Following in the footprints of dinosaurs at Dinosaur Valley State Park

Dinosaur Valley State Park [Review]
Eagle Creek Pack-It System Compression Sac Set [Product Review]

I was six years old when I first heard about the town of Glen Rose, Texas.

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It is mentioned in countless dinosaur science books as a very special town, indeed. Dinosaurs adorn the town center benches.

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So comfy!

There are dinosaurs in the grocery store.

Can I get a glass of...of...um. Dinosaur...milk? *wince*
Can I get a glass of…of…um. Dinosaur…milk? *wince*

There are dinosaurs on the town square, supporting the Glen Rose Garden Club.

The Glen Rose Garden Club does a really spiffy job decorating the cute town center.
The Glen Rose Garden Club does a really spiffy job decorating the cute town center.

Weirdly enough, the town’s high school mascot is the tigers.

Go figure. I mean, Go Tigers!
Go figure. I mean, Go Tigers!

Huh. Well, in any case, dinosaurs abound in Glen Rose.

Dinosaurs on handkerchiefs. DInosaurs on mugs. Dinosaurs on everything, for crying out loud!
Dinosaurs on handkerchiefs. DInosaurs on mugs. Dinosaurs on everything, for crying out loud!

 

Jessi is terrified of "raptors".
Jessi is terrified of “raptors”.

This quaint country stopover is more than just a cute little town with a dinosaur theme; it’s a place that is lodged in nostalgia for me, even though I had never stepped foot in the place. Until now.

So. Stepping and feet. That’s appropriate. See, Glen Rose is famous because it is the home of Dinosaur Valley State Park, which protects one of the most famous series of fossilized dinosaur footprints in the entire world.

Like an ancient dance, preserved since the Early Cretaceous Period, around 108 million years ago.
Like an ancient dance, preserved since the Early Cretaceous Period, around 108 million years ago.

Even better than your average fossilized dinosaur bones, dinosaur footprints are like having a snapshot into the daily life of a long gone animal. Trackways, series of footprints, are used to interpret dinosaur behavior, calculate trackmaker speeds, and to say a thing or two about the biomechanics of how dinosaurs squished their clawed feet into soft mud.

The tracks at Dinosaur Valley State Park in Glen Rose are especially well known, and they sparked the imagination of little chibi (that is, tiny) Tara (that is, me) because they were famously described by Roland T. Bird in the early 1940s.

Roland T. Bird, in his element. Image (c) Natural History

 

Roland Thaxter Bird was a fossil trackway enthusiast and a contemporary of Barnum Brown, the paleontologist who discovered Tyrannosaurus rex. To say the least, these two guys were major players in the explosive growth of paleontology in the early- to mid-20th century in America.

Bird was drawn to the big, birdlike three-toed trackways in Glen Rose through local reports of the fossils, but he was surprised to find associated with these footprints a slew of even bigger prints in vaguely circular shapes. Some of these larger prints were the size of small washtubs, big enough for a toddler to bathe in. The Paluxy River, along which the tracks are found, often floods the prints with enough murky water for a child to actually be able to do so.

Bathtime! Image (c) Roland T. Bird's "A Dinosaur Walks into the Museum", published in Natural History, February 1941.
Bathtime! Image (c) Roland T. Bird’s “A Dinosaur Walks into the Museum”, published in Natural History, February 1941.

The three-toed trackways had been known from sites around the world for a hundred years prior to Bird’s first birthday. These kinds of tracks are made by carnivorous, or meat-eating, dinosaurs–that much had been settled. But what could have made the big, round washtub prints?

And why, in one particularly famous track sequence, did it look like a three-toe was following along next to a washtub?

Dinosaur attack! Rarrrg!
Dinosaur attack! Rarrrg!

Oh.

The age old predator-prey dance, caught in stone. While there is some debate over whether this famous sequence of tracks actually represents two dinosaurs walking contemporaneously, or whether it was an active attack and defense–one animal with sharp teeth and bird feet, the other with a long neck and washtub elephant pad feet—it is nevertheless an extraordinary example of dinosaurs moving across soft, wet mud, at a steady pace, and with a possible instance of the bird-toed carnivore hopping to attack the long necked plant eater. At one point, the carnivore appears to skip a step. Perhaps it leapt to attack?

The famous and controversial predator-prey track sequence uncovered by Bird was the first scientifically documented occurrence of a sauropod trackway–those are the long necked, plant-chomping herbivorous dinosaurs. The trackway was excavated by Bird and his team and moved to its permanent home at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where it still resides today. The remainder of the tracks are left in situ, or in their original place, for visitors to enjoy and for the waters of the Paluxy to bathe and actually protect from the erosion of time.

The famous R.T. Bird trackway sequence, with the controversial "leaping" predator.
The famous R.T. Bird trackway sequence, with the controversial “leaping” predator.

