Hunting for history: The Museum at Dinosaur Junction will showcase local fossils and prehistoric finds
Local dinosaur hunter Billy Doran finds a year-round home for dinosaur museum in Eagle County
For Billy Doran, a longtime local and dinosaur hunter, uncovering the prehistoric history of Eagle County has been his job for a little over a decade. And now, he’s making history of his own with the county’s first dinosaur museum.
Doran plans to bring The Museum at Dinosaur Junction to the Edwards Early Learning Center in June 2022. In the school’s cafeteria, the museum will have its first a year-round home where it can grow and house Doran’s discoveries and other pieces of local prehistoric history.
Over the years, through his discoveries of fossils, footprints and bones, Doran, alongside a longtime paleontologist is “slowly getting Eagle County on the map as a dinosaur destination,” he said.
“Now, with this museum, that’s really going to put us on the map,” he said. “Colorado is considered a dinosaur state — people come here for dinosaurs — and we’re really going to be considered a dinosaur town.”
A “little museum making big discoveries,” Doran said the space will give local families and kids as well as visitors an opportunity to learn about the ancient, ancient history of Eagle County, which he has been dedicated to uncovering for nearly 12 years.
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Passion to paleontologist
But before there was a museum, Doran was just a kid. And like most kids, he had a fascination with dinosaurs. However, many kids grow out of this fascination, Doran included, but unlike most, eventually he found his way back to dinosaurs.
“I always had an interest for hunting things around here, hunting for fossils, bones and things like that I have always been very interested and enthralled with ancient, ancient history,” he said.
Doran moved to the Vail area 32 years ago. Since then, he’s had lots of jobs, including, for a time, as a host and on-air personality on TV8. Through this job, he connected with people at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and eventually it snowballed from there.
Since then, Doran has been a part of many large fossil expeditions — serving as a volunteer member of the paleontological team for the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, including during its excavation of Ice Age fossils in Snowmass as well as joining several National Geographic expeditions. He has also been inducted as a member of the Explorer’s Club, an international professional society for scientific exploration.
However, most of his time has been spent hiking between Edwards and Wolcott, hunting for pieces of Eagle County’s own prehistoric history.
“I’ve now found fossils from 12 different dinosaurs, ranging from the size of a turkey, on up to the massive long-neck plant-eating dinosaurs, meat eaters, bones, teeth, kind of all of it,” Doran said. “Right here in Eagle County, we get stuff that dates back 250 million years or more and we have stuff that’s 10,000 years old and we have everything in between. We have stuff from ancient jungles, we have stuff from ancient deserts, we have stuff from ancient oceans, and it’s all right here, right in our county, which is amazing. We have a little slice of everything to look for.”
Hunting for Eagle County’s history
Throughout his dinosaur hunts, which he calls “hiking with a purpose,” Doran has never lost his childlike excitement about the prehistoric history. In fact, after his first local find — of footprints and some bones — he “danced a jig” and then called his mom.
“You become a child again, whenever you find something like that,” he said. “But even more, one of the things that’s really exciting to me about paleontology is you’re not sitting back looking back at history, you’re actually becoming part of it.”
When Doran goes out dinosaur or fossil hunting, he’s looking for things that are odd or that look out of place.
“You want to look for things that aren’t normal or that stand out, something that seems attractive or unique. You want to look for strange patterns, strange designs, things that seem too perfect in a rough landscape or things that look the opposite — something that’s out of place, jagged and weird looking or the color is different,the texture is different. You’re looking for things that stand out, and then you go from there,” he said.
Knowing where exactly to look, however, is trickier. It requires a lot of knowledge of history, paleontology and geology, and also a little luck and intuition.
“Sometimes when I’m out hiking, I just get this sense, I get this weird little feeling that I’m onto something and sure enough, if I stick it out long enough I’ll find a tooth or a bone or a footprint right there,” Doran said. “And then sometimes I can be out all day, I can be hiking for six or seven hours and not find a single thing and that’s all part of fossil hunting, that’s all part of dinosaur hunting.”
Doran said that through these hikes in Eagle County he has found items from all three time periods that dinosaurs roamed the earth — the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods —a time frame that spans over 170 million years.
Some of Doran’s best local finds include fossils from Sauropods, from a Stegosaurus, prehistoric sharks and crocodile fossils, raptor bones, as well as pieces of T-Rex’s “great, great, great granddaddy” the Allosaurus. His oldest find was a footprint from a turkey-sized animal that was 230 million years old, he said.
However, for now, many of his finds remain exactly where he found them. This is because Doran has largely been hunting on Bureau of Land Management land, where you must have permits to excavate anything. So when he finds something, he photographs it, writes down the GPS coordinates, measures it and documents as much as he can.
“In time, we hopefully will be able to acquire those permits through the BLM after establishing our museum,” he said. “And then we’ll have years and years of work ahead of us to excavate all these bones and teeth and get everything in a safe place where they can be held for posterity and add to the history of our valley.”
Prehistoric history lessons
The thing that sparks Doran’s passion for paleontology and dinosaur hunting is that, not only is it cool science, but it’s like living in a time machine.
“You literally get to go back and touch these animals that were walking around, living here as ferocious as they were — the unimaginably bizarre, dreamlike animals that they were,” he said. “And in finding their bones, you become part of their whole story and you’re actually touching something that once was around.”
This spark is something that Doran has become passionate about sharing with others.
“Whether it’s a child or an adult, learning about our world, our Earth, going back hundreds of millions of years, gives us a much better perspective on our lives today,” he said. “Maybe, there’s this outside chance that someone is going to learn that our lives are fleeting that we do need to learn to appreciate — not just our lives and our friends and families and the animals and nature — but we realize, we aren’t around that long and we do make a massive impact on things, even though we’re here for a very short period of time.”
For years, Doran has taught local students and families about paleontology through his Fossil Posse kids camp and educational program where he does shows at schools, Beaver Creek Village and more. Two years ago, he started the Museum at Dinosaur Junction as a nonprofit organization. However, the museum was housed in a temporary structure and was only able to be open for three months of the year.
But Doran had dreams of establishing roots for the museum where it could grow exponentially. And in making this dream a reality, he found the Edwards Early Learning Center, where an unused cafeteria had the perfect potential for the county’s first dinosaur museum.
On Wednesday, Eagle County Schools’ Board of Education approved a three-year lease agreement with Doran to occupy the space and transform it into a place of discovery and a home for his findings.
“I’ve been in the valley for over 30 years and I can’t tell you how excited I am to have this chance to give back to a community that’s given me so much,” Doran said at the board meeting. “Your vote for this is a vote for something that’s going to make our town so much more interesting in a place that’s already so amazing.”
Since Doran can’t yet excavate many of the bones that he has found, the museum will be home to museum-quality resin replica skeletons of the pieces of real dinosaurs he has uncovered as well as hundreds of real fossils, teeth, bones, shells and footprints that he was able to legally obtain. Overall, it will be a place of discovery and learning for many.
Doran has his work cut out for him to make this dream a reality, including a lot of fundraising. The Museum at Dinosaur Junction is currently raising funds on GoFundMe to help build out the space and fill it will large skeletons. To donate, visit: gofund.me/5166bc3d.