When you think of dinosaur fossils in America, you probably picture the open West. Paleontologists in jeans and sun hats digging the bones of Triceratops under the desert sun. Tyrannosaurus skulls eroding out of badlands cliffs. Trains of fossil Apatosaurus vertebrae lying dark against the pale sand. If you know a little paleontological history, you may have heard of the Bone Wars of the late 1800s, when renowned paleontologists Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope competed to see who could uncover and name more prehistoric beasts in the West.
But the deserts and prairies shouldn’t get all the paleontological glory. New England has its own rich fossil history as well. While prehistoric bones are admittedly rare, dinosaur footprints are abundant in the Eastern United States. Particularly in the great rift valley that cuts through the middle of Massachusetts and Connecticut.
Valley of the Dinosaurs
Called (creatively enough) the Connecticut Valley- or sometimes the Pioneer Valley if you live in Massachusetts- this rift was formed millions of years ago in the early Mesozoic when all the continents were smashed together into the supercontinent Pangea. As plate tectonics slowly broke Pangea apart, the land that would become New England was stretched and split. Imagine pulling on a nougat-filled candy bar and seeing the way the chocolate coating cracks into smaller pieces as the softer inside stretches. Now imagine that the Earth’s crust is the chocolate coating, and the molten mantle is the nougat, and you’ll have a basic idea of how the valley formed. The depression thus created filled with small, shallow lakes that were prime feeding and drinking sites for dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasts. As these animals scrounged, hunted, mated and migrated along the lake shores, they left millions of prints in the soft mud which eventually hardened into rock and remained until the present day.
Dinosaur State Park
So where exactly can you go to see these fossil footprints? I first learned about them at Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, Connecticut, and I still think this is by far the best place to start your exploration. The park’s main feature is a geodesic dome protecting an outcropping of sandstone covered in the three-toed footprints of a large predatory dinosaur. In paleontology, track types are given their own name since the exact animal that made them may be unknown. Thus the tracks at Dinosaur State Park are called Eubrontes.
A diorama bordering the trackway showcases Dilophosaurus, the likely maker of the prints. I say “likely” because no fossils of the dinosaur that made the Eubrontes tracks have ever been found in New England, but the feet of Dilophosaurus (whose bones are known from Arizona fossil deposits from the same time period as the Connecticut tracks) make a pretty good fit.
The small museum also features several good exhibits on other fossils found in the Connecticut Valley and an explanation of the geological processes that created the rift.
Just outside the dome is a small arboretum of plants that would have been around in the Age of Dinosaurs such as pines, gingkoes, katsuras, cypress, and juniper. There’s even a place outside where you can make your own casts of Eubrontes footprints from a real section of trackway. Bring your own plaster, though. 10 lbs will do.
The Exley Science Center and Joe Webb Peoples Museum
Another good place to see fossil footprints is at the Exley Science Center at Wesleyan College in Middletown, Connecticut. The Science Center is actually a library and resource center for Wesleyan students, so it can feel a tad awkward to just walk around. But it’s worth it because the walls of the Science Center lobby are decorated with huge, gorgeous slabs of Eubrontes and other types of prehistoric footprints. I even saw the impressions of scales and toe pads in the prints!
The Science Center has an even better treat on the fourth floor- its very own tiny museum. The Joe Webb Peoples Museum isn’t much bigger than a good sized living room, but this place is absolutely packed with amazing displays of fossils, minerals, and gems. The day I visited, I spent almost three hours just admiring the overflow of specimens.
The Joe Webb Peoples Museum doesn’t have regular hours (nor an admission price, so that’s nice). To get access, I needed to ask someone at the main geology office just outside the fourth-floor elevators. But the effort was well worth it to see a great example of a classic natural history museum.
Dinosaur Footprints Outdoors
Once you’ve checked out the dinosaur footprints in Connecticut, head north to Massachusetts to continue your tour. If you want to see fossil tracks out in the open, you can stop off at the prosaically-named Dinosaur Footprint Site of the Trustees in Holyoke, MA. The site is a simple exposed slab of sandstone about two miles off of Exit 17 on Interstate 91 near Mount Tom State Reservation. Keep a close eye out as you drive since the Footprint Site is only marked by a small sign and a pull-off on the right side of the road. The tracks here are heavily eroded thanks to New England’s tough weather, but it’s still pretty neat to see dinosaur prints in place outside.
Beneski Museum of Natural History
Your Connecticut Valley Dinosaur Adventure isn’t complete until you visit the Beneski Museum of Natural History in Amherst, Massachusetts. After Rocky Hill’s Dinosaur State Park, the Beneski is the best place to see dozens of quality fossil tracks showcased beautifully in their own dedicated gallery. There’s more than just Eubrontes, too. There are smaller tracks called Grallator which were made by a swift, agile hunter; large, lumbering tracks called Otozoum possibly made by an ancestor of Apatosaurus; small tracks called Anamoepus which were made by a deer-sized plant-eater, and much more. The Beneski’s tracks were collected in the 19th century by Edward Hitchcock, the first person to study fossil footprints scientifically.
Beyond its amazing trackway collection, the Beneski Museum also has skeletons of prehistoric mammals, including a Mammoth, a Mastodon, and an Irish Elk which together dominate the entranceway. The upper mezzanine of this rather small museum also features exhibits on the geology of Western Massachusetts.
There are many other places to see dinosaur tracks in the Connecticut Valley, but I’ve highlighted the most impressive sites here.