The bird-like tracks, made by a fifteen-foot-tall sauropod-burger-loving carnivore, are technically called theropod tracks. The theropod dinosaurs included all meat eating dinosaurs, including T. rex, Velociraptor, and any other sharp-toothy two-legged land walking beast from the Jurassic Park series.

See, Spielberg, this is what I used to look like. Dig my pot belly!
See, Spielberg, this is what I used to look like. Dig my pot belly!

Even though the outdated but historically fascinating theropod model that sits next to the Dinosaur Valley State Park gift shop is a T. rex, the more likely culprit for these 108-million-year-old trackways is an animal similar to Acrocanthosaurus. Oh boy, now we’re getting into the tongue twisters.

Acrocanthosaurus atokensis. Tall spines, big teeth, sharp claws. Image (c) Jaime Headden.
Acrocanthosaurus atokensis. Tall spines, big teeth, sharp claws. Image (c) Jaime Headden.

The washtub prints, like those of giant, clawed elephants, were not “Brontosaurus” or Brachiosaurus or Apatosaurus (the story on why there is no Brontosaurus will have to wait for another day!), but more likely made by an animal similar to the early Cretaceous sauropod named Astrodon (Houston Astros fans–any name resemblance to the baseball team is only tangential, heh heh). The park calls Astrodon by the name Pleurocoelus, though technically Astrodon takes precedence. Phew, another post about dinosaur naming conventions might really be in order!

Astrodon, also known as Pleurocoelus. Image (c) Dmitry Bogdanov

I did my undergraduate research on dinosaur trackways, so actually being able to visit a famous dinosaur trackway site like the Glen Rose site is really moving in a nerdy way.

Derp. Nerdy presentation on fossil footprints in Austin, Texas, 2007.
Derp. Nerdy presentation on fossil footprints in Austin, Texas, 2007.

Beyond all the scientific jargon, I want this post to get you jazzed about the park.

A modern dinosaur! Also known as a hawk. This was at a beautiful hiking trail overlook.
Ancient ripple marks turned to stone, from an ancient river, next to new ones being formed in soft mud by the Paluxy River. How cool is that?
Ancient ripple marks turned to stone, from an ancient river, next to new ones being formed in soft mud by the Paluxy River. How cool is that?
Jessi and Marie (of www.ardentcamper.com) are right next to...next to...well, TRACKS!
Jessi and Marie (of www.ardentcamper.com) are right next to…next to…well, TRACKS!
Look at this shale! Okay, yes...nerd moment.
Look at this shale! Okay, yes…nerd moment.

It is a beautiful place to camp and it is a really fascinating place to learn about the Earth’s past. There are very few places where you can place your hand in the mudstone that once touched a dinosaur’s skin.

The whole feel of the place really gives you goosebumps.

So if you are ever in central Texas, be sure to check out Dinosaur Valley State Park. You seriously won’t regret it, and the spirit of your own childhood will thank you.

 

What places or travels have truly inspired you to connect with nature or your own past? And hey, what’s your favorite dinosaur? Almost everyone has one, deep down. Tell us in the comments below!

 

Dinosaur Valley State Park [Review]
Eagle Creek Pack-It System Compression Sac Set [Product Review]
  • I have wanted to visit this state park for SUCH along time! I’m a huge history geek, but have always had a soft spot for paleontology and dinosaurs, purely from an amateur point of view! I will have to put it higher up the list. Great post!

    • Thanks, Michael! We’re kindred spirits, for sure 🙂

  • Interesting article! I had no idea this place existed. Wish I would have known before I drove across Texas last month!

    • Let us know if you need any other Texas suggestions, Kristen! 😀

  • What an awesome park! I would have absolutely loved this at 5, and at 25 I’m pretty sure I’d still love it.

    • Thanks, Jessica–I know, right? This place really hits you with a sense of deep time.

  • What a great place to visit as a kid and adult!

    • Thanks Angela, we had a fantastic time! Thanks for reading 🙂

  • Thanks so much for linking up with us in #WeekendWanderlust – this is a really great article showcasing a spot that would be great to explore on a weekend trip!

    These little towns provide so much nostalgia and are really intriguing to experience. On many occasions they are left out of tourist guides and folks miss out on finding out more history and in this case archaelogical findings. We really love wandering around places like this so the next venture to Texas we will certainly look up directions to Glen Rose, TX – great post and pictures!

    • Thanks Chris! It’s a great little park, and oh my gosh–the dinosaur tracks are amazing!

  • I have yet to make it Dinosaur National Park, but you make it sound so compelling! Can I take a bath there?

    • You can swim in the “Blue Hole” and other parts of the Paluxy River, and hey, if we’re all big kids at heart we may be able to squeeze into a sauropod track…theoretically, right? 🙂

  • I’ve never heard of this place, but it looks awesome! I used to be fascinated with dinosaurs and I kind of still am. If I’m ever in Texas I’ll definitely be making a visit 🙂

    • It’s the kind of place that your inner (um, all around?) child just kind of goes bonkers in–not to mention the scenery is really nice. Let us know if you have questions! We love your blog, by the way!