Leaping Lizards -- Really Big Ones -- in Connecticut

Dinosaur State Park features a life-size model  --  about 10 feet tall and 20 feet long  --  of a dilophosaurus.
Dinosaur State Park features a life-size model -- about 10 feet tall and 20 feet long -- of a dilophosaurus. (Photos By Dinosaur State Park)
Sunday, November 5, 2006

WHAT: Dinosaur State Park, home to the biggest set of dinosaur tracks in North America.

WHERE: Rocky Hill, Conn., about 10 miles south of Hartford.

WHY GO: To bring out the paleontologist in a child, or the child in an adult.

As I watched Oliver, my friends' 4-year-old son, quickly absorb a PhD-level discourse on the differences in armor between an ankylosaurus and a stegosaurus, it hit me: There's something about dinosaurs that turns kids, especially boys, into information sponges. Most pre-adolescents have a dinosaur phase, and while months of Jurassic jabber can get old fast, savvy parents know that any inclination toward learning of actual facts is to be encouraged.

There's perhaps no better place to encourage a budding Stephen Jay Gould (and who doesn't want that?) than Dinosaur State Park, where visitors can view hundreds of fossilized footprints made by dinosaurs strutting their stuff 200 million years ago.

Walk into the park's exhibit center, and the cool interior and dramatic lighting transport you to the Jurassic. Though Oliver was immediately drawn to the hands-on displays, the real treat was the tracks themselves, surrounded by a life-size diorama featuring a painted landscape and fearsome models. We ventured out on a raised walkway, with about 500 of the 16-inch-long, birdlike tracks (dilophosaurus relics, paleontologists believe) crisscrossing in the brownstone below.

Park manager Meg Enkler later explained to me that the park's specimens are special, since unlike at many other exhibits of dinosaur footprints, "the tracks are preserved in place . . . exactly where the dinosaurs left them."

The big lizards roamed the Connecticut River valley eons ago, leaving behind muddy footprints galore, which eventually hardened into rock. The huge field of 2,000 tracks was discovered by workers excavating for a state building in 1966. The site was immediately recognized as an important find, and a state park opened around the tracks two years later. In 1978, Connecticut enclosed a large portion of the track field under a geodesic dome featuring exhibits and dioramas, which draws 50,000 visitors a year. A lawn covers about 1,500 dino-prints that were buried to preserve them until they can be displayed like the tracks protected under the dome.

Wandering into the "Discovery Room," we found tanks with less-threatening reptiles such as iguanas and salamanders and a terrarium bustling with Madagascar hissing cockroaches, as well as the usual assortment of feathers, turtle shells, snakeskins and animal bones for kids to manhandle. Oliver and I dueled with dinosaur puppets for a couple of minutes until his T. rex crushed my pterodactyl in his fuzzy jaws as I squawked in mock agony. The park also presents regularly scheduled talks and special programs, and there is also, of course, a gift shop, offering dino-themed gewgaws such as "Dilly," a plush dilophosaurus that goes for $5.

But the fun doesn't all happen indoors. The grounds feature more than two miles of nature trails, including one through a swampy area where Oliver spotted abundant, vaguely prehistoric bullfrogs and dragonflies. Guided walks are offered. We strolled through the arboretum growing the descendants of Mesozoic Era plants that a peckish brachiosaur might have munched.

For a sloppy, hands-on experience in the warmer months, families can even make their own cast of a dinosaur footprint to take home. The park provides the footprints and molds; you provide the plaster of Paris, vegetable oil, elbow grease and 45 minutes of patience as it dries.

While we decided not to make a mold of a track (4-year-olds and plaster of Paris don't really mix), Oliver certainly took home plenty of paleontological enthusiasm from the park where the dinosaurs roamed. And for the adults? It was just fun to imagine 20-foot carnivores menacing the Connecticut suburbs.

-- Jim Miller

Dinosaur State Park (400 West St., Rocky Hill, Conn.) is an easy 10-mile drive from Hartford. Admission to the exhibit center is $5 for adults, $2 for children, free for children under 5. Details: 860-529-8423, http://www.dep.state.ct.us/stateparks/parks/dinosaur.htm or http://www.dinosaurstatepark.org.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company