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Rapid City brontosaurus, 1967.
Rapid City brontosaurus, 1967.

One Nation Under Dinosaurs

Roadside Round-Up of North America's Best Prehistoric Attractions

Some believe that the glue that binds Americans together is our collective love of freedom.

Prehistoric Gardens, Port Orford, Oregon.
Prehistoric Gardens, Port Orford, Oregon.

We believe it's dinosaurs.

The USA has embraced giant lizards ever since its first one was dug up in New Jersey in the 1850s. And starting in the 1930s, roadside dinosaurs and dino parks became familiar, nationwide shrines to our prehistoric progenitors. Dinosaurs are everywhere in America, breaking the horizon with their petrified silhouettes, luring travelers to stop for a look-see, even in places where thunder lizards never stomped the earth (Florida) or where they may have hung around for only a few days (Noah's Ark).

Dinosaurs are freaky enough to be a forgiving project for someone learning on the job, and there's an antediluvian allure in the older, cartoon-art-version dinos with skeletons of iron and skin of cement. What they lacked in refinement they made up for in dinosaur-quality bulk, surviving decades of weather and clambering children. The largest of these pre-fossilized saurians sometimes took years to complete. A number of them today simply stand by the roadside, unprotected by their dogged, long-extinct human builders or admission gates. Ambassadors from the Time of Dinosaurs, they still seem pretty solid.

Dinosaur parks were, and often still are, built in empty, sun-baked fields, without much primeval forest atmosphere. There's usually at least one scene of dino-on-dino carnage, lurid with splatters of red paint. And while some dinosaur park creators tried to be as accurate as they could, others just made it up. Not that we're complaining. Dinosaur Land claimed in its brochure that its dinosaurs "were as true as you are alive," while Dinosaur World hedged its bets by stating that, "much of what is said about dinosaurs is theory and interpretation." The excuse that dinosaur knowledge is constantly evolving gives dinosaur builders a lot of leeway, particularly when it comes to crazy color patterns and skin tones. One dino creator told us that drab camouflage would be pointless on something 60 feet long. Another said, "I didn't want them accurate. I wanted something that was going to show up."

The blockbuster 1993 movie Jurassic Park and the arrival of dino-configurable robots triggered a wave of modern dinosaur parks, where at least some of the creatures twitch and roar cinematically. Compared to the old dinosaurs, frozen in space and time, the new breed are manufactured somewhere else and can be hauled away when the rent goes up or ticket sales go down. The familiar Stegosaurus, Triceratops, and T-rex are now in a Lost World of new species -- Avimimus, Tsintaosaurus, Pachycephalosaurus -- that are faster, sleeker, better promoted. Their machine-aided designs are less apt to upset a generation with more knowledge of paleontology.

T.rex lurks in the dark forest at Dinosaur Gardens Prehistoric Zoo, Ossineke, Michigan.
T.rex lurks in the dark forest at Dinosaur Gardens Prehistoric Zoo, Ossineke, Michigan.

Old School or New, there's probably an outdoor dinosaur within a half-day's drive of where you are right now. We suggest planning your next road trip to include at least one of them. Stand side-by-side with a behemoth; get in touch with America 100 million years BC. And appreciate those visionaries who never let accuracy get in the way of a good dinosaur.

Visionary Dinosaur Parks

Modern Dinosaur Parks

1964 World's Fair Dinosaurs

Dinosaur World, Plant City, Florida.
Dinosaur World, Plant City, Florida

Worthy Dinosaurs (And One Caveman)

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