The Damned Story: Maybe because we've grown up in Connecticut, we take for granted that we have a state park entirely dedicated to dinosaurs, but the large number of tracks discovered in Rocky Hill represent one of the most remarkable and rare dino finds in the Northeast.
So the story goes that in August of 1966, while excavating for a new state highway department testing facility, a group of workmen made a startling accidental discovery after removing about 12 feet of dirt. There, in a layer of exposed sandstone, were hundreds of fossilized dinosaur footprints.
Immediately realizing that they had uncovered something amazing, they called in a team of paleontologists, who began excavations of their own. By the time they were done, they had unearthed almost 2,000 tracks made by three-toed theropods, fierce predators which had lived during the late Jurassic Age, about 185 million years ago. It's believed that tracks particularly belonged to a Dilophosaurus, a raptor-type creature which may have stood 8 feet tall and 20 feet long, and had feet that were 10 to 16 inches long.
In a short time, a special dome was built over the trackway, and two years later, in 1968, Dinosaur State Park opened to the public. Hiking trails, an arboretum and other attractions were also added to the grounds.
Over the years, it became apparent that some of the now-exposed tracks were beginning to erode, so about three quarters of them were buried once again, and the special dome that is now there was erected to protect those which were exposed. Still, you can view 500 actual footprints from extinct creatures that lived over 180 million years ago. Pretty damned cool.
And as such, the park is very family friendly and generally oriented toward the damned young and aspiring paleontologists with lots of hands-on exhibits and activities, such as making plaster casts from actual footprints -- we have one in our basement! There are also regular movie presentations in the lecture hall which are geared for the young, plus talks regarding the tracks throughout the day. Essentially, from the moment you arrive (where you pass a dino timeline set in the main sidewalk that gives you a cool perspective of how utterly insignificant Man is in the totality of Earth's history), the focus is on education about giant extinct lizards.
As you might expect, the majority of the domed facility is dedicated to the actual tracks, which also have a walkway over them. A few diorama-type dino figures also populate the dome, which led my oldest son to ask if the tracks were real! I blame Disney-type fantasy parks that are so well-crafted that it makes it tough to recognize the real thing when you actually see it -- I guess it's a challenge to make a simple rock full of old footprints interesting and exciting to the video-game generation, hence the fabricated dinosaurs.
Still, we enjoyed our 1.5-hour visit -- unless you plan on hiking and seeing every presentation and partaking in every activity, don't plan on making a day of it.
Anyway, I hate to think we actually learned some things during our summer vacation, but I'm afraid we did. Damned dinosaurs!
If You Go: Dinosaur State Park is located in Rocky Hill, and is open year-round. The grounds, hiking trails and arboretum are open every day 9 am to 4:30 pm; the exhibit center shares the same hours, although it is closed on Mondays.
And as my youngest son asked -- no, they do not let you dig on the grounds for actual dinosaur fossils.