Precious rocks and dinosaur fossils among the hidden gems in Southern Utah

Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm is celebrating its 20th anniversary Wednesday with a host of activities planned throughout the week. St. George, Utah, Feb. 20, 2020 | Photo by David Louis, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — From the youngest to the oldest, thousands of rock and fossil collectors flock to Utah each year hoping to take home a special souvenir of their trip. Even though restrictions apply on removing some items on federally managed land, it is hard to resist the urge to put a small trinket into your pocket.

Tapping into that urge is a new local business, Dixie Rocks and Fossils located at 946 West Sunset Blvd. Suite 1, which takes all the guesswork away.

Co-owner Kyle Carter is excited to open a new chapter on his life.

“My wife and I are starting from scratch,” Carter said. “This has been a hobby that has turned into a business opportunity.”

Although the husband and wife team are trying to juggle the responsibilities of other full-time jobs with the challenges of a startup business, it is an exciting time, Carter said.

“We started this just becasue it’s fun,” he said. “Collecting has been something I’ve done for the last 10 years.”

After ending up with numerous display cases in their house, the pair decided it was time to share the collection.

“It all started with my daughter,” Carter said. “She started hanging out with my dad picking rocks up and by the time she was seven or eight she could name every rock we had.”

After family trips to rock shows, it was a natural progression to opening a business.

Dixie Rocks and Fossils will celebrate it opening during an official ribbon-cutting ceremony at 11:30 a.m. on March 6.

More than 5,000 people annually visit the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm. The popular attraction is home to fossil tracts and other evidence of dinosaur habitation in Southern Utah 200,000 million years ago. St. George, Utah, Feb. 20, 2020 | Photo by David Louis, St. George News

Another St. George attraction that builds off the early Jurassic park experience is the Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm, which is celebrating its 20th year on Wednesday. A host of activities, including free admission on Wednesday, are planned beginning Tuesday and running through February 29.

The history of the museum began in 2000, when local optometrist, Dr. Sheldon Johnson, was leveling a hill on his farm now located at 2180 East Riverside Drive.

After removing several feet of topsoil, Johnson discovered a thick layer of sandstone. This layer was a “paleontological jackpot” containing numerous dinosaur footprints.

Within a few months, trained paleontologists from around the state, plus hundreds of volunteers, helped uncover thousands of fossils.

“When everyone came they all knew this was a really significant and important find,” said Diana Azevedo, site executive director.

“The St. George track site is not only the oldest Jurassic dinosaur site in Utah, but it is also the best … site (of its kind) in western North America,” said Utah Paleontologist, Jim Kirkland.

In 2005, the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm opened its doors and has served more than 500,000 visitors since.

Within the museum are static displays including the original sandstone layer.

“We focus on what was found here and telling the story of the site about 200 million years ago,” Azevedo said.

Including the footprints from larger dinosaurs, there are trace prints from fish, early crocodiles and mammals.

“We basically recreate what St. George used to look like in the early Jurassic period,” Azevedo added.

St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site volunteer Jim Williams busy at work cleaning a coelacanth, a large fish thought to have become extinct 66 million years ago but rediscovered in 1938 off the coast of South Africa. This specimen along with others were found on the site. St. George, Utah, Feb. 20, 2020 | Photo by David Louis, St. George News

The apex predator at the time in Southern Utah would have been Dilophosaurus, an eight-foot-tall dinosaur that would eventually evolve into Tyrannosaurus or T-Rex.

T-Rex would have come along millions of years after the St. George site was formed.

“At the time there was a huge lake, called Lake Dixie, here, but it was pretty shallow,” Azevedo said. “There were some pretty big fishes swimming around and that is why the dinosaurs were here leaving their footprints around because they were eating the fish.”

Even after 20 years, the site and museum conduct research housed in its fossil preparation laboratory along with educational outreach to schools.

Although some might say learning about dinosaurs is secondary to reading, writing and arithmetic, Azevedo disagrees.

“This type of passive learning is super important,” she said. “This is the role a museum plays were they can touch objects. We also try to cover basic Earth science principles to provide the base to understand what we are talking about at the museum.”

Along with guided group tours, self-guided exploration, the site conducts a summer program for students.

For more information on collecting rocks and fossils on public land visit the Bureau of Land Management.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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