About 60 miles southwest of Fort Worth, Texas is a great little place to see some really interesting dinosaur tracks. Dinosaur Valley State Park in Glen Rose, TX lies on the Paluxy River, and in this riverbed back in the early 1900’s people started to report finding dinosaur tracks, particularly the three-toed theropod tracks made by what was likely a large carnivorous dinosaur. In the late 1930’s, famous paleontologist Barnum Brown from the American Museum of Natural History in New York sent his top assistant Roland Bird down to Glen Rose to check them out, and what he found was remarkable.
Not only were there numerous beautiful tracks of a theropod dinosaur, Bird was also able to identify very rare sauropod tracks at the same site. In one dramatic portion of the trackway, the theropod tracks are very close to the sauropod tracks, at one point you can only see one theropod track–which made the mind immediately imagine the other foot attacking the sauropod. Could the site be the first trackway that shows one dinosaur hunting another? Unfortunately it is impossible to determine, and probably not very likely. Analysis of the speed of the dinosaurs at the time they made the tracks does not lead one naturally to that conclusion…more likely the tracks were made by the two dinosaurs at different times, although it’s possible the theropod was following the sauropod when the tracks were made. If you’d like to read more on the discovery of the tracks and how sections were cut and removed to bring to several museums, I strongly recommend the book Bones for Barnum Brown by Roland T. Bird, it’s a great first-hand account of what fossil hunting was like at the tail end of the first golden age of American paleontology.
When you first arrive at Dinosaur Valley State Park, you can’t miss the two huge dinosaurs greeting visitors at the entrance. A Tyrannosaurus rex and a Brontosaurus face outward to welcome everyone. These sculptures were part of the Sinclair Dinoland exhibit at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. After the World’s Fair, the various dinosaurs ended up scattered across the country, and this iconic pair ended up in Glen Rose around 1970.
It is really quite easy to find the dinosaur tracks in the park, it is VERY well marked and there are at least a dozen different signs that tell the story about the tracks, where they are, how they were made, who likely made them, and how they were eventually uncovered by erosion and discovered. The signs are very well done and quite helpful.
The tracks are literally in the Paluxy River, and when the river is flowing fast or it has rained recently they can be hard, if not impossible, to see. Fortunately the park does a good job of updating their website to let visitors know if the tracks are visible or not. You will definitely want to check it out before your visit. I have a link to the park’s website below.
There are several staircases that lead down to the Paluxy. Once you are there, finding the tracks is not that difficult, again the signs lead the way.
The sauropod tracks are large and quite round, in the river it is difficult to make out the toe prints that are visible in the trackway cast in the information building. Some of these footprints never had visible toe prints, others have started to erode away as the tracks have been exposed for the past hundred years or so. There are a lot of sauropod footprints though, and they are hard to miss since they are quite obvious–just look for big round holes in the limestone bottom of the river.
The theropod tracks are a little harder to find in the river, but they are more distinct and well-defined. Follow the signs down to the riverbank, and if you lean out over the river from the edge you can get very nice views of some of the tracks.
WHO MADE THE TRACKS?
As with any ancient track site, it is impossible to say who made them with 100% accuracy, there are just too many unknowns. But the track site at Dinosaur Valley State Park has some likely candidates. The trackway has been dated to between 110 and 115 million years ago, which is the early Cretaceous period. From what we know about the dinosaurs that lived then and were likely to have been in what is now Texas, some good guesses can be made.
The sauropod tracks have been attributed to various dinosaurs over the years, largely because there has been quite a bit of debate about which genus of dinosaurs certain bones found in the nearby formation belong to. For many years it was assumed the sauropod tracks were from a creature called Pleurocoelus, but later that dinosaur was found to be a junior synonym for the dinosaur Astrodon. More recently, bones found in the same Glen Rose formation were attributed to a new genus called Paluxysaurus, but that dinosaur is now considered to be the same as the previously named Sauroposeidon. So for now the best guess is that the tracks were made by a Sauroposeidon. A 2013 study found that Astrodon was a dubious genus, while also describing a newly-discovered Texas sauropod called Astrophocaudia. Sauroposeidon and Astrophocaudia are the two most likely track-makers. Those large sauropods lived in the proper time period and also in what is now Texas.
