It’s been a long time since I updated this blog. I’ve had a hard time getting back into the headspace of the trip after we got off the road, but I really do want to record all of the adventures. When I left off, we were traveling through Texas toward Fort Worth in mid January, 2020. Part of how we navigated was with a National Geographic atlas that featured state and national parks. I noticed a park called “Dinosaur Valley State Park” and we both agreed that it would be an interesting stop. We arrived late in the day, so while George got the camper set up, I walked the dogs to a spot near the campground where a park map indicated there would be some dinosaur tracks. I followed the trail to the Paluxy River, which runs through the park. I thought that I would need to cross the river to see the tracks, but there was no bridge, and there weren’t enough tall rocks to rock hop across while wrangling both a wild husky and a Pomeranian. So I stayed on my side of the river and took a trail overlooking the water from a bluff overhead. From that vantage point, I could see depressions in the bottom of the river through the clear water. Were those the footprints? What exactly was I looking for? I took the dogs down a path to the riverbank and couldn’t really see out into the middle of the river, but there on the bank I was standing on were three-toed impressions in the rock. Dinosaur tracks!
I’m not really sure what I expected, but I was surprised at how they were just part of the landscape and not on “display”. No viewing platform, sign, or form of protection around them. Some such measures were taken at other track sites in the park, but there, for my first dinosaur print sighting, it was just me coming across them in the rock along the river. It’s easy to overlook them or think that they’re just eroded areas, but once you notice the distinct shape of the foot and toes, it was clear that they were footprints. Watching Pippin walk along next to them called up a memory of playing outside at recess in elementary school and wondering if a pothole in the blacktop was a dinosaur print. It took 30 years, but I had finally come across real dinosaur prints!
I took George to see them, too, after he finished setting up the camper, and he was really impressed. There is something mind-boggling about stepping alongside the footprints of such unusual creatures from so very, very long ago, and it wasn’t long before we agreed that this was a highlight of our journey. It was getting dark, so we retreated the to camper for the night, but we decided to stay at this park an extra night so we could fully explore it.
The next morning we walked over to the office to add an extra night to our reservation and to get some maps and brochures. Outside the office were impressions of tracks, so visitors know what to expect. Inside we watched an informational, if somewhat dated, film (probably made around the same time I was imagining dinosaur footprints in playground potholes) about the excavation of prints in 1940. Those prints were sent to several museums across the country, including the American Museum of Natural History. It struck me as kind of sad that so many slabs of rock were removed from the riverbed, partly because of the exploitative nature of it and partly because doing so removed the sense of how the prints related to the other prints. For example, several species of dinosaurs created prints in that area, and the patterns of the tracks reveal possibilities about how predators interacted with prey and how the herds traveled. But later I also learned that the forces of erosion are a constant threat to the tracks, and just one large flood could wipe out all of the prints seen in the river today.
With more information about the park and viewing locations of the prints, we set out to explore. The “main trackway” was one of the most popular viewing locations, and it was all set up with a viewing platform, informational kiosks, and even some roped-off prints. The tracks here mainly belonged to huge, four-legged sauropods, as opposed to the two-legged theropod tracks we saw the day before. This area was accessible by walking across the river on exposed rocks, but the river was so shallow that we could also just walk down the middle of the river if we didn’t mind getting our feet wet. I was wearing trail running sneakers with good tread, and George was wearing Crocs, so we waded through the water and looked for prints below us. This felt wrong, as I worried that our feet caused more erosion of priceless artifacts, but the park encourages visitors to explore in the river.
We walked down the river with the pups splashing and prancing along with us. Sometimes we stirred up silt that clouded the view of the riverbed and had to wait for it to settle before getting a closer look. Sometimes glare on the water made it impossible to see much of the river bottom without standing father above it, and at other times it was obvious that the layer of rock we were walking on was either above or below the layer that held the tracks.
It was amazing to just walk through the shallow water, come to a depression in the riverbed, and look closer to see a three-toed dinosaur footprint. We spent hours wandering up and down the river and taking trails to other areas that were too deep to wade to.
Dinosaur prints were a highlight of the entire road trip, but this park also distinguished itself with “scariest campground amenity experience.” The bathroom/shower facilities varied at each park or campground we stayed at, and by this time in the trip I had gotten used to all kinds of shower conditions. These were nothing fancy and also nothing to complain about, but I will forever remember the moment in the middle of my shower when movement along the floor caught my eye, and I struggled with blurry, glasses-less vision to see what it was and if it was going to crawl on me. All I could think of was that it moved like a hairless tarantula, and if that isn’t supremely disturbing, I don’t know what is. Of course it just crept along the bottom edge of the shower and didn’t do anything at all to me or any of my belongings, but it was very unsettling not being able to see it properly or know if it was dangerous. I will spare you all a picture or more detailed description, but if you would like to see what this creepy crawly looked like, I later identified it as a harmless woodlouse spider.
A fun feature of this park was T-Rex and apatosaurus models from the 1964 World’s Fair. Although the tracks we saw do not belong to these dinosaurs, the scientifically outdated models offered a visual perspective of how much people have learned about these creatures over the years. The T-Rex model stood upright instead of leaning forward and balancing with its tail and had a massive, ungainly body, and the “apatosaurus” model still has the head of a brontosaurus. Overall, it felt appropriate that these road-side attractions were located outside the gift shop. The gift shop itself was a kid’s dream filled with everything dinosaur, and George had to use all of his self control not to buy a plastic shower head in the shape of a T-Rex skull to mail to a friend.
Before leaving Dinosaur Valley, we went for a long hike around the park and took a trail up to a tall hill overlooking the river and the main trackway. It provided a unique vantage of the river and the land around it and some food for thought about where else tracks and artifacts could be hidden. The tracks were created not in this river, but millions of years ago in muddy shores along an ancient sea. The mud formed into rock, and over time layers and layers of sediment built up to create the landscape that the park sits on today. It was only chance that the Paluxy River happened to flow over this area and erode the rock layers down enough to expose some tracks for us to see. Who knows how many more tracks lie beneath the rest of the park or the surrounding lands? I asked a park ranger why they didn’t mind people walking on the tracks, and she said that while they take many measures to protect the tracks (including covering them with water in the event of freezing weather to prevent them from cracking), erosion of existing tracks is unavoidable. But she also said that as the banks of the river erode, new tracks are uncovered.
Walking in the footsteps of these ancient giants was the type of bucket-list experience that we hoped to have on this trip. The tracks themselves are incredible both to see and to comprehend. They are almost paradoxical in how they have survived for so long and yet are so vulnerable to damage. They are both ageless and fleeting. And, of course: “They’re dinosaur prints. That’s just so cool!”