Marge Baisch was running horses on her dad's eastern Montana ranch when she spied something on the trail that didn't belong there.
"Too old to be a cow or horse bone," she thought as she scooped it up and put it in her jacket.
It turned out to be a triceratops' toe bone -- with T. Rex teeth marks in it.
In the 50-plus years since, Baisch and her family have found more than 1,000 dinosaur bones and fossils on their sprawling cattle ranch in the small town of Glendive (www.dailydinosaurdigs.com). They have donated some to museums, sold others and welcome visitors like us to hunt for their own ($75 a half-day for an adult, free for kids under 12). While paleontologists might not approve, the Baisches allow visitors to keep most of what they find.
Did I mention it is brutally hot and dusty?
Montana has more dinosaur bones in its rocks than anywhere else in the country, we learned at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman (www.museumoftherockies.org). The museum boasts a children's discovery center devoted to Yellowstone and a homesteading Living History area, as well as one of the largest collections of dinosaur fossils. Paleontologist and researcher Jack Horner is also here. Horner is the inspiration for the paleontologist character in the "Jurassic Park" movies and was Steven Spielberg's technical adviser for the films.
Dinosaur remains have been found in 48 of Montana's 56 counties, but because of the rock formations in eastern Montana, the richest cache is there (www.custercountry.com), says Tom Shoush, the park ranger at the nearby Makoshika State Park. Makoshika, home of the spectacular "badlands" formations, is the largest park in the state and offers terrific campsites. (If you don't want to camp, check out Charley Montana (www.charley-montana.com) a terrific B&B where we stayed.)
It seems that 65 million years ago, dinosaurs congregated here in land that was much like a Delta swamp. The soft rock called Hell Creek Formation subsequently eroded, exposing the treasure trove of dinosaur bones.
In fact, Makoshika State Park was named "land of the bad spirits" by the Lakota people because of all of the dinosaur bones they saw there. According to Ranger Shoush, by the 19th century, the area was well known to paleontologists, who would take "train loads" of fossils away to museums.
This summer, while paleontologists and amateur fossil hunters search in Montana and elsewhere, hopeful for the next great find, there's been plenty of dino action in the nation's big cities, too. With great fanfare, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (www.nhm.org) opened its new 14,000-square-foot Dinosaur Hall with more than 300 fossils and 20 full-body specimens, including the youngest known baby T. Rex and a rare young adult (dubbed Thomas the T. Rex).
In New York, at the American Museum of Natural History (www.amnh.org) there's "The World's Largest Dinosaurs" exhibit that draws on cutting-edge research to delve into how these giant creatures -- some longer than 150 feet -- were able to thrive for 140 million years. Mamenchisaurus -- 11 feet tall and 60 feet long, about the size of a tractor-trailer -- is the centerpiece.
In Utah, the Quarry Visitor Center and Quarry Exhibit Hall in the Dinosaur National Monument (www.nps.gov/dino/), closed since 2006 for renovation and set to debut early October 2011, will offer the state's most dramatic dinosaur display, with the fossilized remains of more than 1,500 Jurassic dinosaur bones preserved in a 200-foot-long wall.
In Montana, of course, we're more focused on tiny bone shards than gigantic skeletons, picking our way through a dry creek bed, fingering a tiny fossil here, identifying a rib there, even a spine apparently broken in two pieces and embedded in the soft rock.
Shana Baisch, Marge's daughter-in-law, inspects a piece one of the kids has handed her and declares it a bona fide dino bone. The trick she says is to "look for small fossil pieces and then follow those up the hill in the hopes of finding a big skeleton." That's happened here, in fact.
But no matter how big or small their find, it's a real adventure.
And when you're taking the kids that is all that matters.