ST. GEORGE — Karl Herrmann remembers the first time he set foot on the crusty dirt that paleontologists are now gushing over with scientific glee.
"We were here when the dinosaur tracks were first discovered," Herrmann said of his visit five years ago to the hilly mound where retired local optometrist Sheldon Johnson unearthed an impressive array of dinosaur footprints cast in mud. "It was astounding. They were literally trying to keep people from coming onto the sandstone and walking all over the dinosaur tracks."
Johnson and his wife, LaVerna, spent those first months practically living at the site as thousands of people clamored to see the discovery that the couple eventually donated to the city.
A lot has happened since then, including construction of a building to protect the nearly 200 million-year-old tracks left behind by dinosaurs and other animals that once roamed the shores of an ancient lake in Utah's Dixie.
On Herrmann's second trip to the dinosaur site from his home in Vancouver, B.C., things looked markedly different. His son, 10-year-old Austin Herrmann, summed up the experience with one word: "intriguing."
"My next step is to go to a dig site and study there," the dark-haired boy said as he peered at a display.
The museum, called the St. George Discovery Site at Johnson Farm, is open at 2180 E. Riverside Drive, not far from the banks of the Virgin River and a lot of new homes. Hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world have marveled at the dinosaur tracks, skin impressions, swim tracks, and other Early Jurassic finds on display there.
Among the scientific discoveries revealed at the site are evidence of plants and animals from an ancient ecosystem including trace fossils and tracks left behind along an ancient shoreline and farther offshore.
Paleontologists have, so far, identified thousands of dinosaur tracks at the site and on ground across the street. Three types of theropod dinosaur tracks from meat-eating dinosaurs have been identified: the Eubrontes, Grallator and Gigandipus.
Also found at the site is the world's largest and best-preserved collection of dinosaur swim tracks, dinosaur tail drags and an impression made from a squatting Eubrontes. Fish swim tracks, upright-walking crocodilian tracks, and several dinosaur skin impressions and scale scratch lines were also found.
Even dinosaur teeth, 18 of them, have been discovered, along with a complete dinosaur backbone and other reptile bone fragments.
"This is the most significant dinosaur track site in western North America," said James Kirkland, Utah's state paleontologist.
Retired Utah high school teacher Bob Kroff, who works as volunteer coordinator for the dinosaur museum, said he enjoys everything about his job.
"I'm finding my niche. It's just fun," he said. "You meet people from all over the world here. I would really encourage any retired educators to volunteer to be a greeter or tour guide. We provide the training and it's a natural fit for retired high school teachers like me."
Keith Vandewark volunteers several hours of his time as a tour guide at the museum, although he said his dream is to help prepare and preserve the ancient artifacts.
"This is something that really interests me," said Vandewark, who retired from a career in the natural gas distribution industry in western New York. "It's fascinating and I enjoy meeting people."
The museum also features a gift shop and a short film that outlines the history of the dinosaur discovery site. For more information or to volunteer at the museum, call 435-574-DINO (3466) or visit the Web site, www.dinotrax.com