Garden Park Fossil Area – Cañon City, Colorado - Atlas Obscura
Holiday Gift Guide: Atlas Obscura Books and Calendars

Cañon City, Colorado

Garden Park Fossil Area

The site of the "Bone Wars" between two rival paleontologists during the dinosaur rush of the 19th century. 

In the late 19th century, two giants of American paleontology, Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope, were engaged in a vicious battle to discover dinosaur bones throughout the western United States.

At the time, the Garden Park Valley was one of the richest deposits along the Colorado Front Range. Not only were the specimens abundant, but the rock layers were far softer than in other regions, making digging and preparation of samples easier. The result was a “Great Dinosaur Rush” that led to damaged careers, mislabeled species, and lasting animosity. 

In their race to gather as many bones as possible, Marsh and Cope engaged in some unsavory practices. Spies were embedded into each other’s crews, bribes were made, samples were destroyed, and played-out quarries were allegedly destroyed by blasting. The scientists savaged each other in print and professional practices, resulting in financial ruin and damaged careers. Yet despite their sabotage, their combined efforts resulted in the discovery and description of 136 new species.

One of these species, the Brontosaurus, was even mischaracterized and misrepresented for decades. Heads are seldom found with bodies in bone beds, so one of the dinosaurs, the Apatosaurus (deceptive lizard), was given a head that was deemed “suitable” for the specimen. Later, discoveries of intact brontosaurus specimens were made, but the head didn’t match what had formerly been described. Due to the feud between Cope and Marsh, the incorrect head was placed on Brontosaurus specimens for decades. The proper head was only added after definitive proof was found of the initial fraud, and even then only slowly, with no fanfare. 

Many important dinosaurs were discovered at the quarries at the Garden Park Fossil Area in Cañon City, including Diplodocus, Stegosaurus, Brontosaurus, and Tyrannosaurus. Even today, the area remains an important source of new finds. 

Know Before You Go

The Garden Park Fossil Area is about 6 miles north of Cañon City along the Gold Belt Scenic Byway. The road to the quarries is paved and an easy drive. There are interpretive signs at the site that can be reached by a short hike. Please do not collect fossils or mineral in the area. The Royal Gorge Dinosaur Museum is an excellent place to visit before heading to the site.

Community Discussion