For the theropod tracks, the likely track-maker is more settled. The only known large theropod that lived in the correct time period and was likely to have been in the area is Acrocanthosaurus, a large carnivore with high neural spines on its vertebrae. Acrocanthosaurus is temporally right between two of the best known theropod dinosaurs, Allosaurus which lived about 150 million years ago, and Tyrannosaurus which lived about 66 million years ago. Although it was more closely related to Allosaurus, it’s size was more in the range of Tyrannosaurus, and like both Allosaurus and Tyrannosaurus, Acrocanthosaurus was certainly the apex predator of its time.
One of the more interesting things about the tracks at Dinosaur Valley State Park is that a significant chunk of the best preserved tracks were literally cut out and moved to several museums. The largest section was moved to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and that trackway is featured under the fossil of an Apatosaurus (who definitely did not make the tracks). Another large section is displayed on the grounds of the Texas Memorial Museum in Austin.
ARE THERE OTHER ACTIVITIES AVAILABLE AT THE TRACK SITE?
Because the land around the track site has been designated as a state park, as well as a National Natural Landmark, there are a lot of leisure activities available including camping, hiking, and fishing. For dinosaur enthusiasts, there is a small building that displays a cast of some of the tracks and contains a lot of educational material about the site. There is also a nice gift shop on site.
VISIBILITY OF THE TRACKS:
I have been to Dinosaur Valley State Park a couple of times, and the visibility really depends on the river. When it is clear, the tracks are easily visible and really fun to find. Unfortunately the second time I went was the day after a very hard rain, and the rain really stirs up the sediments and causes the river to turn a murky brown. When this happens it is almost impossible to see the tracks. Fortunately, there are casts of the tracks in and in front of the visitor building, so you are going to see dinosaur tracks on your visit regardless of the weather.
EDUCATION MATERIALS/DISPLAY INFORMATION/SIGNAGE:
As mentioned above, the signage in the park is exceptional. I have not seen a dinosaur track site with better or more numerous signs. The signs are very informative and really help tell the story of the Glen Rose dinosaur trackway.
DID MY CHILDREN ENJOY GOING?
They did enjoy it despite the fact that the day they came was the day after the rain and we couldn’t see the tracks in the river. Nevertheless, they enjoyed running around the park (there is a LOT of room for that) and looking at and touching the casts of the dinosaur trackways that are available in the visitor building.
HOW MUCH TIME SHOULD I PLAN TO SPEND THERE?
When the tracks were more visible, it was easy to spend a couple hours at the park looking for them in the river. I would guess that for most families one to two hours would be plenty of time to find tracks and check out the educational building and gift shop. When the tracks weren’t easily visible, we were at the park for about 45 minutes.
A visit to Dinosaur Valley State Park is a great way to spend some time in one of the premier dinosaur track sites in North America. It is easy to get to, easy to find the tracks once you get there, and the tracks are impressive and interesting. The park has done a wonderful job in explaining the tracks via a series of signs that are posted between the parking lots and the walkways down to the tracks. If you like dinosaurs, this is a very nice place to visit, just check the park’s website before you arrive to make sure that the tracks are going to be visible that day. But if they aren’t, you can still see the casts of the tracks and read the educational materials.
Rating Aspects of the Dinosaur Tracksite
Visibility of the Dinosaur Tracks on Display: (9 out of 10)
Ease of Getting to/Seeing the Tracks: (9 out of 10)
Educational Materials/Display Information/Signage: (10 out of 10)
Activities/Play Areas for Children: (7 out of 10)