TYPE: Natural Attraction
AGE: All Ages
Even the very youngest dinosaur lovers -- and aren't preschoolers the biggest dinosaur fans there are? -- can interpret the fossil record left in stone at Dinosaur Valley: The huge footprints in the rocks here are so unmistakable, it's easy to picture the prehistoric theropods and sauropods who made them 110 million years ago.
You'll find the prints beside the Paluxy River, a branch of the Brazos, which winds through this shady, lovely 1,500-acre park in Texas, about an hour's drive southwest of Fort Worth. Late summer, when the river is low, is the best time to come. You can discern the footprints best when the rock is just slightly underwater, with the wetness darkening it. (Bring a whisk broom with you to clear any debris.) It's strikingly evident that two different types of dinosaurs walked in the moist limy mud that formed this rock. Many of the footprints (typically 15–25 in. long) show three toes and sharp claws, indicating a meat-eating dinosaur called Acrocanthosaurus. This guy stood 20 to 30 feet tall and walked on two legs. The even larger footprints (some more than 3 1/4 ft. long) were made by long-necked plant-eating dinosaurs, your basic sauropods (nicknamed "brontosaurs"). The kids can tell its front tracks from its back ones: The front feet were round with peglike toes, like elephants' feet, while the back ones had large claws angling rearward. Most likely these were left by a 30- to 50-foot-long dinosaur named Pleurocoelus.
The tracks can easily be seen at two spots in the park: The main site is across the northwest parking lot and down some stone steps to the river; upstream is the Blue Hole, a sinkhole with many more brontosaur tracks (it's also a great place for swimming, so bring your suits). The kids will have no trouble imagining a scenario of the carnivorous Acrocanthosaurus stalking the gentle, slow-moving Pleurocoelus (originally a slab of tracks showed the meat-eater ambushing the plant-eater -- to see that slab today, unfortunately, you'd need to be in New York City at the American Museum of Natural History). But what's still here is graphic evidence indeed.
The visitor center has replicas, foot skeletons, murals, and diagrams to help kids visualize the dinosaurs. What's more, outdoors stand two immense fiberglass models, one of a brown T-Rex and the other of a green Apatosaurus -- relics of the Dinosaur World exhibit at the 1964 New York World's Fair. Built by the Sinclair Oil Company (remember the old Sinclair gas station sign with its green brontosaurus?), these models are historic artifacts in their own right. Scientists still argue over what the head of the Apatosaurus should look like, but hey, we're all still learning.
Nearest Airport: Dallas–Fort Worth International, 75 miles.
Where to Stay: $ Residence Inn Fort Worth University, 1701 S. University Dr., Ft. Worth (tel. 888/236-2427 or 817/870-1011; www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/dfwrp). $$$ Stockyards Hotel, 109 E. Exchange Ave., Ft. Worth (tel. 800/423-8471 or 817/625-6427; www.stockyardshotel.com.