Walking with dinosaurs: Outback Queensland’s dinosaur trail
Dinosaurs. What’s not to love about them? Monstrous, long-necked vegetarians or killing machines with nightmare teeth: it doesn’t matter. If you get bitten with the dino-bug as a kid you’re hooked for life.
A lucky few turn their love into a career as a palaeontologist and the rest of us may think we only have Hollywood, but in Queensland, we have bones. Lots of them.
Fossilised dinosaurs, some that weighed more than 20 tonnes and roamed around 100 million years ago, are scattered across Outback Queensland and all you need to step back in time with these prehistoric giants is a car and a plan.
Follow the triangle (distance about 550km, plus a 220km round trip to the Lark Quarry dinosaur stampede site out of Winton), and you’ll see everything you need to go back to your childhood in four days.
PS. My starting point on the triangle was Hughenden, and I got there from Townsville, but you can join the dinosaur trail at any point that suits your home base.
Day 1: TOWNSVILLE TO HUGHENDEN (377KM)
Day one and you should hit the road early. The dinosaurs aren’t going anywhere but there’s plenty to see on the way and you’ll want daylight hours to explore the quaint country town of Hughenden.
Charters Towers, 134km from Townsville, lies at the junction of the Great Inland Way (Sydney to Cooktown) and the Overlander’s Way (Townsville to Tennant Creek). For a time in the 19th century, Charters Towers was the second largest city in the state and one of the biggest goldfields in Australia. It even had its own stock exchange. These days the town is a beautiful showcase of fine colonial architecture.
Further west, the historic and atmospheric Prairie Hotel, about 40km east of Hughenden, is a great pit-stop for a late lunch or to stay the night.
In Hughenden, you’ll get your first dinosaur experience at the Flinders Discovery Centre. What’s the Hughenden-Fossil connection? Well, the region was on the edge of an ancient inland sea whose buried sediments contain a treasure trove of terrestrial and marine dinosaur fossils that people have been discovering for the last 150 years.
The centre has an impressive array of fossilised marine reptiles and dinosaur bones and a skeletal replica of a Muttaburrasaurus, a long-necked sauropod.
You’ll find a number of hotel and motel accommodation options in Hughenden, including the Prairie Hotel, and if you have camping gear and a day up your sleeve, take a look at Porcupine Gorge National Park, a 65km detour to the north.
Tip #1: Forget Jurassic on this trip. Google Cretaceous
Tip #2: The main attractions on the Dinosaur Trail are ticketed, but you can save some by buying a discounted Extended Attractions Pass, which covers all of them, at the first one you visit.
Day 2: HUGHENDEN TO RICHMOND (112KM)
Don’t stress about an early start today… the next stop, Richmond, is just up the road. Richmond excited palaeontologists across the world with the 1989 local discovery of an almost complete skeleton of an ancient marine creature, plesiosaur.
This and other impressive marine vertebrates as well as terrestrial dinosaur bones are housed at Kronosaurus Korner, which was ‘Dinosaur Central’ in western Queensland until later discoveries shifted a lot of the focus to Winton.
You may see scientists at work at Kronosaurus Korner, and the museum also offers periodic volunteer laboratory work as well as occasional dinosaur digs. You can go on short, guided fossicking tours in the tourist season (May to September) and there are free fossil hunting sites close to town. I found nothing on my visit, but other fossil hunters have been luckier.
A good picnic and BBQ spot in Richmond is Lake Fred Tritton, where you can also chill out and maybe throw a line in. Back in town, have a look at the historical walk before you settle into your digs.
Tip #3: A fair bit of the Dinosaur Trail from here is on unsealed roads, including much of the next leg – Richmond to Winton – as well as the Winton to Lark Quarry road. These sections may be unsuitable for most caravans, and conventional vehicles.
Day 3: RICHMOND TO WINTON (218KM)
Leave early, around 7am and you’ll be in Winton in time for morning tea or coffee at the excellent bakery on the main drag, Elderslie Street. But don’t dawdle. You have to be at Lark Quarry (110km) in time for the one-hour guided tour of the dinosaur trackways at 2pm. Take water and cash (not cards) for incidentals.
After the tour and a look around, make your own tracks back to Winton, where you’re spoilt for accommodation options. Top of the range is the art-deco North Gregory Hotel.
The atmospheric Tattersalls Hotel is where the al fresco dining action is, but the family-friendly Winton Hotel on Werna Street has good value meals with a vegetable/salad buffet thrown in.
If you have time, you might be able to catch an impressive outback sunset on a nearby mesa called Rangelands, but you need to take a tour. Vicki Jones of Red Dirt Tours in Winton can take you there as well as tours of the town, the dinosaur sites and other attractions.
Day 4: WINTON TO HUGHENDEN (215KM)
Back on the trail and it’s another early-ish start. The Australian Age of Dinosaurs (AAOD) museum and research centre is on another mesa (jump-up) about a 25-30-minute drive from town off the Landsborough Highway.
Plan to arrive early (maybe 9am) and allow about three hours. Your pass or entrance fee will get you into the museum area (collections room) to see some huge dinosaur skeletons, a tour through Dinosaur Canyon and a visit to the laboratory to see people working on the fossils.
You can join in on the fossil preparation or even join a dinosaur dig – a seven day experience uncovering brand new (ironic) dinosaur bones in the Queensland Outback. Incredible. This is a wonderfully unique way to go back 95-100 million years, believe me, and if you’re doing lab work you can stay on-site on the jump-up. AAOD serves good coffee and snacks and has a big range of souvenirs.
From here you can complete the Dinosaur Trail triangle by returning to Winton and taking the tarred 215km Dinosaur Way to Hughenden via Corfield and Stamford. If you didn’t see Porcupine Gorge at the start of the trip, you now have another chance.
Of course, you could just forget about completing the triangle and go home through Longreach if it makes sense and you have time to explore it, but that’s another outback travel yarn for another day.