Jurassic Park

C onstruction cranes may have taken over Yale’s Peabody Museum, but you don’t have to go dinosaurless this summer. Connecticut’s museums are home to several other dino exhibits. Hartford’s Connecticut Science Center offers a visiting Dinosaurs Around the World exhibit through September 6, with advance timed tickets “strongly encouraged.” The Children’s Museum in West Hartford, also selling timed tickets, has a permanent exhibit called Dinosaurs in Your Backyard. And Jurassic Quest, a drive-thru animatronic event to be held at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, runs July 30 through August 8.

But if you want to experience the real fossil record up close, Dinosaur State Park is the place to be. It’s home to “the largest on-site display of dinosaur tracks in North America.” Located just off I-91 in Rocky Hill, Dinosaur State Park’s geodesic dome covers a sloping outcrop of sandstone riddled with 750 criss-crossing footprints made by an early Jurassic Dilophosaurus-like theropod on that very spot some 200 million years ago. Visitors circle and traverse the tracks on a suspended walkway, passing through a museum of fossils and geology with plenty of hands-on exhibits. “[M]ost or all of these dinosaurs traveled alone, walking in relatively straight lines, at different times and from different directions,” explains one museum display that includes push-button spotlights to point out the tracks of individual creatures.

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The first six Rocky Hill tracks were discovered by a bulldozer driver who was clearing the site for a state building project in 1966. Construction was halted, and over the next two years, scientific excavation unearthed more than 2,300 tracks. Those not on display are located in a large, grassy field next to the dome. In 1976, they were sealed under plastic and foam and reburied in order to preserve them. A small section was unearthed in 2011 in order to check on the prints, which are doing just fine. “We’re hoping that we will get some funding to be able to uncover some of the tracks and study them again because they haven’t been studied since 1976,” says Michael P. Ross, environmental education coordinator.

Dinosaur tracks are fairly common in Connecticut. According to a museum display, they were first discovered in the state in 1802, and since then they’ve been recorded throughout the Connecticut River Valley. Many were found in Portland’s brownstone quarry. Although no skeletal remains were found at Rocky Hill—“bones decay under the conditions that allow tracks to be preserved,” the museum says—they have been found elsewhere in the state, along with fossils of prehistoric fish and plant matter, some of which are also on view at the park.

In addition to seeing the tracks, young scientists can visit the Discovery Room, which includes an interactive geologic map, fossils of teeth and tusks, bone casts and several live critters including a green iguana, a ball python and giant cockroaches. Several live animal and fossil/mineral shows and movies were on the schedule on the day of my visit.

Outside, one of the museum’s signature attractions is its track casting area, where you can make a plaster cast of a real dinosaur track to take home. The museum provides the tracks, a metal edging ring and the water; you provide cooking oil, rags, a bucket and 10 pounds of plaster of paris, then follow the posted instructions. Also on the grounds are an outdoor amphitheater for nature shows, a small butterfly garden, 2.5 miles of boardwalk and gravel nature trails and several shady picnic tables as well as a gem and fossil “mine” sluice (though the kids I spoke to gave this a rating of “meh”). New exhibits are also in the works.

The museum welcomed about 500 visitors the day I went, “twice or triple what we normally see,” says Ross, who attributes the increase to a statewide program offering free admission to museums and attractions for Connecticut kids under 18 with one adult. So far, Dinosaur State Park hasn’t had to require ticketed reservations or limit capacity, but Ross suggests a weekday visit if possible.

Three life-sized black Dilophosaurus cutouts stand in the field where their living counterparts once walked, and a lifelike replica appears to be making its own tracks beside the indoor walkway. It’s hard to wrap your head around the scope of time that’s elapsed since these creatures roamed the valley, but standing above their prehistoric footprints, you might catch a glimmer of the vastness of time and the wonder of nature.

Dinosaur State Park
400 West St, Rocky Hill (map)
Museum: Tues-Sun 9am-4:30pm
Grounds: Daily 9am-4:30pm
(860) 529-8423 | deep.dinosaur@ct.gov
Free summer admission for CT kids under 18 with one adult; additional adults $6
www.dinosaurstatepark.org

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 4 features the author and her children making a cast of a dino track in 2006.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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