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Bone by bone: the future of Dinosaur Journey in Fruita

Heather Portenier
Free Press Correspondent
Dr. Julia McHugh said she enjoys the quiet museum first thing in the morning.
Heather Portenier |

Dr. Julia McHugh, curator of paleontology and site manager at Dinosaur Journey Museum in Fruita, is nearing her one-year anniversary in June. She previously worked at Oklahoma State University Medical School as a senior research assistant. A national search brought McHugh to the Grand Valley, and Dr. Peter Booth, executive director of Museum of Western Colorado, said he’s already impressed with what she’s bringing to the table.

“We’ve had a great series of curators at Dinosaur Journey, and Julia is definitely making a place for herself in the community,” Booth said. “She’s brought energy and ideas, as well as her expertise.”

Like many paleontologists, McHugh’s love of science started as a child. As a high school graduation present to herself, McHugh participated in a paleontology dig at Dinosaur Journey (known then as Dinamation).



“It’s come full circle, now that she has this position,” Booth explained.

Studying dinosaurs wasn’t always her first choice though.



“I always said that I was never going to work on dinosaurs because they were too pop culture,” McHugh said. “I wanted to work on amphibians.”

However, she was excited to come to an area so rich in fossil sites for small animals and reptiles of the Jurassic era.

“Fruita is a treasure trove of dinosaurs, and it’s so understudied,” McHugh added. “Working in this area is really a great secret.”

McHugh’s position is designed to work at Dinosaur Journey 80 percent of the time, but she’s also an adjunct professor to the geology department at Colorado Mesa University. She teaches Intro to Geology in the fall and recently created a new upper-division course, Vertebrate Paleontology.

“It’s fun, and I get to nerd out on my students,” she said. “When you’re designing a course, it’s also a lot of work to pick the textbook, specimens, plus write lectures and labs. But it’s worth it to teach what I want.”

Booth said the partnership benefits both CMU and Dinosaur Journey: “It’s a neat cooperation in the sense that we’re bringing to CMU areas where students can do digs and get into the lab to do the preparation, whereas the university is able to bring students who are interested in helping us.”

Dinosaur Journey is hoping for other partnerships in the community as well. Although only in preliminary discussions, Booth and McHugh are exploring the vision of working with John McConnell Math and Science Center and the Children’s Nature Center to possibly expand the campus to include all programs, creating a family-oriented environment.

“It’s very exciting what the potential of that could be — to have those three entities in one area,” Booth said.

Last year, Museum of Western Colorado, in conjunction with CMU’s business department and Grand Junction Visitor and Convention Bureau, conducted a survey to determine the museum’s economic impact in the community. Just under 70,000 people visited local museums (including Museum of the West, Cross Orchards and Dinosaur Journey). Recreational and tourist spending had a $16.5 million impact, as well as $4.3 in lodging and $1.2 in sales tax. According to Booth, the majority is based off Dinosaur Journey.

As for the future of Dinosaur Journey, McHugh said she’d like to see the connections with CMU and Mesa County Valley School District 51 grow.

“We’re such a great teaching tool,” she explained.

According to McHugh, she envisions a refreshed exhibit hall with updated scientific information to use as a launching point for research and education. A building expansion is something else on her wish list. Admissions to Dinosaur Journey were up 10 percent last year, plus the number of tours and expeditions planned for spring and summer are increasing as well.

“We’re busting at the seams in the collection room,” she added.

Dinosaur Journey is currently seeking applicants for interns with a background in geology and paleontology for field coordinator and field assistant positions. Volunteers are always needed for gallery tours.

For more information on Dinosaur Journey’s upcoming digs and tours, visit http://www.dinodigs.org or call 888-488-DINO.


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