The vast red landscape of western Queensland is a time capsule of our prehistoric past, waiting to be discovered.
There are many trails of discovery that you can take through Queensland’s outback parks and forests—your options are almost as endless as the fossil specimens you will find there. Here we’ve pulled together some suggestions to appeal to the dinosaur-delvers and fossil-fossickers amongst us! And, of course, anyone who has a fascination with our ancient past (and who doesn’t?).
If you want to walk among unique dinosaur tracks, uncover layers of prehistory carved into rock and search for ancient fossils at a world-famous archaeological site, make sure to add these parks to your Outback bucket list. Happy exploring!
1. Delve into the dinosaur era at Lark Quarry
Venture into ‘jump-up’ country, about 100km (2hrs) south-west of Winton (4WD recommended, although the unsealed road is also suitable for conventional vehicles), to come face-to-face with ancient (and we mean ancient) history at Lark Quarry Conservation Park. As you rollercoaster across ancient mesas (flat-topped hills known as ‘jump-ups’), gullies and steep escarpments formed over millions of years of erosion, you’ll perhaps get an inkling of what’s in store.
You’ll arrive at the site of the world's only known dinosaur stampede site, nowadays protected inside a solar-powered shelter, the Dinosaur Stampede National Monument.
Here, you’ll be transported back to a prehistoric age—the site reveals a snapshot of history 95 million years in the making! Gaze in awe at more than 3,300 dinosaur footprints embedded in a fossilised rock face, thought to be the result of a dinosaur stampede—a paleontologist’s paradise!
Do you remember similar scenes in Steven Spielberg’s ‘Jurassic Park’? Apparently, Lark Quarry was the inspiration! (And yes, ‘life has found a way here’). Very recently, an alternative to the ‘stampede’ theory has been proposed, suggesting the concentration of footprints was made by a flock of small two-legged dinosaurs moving around a natural river crossing…in no particular hurry!
Whatever happened all that time ago, sandy sediments covered the tracks, the mud dried, and 95 million years later (think 1960s) they were discovered by a station manager in the nearby Seymour Quarry and later excavated by The University of Queensland and the Queensland Museum.
Belonging mostly to chicken-sized Skartopus and emu-sized Wintonopus dinosaurs, there are also footprints from larger dinosaurs, thought to be a carnivore, the intimidatingly-named Australovenator, and an herbivore similar to the Muttaburrasaurus (kids love saying that one!). Sorry, no T-Rex!
Lose yourselves in the dinosaur trackways for an hour or more, then, if you’ve come prepared with a lunch esky and walking shoes, there’s more fun in store!
Explore ‘jump-up’ country by foot on the 500m Spinifex circuit and capture views over the Mitchell grass downs to the east and the channel country in the west. If you are fit and experienced walkers, check out the 3.5km Jump Up Loop, an unformed cross-country track (subtle track markers point the way). You’ll skirt several gullies and climb along the western escarpment, spotting wallaroos and lizards along the way. The views over the sprawling landscape and red earth escarpments from the top of the ‘jump-ups’ are well worth the walk. It’s best walked in the cooler part of the day, though!
Access to Lark Quarry’s dinosaur trackways is by guided tour only and a fee applies (but you can enter the park free of charge, of course). Find out more about Lark Quarry Conservation Park. Always check Park alerts before you set off. Call Winton Shire Council to check road conditions, particularly after rain.
2. Drift along the Dinosaur Trail
Lark Quarry is in the middle of ‘dinosaur country’ so while you’re here, make sure you check out these other attractions on the Dinosaur Trail, an outback circuit connecting Winton, Hughenden and Richmond:
- The Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum, near Winton—discover the world’s biggest collection of Australia’s largest dinosaur fossils as well as life-sized bronze dinosaurs at Dinosaur Canyon.
- Flinders Discovery Centre and Museum, near Hughenden—explore an amazing exhibition of dinosaur fossils, including ‘Hughie’, a life size replica of a 7m Muttaburrasaurus (110 million year old plant-eating dinosaur).
- Kronosaurus Korner, Richmond—discover more than 1000 unique fossils from the area including 100–115 million year old remains of extinct marine reptiles, fishes, ammonites and squids that once dominated Australia's ancient inland sea.
- Fossil Hunting Sites, near Richmond—find your own fossils at these sites (permits, maps and guides available from Kronosaurus Korner).
3. Dive deep into an ancient landscape at Porcupine Gorge
‘Layer upon layer’ of history is revealed the deeper you walk down into Porcupine Gorge, our very own ‘Little Grand Canyon’. Porcupine Gorge National Park, 60km north of Hughenden, is a surprising discovery in a flat savanna landscape, and a great place to doss down for a night or two on your trail through the Outback.
- Follow the steeply-descending Pyramid track down to the gorge floor. You’ll travel about 120m in depth into the gorge but around 500 million years into the past—the eroding action of Porcupine Creek has uncovered strata of sedimentary rocks from five to 500 million years old! Don’t expect to see fossils though, just (very) old rocks!
- At the bottom of the gorge, cool off in the clear pools of Porcupine Creek, and discover the Pyramid, a multi-coloured sandstone monolith rising from the gorge floor, shaped like (you guessed it) a pyramid!
- Make yourselves at home at the Pyramid camping area, with composting toilets, picnic tables and fire rings for camp fires. You’ll need to book your site in advance and BYO everything else, including clean-milled firewood.
4. Discover diprotodons and other fossils at Riversleigh
Not that we want to boast, but the Riversleigh World Heritage site, at Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park, in the far west of the state, is one of the most significant fossil deposits in the world and the richest known fossil mammal deposit in Australia!
So grab your water bottles, clamp on your hats, lace up your boots and set off early to beat the heat. Follow the 800m Riversleigh Fossil trail as it winds up to the top of the limestone outcrop. Now, it’s hard to imagine, but Riversleigh was once a lush rainforest scattered with freshwater lakes and this outcrop was once mud at the bottom of one of these lime-rich lakes.
The trail will take you past a selection of well-preserved fossils—a 25 million-year-old collection of creatures that once lived in and around this ‘lake’. These fossils are a record of the evolution of life in Australia following the breakup of the ancient continent of Gondwana, and the reason the site is inscribed on the World Heritage list.
Ready to find some fossils? Here’s a taste of what’s in store for you:
- fossilised vertebra and gizzard stones of a towering flightless bird, fondly known as ‘Big Bird’ to paleontologists
- a circular fossil that is a cross section of a limb bone of a huge crocodile, possibly the 5m long, cleaver-headed Baru, with huge dagger-like teeth
- the fossilised tooth of a diprotodon—a sheep-sized, wombat-shaped mammal that browsed on vegetation on the forest floor, once as common in the landscape as cattle are today!
Take your time to read through the informative signs along the way and fully appreciate this incredible site, part of the Australian Fossil Mammal Sites World Heritage Area. If you prefer, you can also join a commercial tour to learn more from expert guides.
And, of course, if you’re visiting Riversleigh, you’ll want to camp in Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park, where you can seek respite from the heat and relax in the cool oasis of the gorge—walking, canoeing, swimming…ahhh!
Find out more about Riversleigh World Heritage Site, and check out all your activity options, including camping, in Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park. Always check park alerts before you head out.
Ready to unearth Queensland’s most ancient secrets?
Your Outback adventure beckons, so get ready to go exploring! Check out other outback parks to extend your itinerary!