Highway 101 South of Port Orford features some of the loveliest scenery in the state of Oregon. As you round the corner at Humbug Mountain State Park, the dense rain forest vegetation can make you feel like you've been transported to another place; one more tropical, more exotic than the Oregon coast. This feeling grows even stronger another mile or so down the road; helped along, no doubt, by the sight of a huge Tyrannosaurus Rex standing at the edge of a spacious parking lot, snarling fiercely. Honestly, how can you not pull in?
Welcome to Prehistoric Gardens, a roadside attraction that has been delighting visitors to the Oregon coast for over 50 years. Prehistoric Gardens is the result of the singular vision of one man. Ernie Nelson worked as a CPA and owned a forge works in Eugene, Oregon, but his real passion was dinosaurs. "Ernie was fascinated by dinosaurs from the time he was a child," says Karmin Roberts, Nelson's granddaughter, "and his interest in them just got stronger as he grew older." In the early 1950s, Nelson sold his business and moved his family to property he'd bought on the backside of Humbug Mountain, and began to build his dinosaurs. Prehistoric Gardens, billed as "The Land of Long Ago," opened to the public on January 1, 1955. The property remains in the family today, owned by Roberts' sister Kiki McGrath. Both granddaughters work at the attraction, tending it with a loving care their grandfather would be proud of.
Prehistoric Gardens is located at 36848 Highway 101 South, Port Orford, Oregon, phone: (541) 332-4463. Winter hours are Thursday through Sunday, from 10 a.m. until dark.
Port Orford is an easy day trip from the Rogue Valley, but what's your hurry? The Southern Oregon coast is a beautiful area and offers a number of recreational opportunities. Other nearby attractions include Humbug Mountain State Park (camping, hiking), Cape Blanco (lighthouse, Hughes House, camping and beachcombing) and miles of gorgeous, easily accessible beaches.
Lodging is available in nearby Port Orford or Gold Beach. For more information on the area, contact the Chamber of Commerce of Port Orford and North Curry County at (541) 332-8055 or visit them online at www.portorfordchamber.com.
Inside the exhibit, a gently meandering path lined with wooden fences winds through the grounds. Rainfall in the area averages between 80 and 100 inches a year, which helps to explain the lush vegetation. Light filters down through a high canopy of trees, some over 200 years old. Towering rhododendrons mix with giant prehistoric-looking ferns and skunk cabbages. Footbridges that arch across creeks and wooden benches invite you to linger and imagine what life might have been like when dinosaurs roamed the earth.
There are 23 statues of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures here, all built by Nelson from concrete and steel. The models are anatomically correct, based on measurements made from fossils — although their vivid colors may be a bit speculative. Everywhere you look, amazing creatures appear through the foliage: a tall Brachiosaurus peeking down from high overhead; a toothily imposing Elasmosaurus; a Pteranodon taking flight from a rock littered with real animal bones and Roberts' personal favorite — a grouping of newly hatched baby Triceratops. "All of the dinosaurs received a fresh coat of paint this summer," says Roberts, "so people who have visited before might want to stop by again and check out the 'new looks' of their favorites."
On any given day, you'll meet a diverse group of visitors at the gardens: children racing excitedly up and down the paths, calling out the names of their favorite dinosaurs; first-time visitors armed with digital cameras and older couples, often with grandchildren in tow, returning to a place they've visited frequently over the years. "We get lots of return visitors," says Roberts. "Literally every day, we talk to people who say things like 'I have a picture that was taken of me standing in front of this dinosaur when I was a little kid,' and now they're coming back and bringing their children and grandchildren."
Although the phrase "The Land of Long Ago" is meant to describe the dinosaurs, who roamed the earth millions of years ago, it could just as easily describe a sensation that you are stepping back into the 1950s as you enter. There's an earnest sweetness to this place, a reminder of a simpler, gentler time before we were jaded by special effects and high-tech exhibits. You feel your sophistication and cynicism melt away as you walk the paths and visit the gift shop, replaced by a willingness to be amazed, daydreaming about the days when dinosaurs walked the earth.