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Making tracks: Walking in the footsteps of New England dinosaurs

The Beneski Museum of Natural History at Amherst College has the mother lode of Connecticut Valley dinosaur tracks.
The Beneski Museum of Natural History at Amherst College has the mother lode of Connecticut Valley dinosaur tracks.(David Lyon for The Boston Globe)

The Connecticut River Valley may not be Jurassic Park, but dinosaurs did run rampant on the floodplains here at the cusp of the Triassic and Jurassic eras. If you don’t recognize those time periods, ask a 7-year-old. Hint: We’re talking about roughly 200 million years ago. The valley is celebrated for one of the richest concentrations of dinosaur footprints in the world, and seven stops in Western Massachusetts tell the tale. Be sure to bring the kids so you have expert interpreters.

Start in Turners Falls at the Great Falls Discovery Center, where dinosaur prints are almost a footnote to the engaging coverage of the Connecticut River today. Exhibits in the back room explain how alternating wet and dry seasons in the Mesozoic swampland created ideal conditions to preserve prints (but not bones) in the shorelines that ultimately hardened into rock. Look carefully at the slab with two sizes of actual three-toed prints so you’ll know what to look for when you go dino hunting on your own.

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You’ll be following in the footsteps of Greenfield town handyman Dexter Marsh, whose 1835 discovery of “turkey tracks” in the stone he was using to lay the town sidewalks first brought the valley’s dino tracks to scientific prominence. If you head east about a mile on Route 2 to the Barton Cove campground in Gill, you can walk a forest trail to a 19th-century dinosaur track quarry.

Stop first in the campground office for the trail map and the “Barton Cove Quest” leaflet, which makes hunting for the quarry a mock epic adventure in verse. The main tracks here are 4 to 8 inches long and clearly show three toes, each with a talon on the end. The dinosaur that made them was a theropod, probably Coelophysis (see-low-FY-sis), a meat-eater that stood about 7 feet tall. You have to look carefully to see the tracks. A keen eye and active imagination are essential for hunting dinosaurs.

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At this point, your kids might be ready for something less subtle, so pop down Route 5 to the Rock, Fossil and Dinosaur Shop in South Deerfield, where two dozen life-size dinosaur models make a striking tableau behind the store. Educator/owner Gina Bordomi-Cowley calls Coelophysis the “local hero” dinosaur — fast, fierce, smart, and able to outmaneuver the competition. (It’s the yellow-eyed creature with scary claws to the left of the Stegosaurus.) The shop sells gems and fossils and offers “digging” and “mining” activities where small children might uncover ammonites, fossilized clams, or petrified wood. Your kids will surely covet the coprolites — fossilized “dino poop” — for sale in the shop.

A few miles south, the Beneski Museum of Natural History at Amherst College has the mother lode of Connecticut Valley dinosaur tracks — 1,200 slabs containing more than 21,000 tracks and traces of dinosaurs, smaller reptiles, and amphibians, and even some fossilized raindrops and plant life. The vast majority were assembled by Edward Hitchcock, a state geologist and Amherst professor who published the first scientific papers about Marsh’s dinosaur track discoveries. Although Hitchcock is often credited with discovering the first tracks, neither he nor Marsh could claim primacy. That honor belongs to South Hadley farm boy Pliny Moody, who unearthed a massive track while plowing his father’s field in 1802. The family thought it was made by “Noah’s Raven,” since they believed in a literal interpretation of the Bible. They used the stone for a doorstop, but it’s now in the Hitchcock collection at the Beneski Museum.

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You can literally walk in dinosaur footprints at the museum. It’s hard to match the stride of the Eubrontes prints, which range from 10 to 20 inches long. Hitchcock believed the prints were made by birds, but 20th-century scholarship suggests they were probably made by Dilophosaurus, a carnivorous dinosaur with two crests on its head. The beast stood 15 feet tall and stretched 20 feet from front fangs to the tip of its tail. It’s a likely ancestor of every kid’s favorite dino, Tyrannosaurus rex.

A short hop south on Route 116, Nash Dinosaur Track Site and Rock Shop in Granby is the kind of roadside attraction that we thought had gone extinct. Located about a mile from the field where Pliny Moody unearthed “Noah’s Raven,” this 2-acre site has proved one of the most productive dinosaur track quarries in the valley.

“My dad went looking for dinosaur tracks and discovered this property in 1933. He bought it in 1939,” says current proprietor Kornell Nash. Carlton Nash began quarrying and selling tracks, and, about a decade later, he opened the fancifully named “Nash Dinosaurland.”

Stony ledges poking out of the soil have yielded 4,000 to 5,000 fossil prints over 80 years. The site has three main track types — the big meat-eating theropods that made the Eubrontes tracks, and two smaller plant eaters that left three- and four-toed tracks. If you’re lucky, Nash will accompany you to the quarry.

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“At the time of the dinosaurs,” Nash says, “you would be standing in a foot of water here during the wet season when the rainfall came off the nearby mountains. We have more plant material in the fossil record than other parts of the valley, which means this was all mudflats at the edge of a lake.” He speaks with a low-key sense of wonder. “It still amazes me that these are footprints in mud that got preserved.”

You’ll be on your own when you seek out the 130 or so tracks across a stone outcrop along Route 5 in Holyoke just south of Mount Tom. So bring a full water bottle to wet the stone to make the tracks much easier to see. You’ll probably recognize Eubrontes tracks, along with tracks of three other smaller bipedal dinosaurs. The Trustees of Reservations maintains the site and the short access trail. Google Maps identifies the spot as “Dinosaur Footprints.”

Your final stop is Dinosaur Hall at Springfield Science Museum, about 20 minutes south of the roadside prints. An interactive display details the fossil history of the Connecticut Valley. You can even run your finger along the concavities of a big Eubrontes print, although it’s hard not to be distracted by the 20-foot-high, 40-foot-long replica of Tyrannosaurus rex that is the elephant in the room.

It’s unlikely that T. rex ever roamed New England, but the model is so overpowering that it’s easy to miss the replica Coelophysis, our “local hero.” The deliberately dim lighting adds to the atmosphere. But the big fellow is spotlit well enough that you’ll get a great digital memory when you whip out your phone and gather the kids in the designated “Selfie Spot.”

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Contact Patricia Harris and David Lyon at harrislyon@gmail.com.