Dino delights: Walter the hadrosaur helping put CNCC on the map

Liz Johnson shows off a fossil inside CNCC's paleontology lab March 19, 2019.
Clay Thorp/staff

Walter may be old, but he — or she — is about to enjoy a comfy retirement at Colorado Northwestern Community College where everyone can appreciate the journey that brought him here.

Walter is perhaps Craig’s oldest retiree — a huge 75 million-year-old hadrosaur, an herbivore dinosaur that volunteers, students and scientists spent the last five years unearthing near Rangely. Led by Liz Johnson, science faculty and curator of paleontology at CNCC, crews have dug up and cleaned about half the dinosaur’s massive bones and are getting ready to show the world.

“We are finally getting to the point where we can start displaying,” Johnson said Wednesday.

To celebrate, volunteers on Tuesday helped Johnson with a mural honoring Walter at CNCC — a huge to-scale painting near the main entrance to Craig’s burgeoning community college. As she stood underneath the painting directing volunteers, she was dwarfed by the sheer size of CNCC’s prized, fossilized plant eater.

The college also plans to roll out some merchandise celebrating their one-of-a-kind specimen — posters, replica dinosaurs, and a skin exhibit so visitors can touch and feel for themselves a true imprint of Walter’s skin. Johnson said she also plans to create replicas of the bones so the replicas can be pieced together and displayed while the real, heavy rock fossils remain safe in a temperature controlled environment.

The Craig Press was given access Tuesday to CNCC’s paleontology lab. Inside there were some of the rarest fossils in the world, at least one of which the Craig Press was not allowed to photograph until research is complete. Huge plaster molds formed to safely extradite the ancient fossils lay on almost every open surface in the room.

The room is any future paleontologist’s dream come true, and Johnson wants those young dinosaur dreamers in the Yampa Valley to know their dreams are coming closer to reality.

“The cool thing is the students get to work on this,” Johnson said of her student team’s painstaking cleaning of Walter’s fossilized bones.

“That normally doesn’t happen at the undergraduate level, let alone a community college,” said Kathy Simpson, a retired science faculty member at CNCC and “an awesome scientist,” according to Johnson.

But, Walter isn’t the only specimen in CNCC’s collection that students will get their hands on. Johnson plans to unearth many more bones in Moffat County this summer with the help of a special summer camp for dinosaur diggers.

For a little less than $1,000, aspiring paleontologists and fossil lovers can help CNCC add to its one-of-a-kind collection. The camp includes instruction, use of specialized tools, all camp supplies, meals, room, and board. Higher education geology credit is also offered through CNCC as part of the camp.

“This is just one specimen,” Johnson said. “We have lots of permits open this summer. We are going out again.”

For more information on Walter, CNCC’s rare fossil collection or to inquire about CNCC’s summer dinosaur dig, call 970-824-1119 or email

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