzipped his life jacket and tossed it to the pool’s edge. He swam across the shallow end a couple of times and exclaimed, “I didn’t drown!” After a few more crossings, he asked if he could swim to the deep end. “Of course”, I said. “If you can swim in the shallow end, you can swim to the deep end.” Several lengths later, he was doing cannon-ball jumps into the pool. What a big milestone for Henry!

Even more dinosaurs 

After visiting the Badlands Dinosaur Museum in Dickinson, North Dakota, we hit the road for the Carter County Museum in a tiny town called Ekalaka in southeast Montana, on our way to our campground in Belle Fourche, South Dakota. We had managed to see quite a few of the museums on the Montana Dinosaur Trail and the one in Ekalaka would be our last one for this trip.

When we arrived at the Carter County Museum, it looked like no one was there. We went in and they were just closing. I was heartbroken because I knew there was an ankylosaur fossil here and we had driven all day. The staff were so kind. They said it was no problem and we could come in and look around while they were cleaning up. Henry talked the ear off of one of the docents and they were quite taken with him. We found out that there is an annual Dino ShinDig held at the museum every year at the end of July—we had missed it by only a few weeks. We are now planning to come back another year.

One of our biggest days was when we drove from Belle Fourche to check out Stan the T. rex and his friends at the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in Hill City, South Dakota, and then on to the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, where we got to see an actual dig site for two different types of mammoths.  

On our way to our campsite in Interior, we turned off the main drag at Buffalo Gap. The roads in town were not paved and we didn’t see another paved road for more than an hour. But we did find another cool roadside dinosaur in front of the Buffalo Gap Trading Post. It was a concrete nodosaurid-type dinosaur that Henry named “Edmonconcretonia.”

The folks at the Trading Post told us that the road east was under construction, but that we would eventually get back to a paved road in about 50 miles. Shortly after starting out on the gravel road, we came upon an unusual bystander: a llama. Perhaps it was someone’s pet that had escaped?

In hindsight, it might not have been the best route to take at the end of a long day, but the road looked so interesting—and as it turned out, the views and the setting sun were spectacular.

What I learned on our trip is that there was way too much driving. The next time we do this, we will plan for more days where we stay put and explore the area for several days. We are planning more trips out west to find even more dinosaurs. See you out there!

Sarah and Henry’s trip

Meet the Roadtripper

Sarah Denis