Prehistoric Gardens

Prehistoric Gardens, with its twenty-foot-tall concrete Tyrannosaurus greeting travelers a few miles south of Port Orford on Highway 101, has been a successful commercial roadside attraction for over six decades. Along a winding path through a dense forest of spruce and sword ferns, twenty-three life-size sculptures of dinosaurs and other extinct reptiles have been strategically placed. Unlike roadside attractions that aim simply to “amuse and amaze,” Prehistoric Gardens describes each creature featured in the garden and provides information about the Mesozoic Era—the so-called Age of Reptiles (251-65.5 million years ago). There is no scientific evidence that land dinosaurs ever lived in Oregon, which was mostly covered in ocean during that period.

A popular stopping place on the coast in Curry County, Prehistoric Gardens is a remnant of Oregon’s pre-freeway roadscape, where family-owned and operated attractions lured automobile travelers to stop, pay an admission fee, and experience something unusual.

When it opened to the public on January 1, 1955, Prehistoric Gardens joined Sea Lion Caves, Petersen Rock Garden, Oregon Vortex, and other family-owned attractions that had been built along the state’s two-lane federal highways. The Gardens’ founder, E.V. “Ernie” Nelson, saw his enterprise as a way to take advantage of the steadily increasing tourist traffic on the southern Oregon Coast after World War II. He purposely sited the business in Curry County, midway between the Sea Lion Caves to the north and the Trees of Mystery located to the south near Crescent City, California. 

In 1952, Nelson had purchased a 26-acre tract of moist, northeast-aspect forest, where he constructed a family residence and gift shop. He began building the first dinosaurs in 1954, using steel armatures for the skeletal frames and layers of chicken wire, covered with several coats of concrete, to form the reptiles’ shapes. He painted the finished models in greens, browns, and rust-reds.

Born in 1907 on a Minnesota farm, Nelson had moved with his parents and siblings in the 1920s to Springfield, Oregon. He worked as an accountant during the Depression and World War II, and moved to Port Orford in 1953. Prehistoric Gardens, he later said, was the fulfillment of his “boyhood dream.” He attributed a lifelong interest in dinosaurs to the National Geographic magazines he had read as a boy.

For nearly five decades at Prehistoric Gardens, Nelson sold tickets, ran the small gift shop, and “talked dinosaurs” with visitors. He also built the life-sized models of extinct mammals for the owner of Thunderbeast Park, a less successful roadside attraction on Highway 97 near Chiloquin. The Prehistoric Gardens was a family enterprise, where Nelson's wife and children also worked.  During the 1990s, with the popularity of the film Jurassic Park, Prehistoric Gardens employed as many as seven people.

In 1969, Nelson built the Gardens’ last dinosaur model, a Brachiosaurus—a vegetarian and one of the largest land animals ever on the planet. Taking four years to complete, the creature's long neck rises from behind a wooden fence near the fanged Tyrannosaurus in the parking lot, peering through the foliage at passing highway traffic.

Nelson died in 1999 at the age of ninety-one, and his grandchildren now own and run the business.

Prehistoric Gardens, 1957
Courtesy Jeff LaLande
File Name File Type
Brochure for the Prehistoric Gardens application


Map It

Further Reading

Metzler, Ken. “Prehistoric Gardens.” Popular Mechanics (May 1958): 141-143.

Walker, Molly. “Celebrating 40 Years of Building a Boyhood Dream.” Rogue Coast, August 25, 1993: 12-16

Miller, Bill. “Watch for Dinosaurs!” Medford Mail Tribune, March 24, 2013: 2B.

Related Articles

Oregon Caves Chateau, about 1930.
Oregon Caves Chateau

The Oregon Caves Chateau was constructed between 1931 and 1934 as an overnight lodging in a ravine near the entrance of the Oregon Caves National Monument. Designed by local architect and builder Gust Lium, the gable-roof structure was built of Port Orford cedar and other materials native to Mount Elijah, …

South end, House of Mystery at Gold Hill, 1920s or 1930s.
Oregon Vortex (House of Mystery)

The Oregon Vortex and House of Mystery, located on Sardine Creek in Gold Hill, is one of Oregon’s oldest and most original examples of Roadside Americana. Opened to tourists in 1930, the attraction is the earliest documented mystery spot or gravitational hill in the United States—a place where bubble levels, …

Inside Sea Lion Caves, about 1937.
Sea Lion Caves

Eleven miles north of Florence on U.S. Highway 101 are the remains of an ice-age beach of seafloor basalt, where waves hit fracture zones in the hard basalt to carve what is now Sea Lion Caves, the world’s largest sea cave. The main attraction is the sea lions, which sixteenth-century …

Highway 101 (Oregon Coast Highway)
US 101 (Oregon Coast Highway)

Many places on the Oregon coast were virtually inaccessible in the early twentieth century. Small fishing villages existed as remote outposts, separated by rocky headlands and timber-covered hills. The Roosevelt Coast Military Highway, named in honor of President Theodore Roosevelt, was a result of a renewed national sense of isolationism …

This entry was last updated on Jan. 22, 2019