One of the fun things we got to see back in November were dinosaur tracks. While I am a dinosaur fan, I find it hard to imagine what dinosaurs looked like from their bones. Bird skeletons have taught me that predicting an organism’s shape from its skeleton is tricky. Seeing their footprints, however, helped bring them to life.

Red sandstone hill and winter grassland. Butler Wash near Bluff, Utah. Photo by Kit Dunsmore
Butler Wash
(Photo by Kit Dunsmore)

The track bed in Butler Wash (near Bluff) is small, just a patch of open sandstone. You walk a tenth of a mile from the sign to the site. There were two sets of prints there, but only one was obvious to me. The bed is close to the road and has been driven over, which has damaged the rock surface in places.

Three fossilized dinosaur prints with dark shadows in them. Butler Wash Dinosaur Tracksite, Bluff, Utah. Photo by Kit Dunsmore
Dinosaur tracks, Butler Wash, Utah
(Photo by Kit Dunsmore)

I took photos and also made some quick sketches. I wish now that I had been more systematic in my approach. I was in a hurry and didn’t take time to think about what to record or how. In fact, I had to estimate size and distance using the length of my hiking boots, which I measured when I got home. (Note to self: add a ruler to the nature journaling kit!)

Black-and-white mature journal page by Kit Dunsmore showing tracks from Butler Wash Dinosaur Tracksite.
My nature journal page for the Butler Wash track site

The other bed we saw was much more dramatic. There were tracks from eight different types of dinosaurs visible at the site in Mill Canyon, which is north of Moab. Fortunately, they have lots of informative signs describing the types of dinosaurs that probably made the prints.

Greenish sandstone bed dotted with water-filled dinosaur tracks. Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite. Photo by Kit Dunsmore.
Dinosaur tracks! Mill Canyon track site, Moab, Utah.
(Photo by Kit Dunsmore)

The variety of shapes, sizes, and stride lengths was striking. From its stride length, they estimated that one of the theropods was about eight feet tall at the hip. Standing in the bright sun and imagining a dinosaur with hind legs longer than my husband is tall made me shiver. I love dinosaurs but I’m glad there are so many thousands of years between them and me.

Large fossilized 3-toed theropod track in green and red sandstone. From Mill Canyon Dinosaur tracksite near Moab, UT. Photo by Kit Dunsmore
BIG dinosaur track, Mill Canyon track site, Moab, Utah.
(Photo by Kit Dunsmore)

I drew at this location as well, and took notes from the signs so I could look things up later. They have a boardwalk to protect the bed, so I couldn’t measure anything, but it didn’t matter. I was reminded how many different types of dinosaurs there were, in a range of sizes. It made me want to read more about them.

Black-and-white nature journal page by Kit Dunsmore for the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite near Moab, UT.
My nature journal page for the Mill Canyon track site. Identifications come from the signs at the site.

These track sites are fragile, the sandstone being worn away by wind, rain, and inconsiderate people. And yet it is a miracle that the tracks were preserved for us to see. Tracks in mud and sand disappear so quickly, getting washed away or rubbed out in days or even hours. We’re lucky that something so ephemeral is preserved for us to see millenia later.

Two medium-sized fossilized three-toed theropod prints from the tracksite in Mill Canyon (Moab, UT). Photo by Kit Dunsmore
Dinosaur tracks at Mill Canyon track site, Moab, Utah.
(Photo by Kit Dunsmore)

The tracksites did give me a new appreciation for dinosaur life. I stood looking at the different paths cutting across the bed in Mill Canyon and wondering: did these animals cross at different times or did they see one another? How long did it take to make this set of tracks? Hours? Days? Weeks? And what happened to cover and preserve them so well?

Trying to imagine that place when the rock was mud and the dinosaurs were alive made them real to me. It was surprisingly thrilling.

Have you seen dinosaur tracks? What kind of fossils make dinosaurs live for you?

4 thoughts on “Walking After the Dinosaurs: Fossilized Tracks”

  1. In 2016 when we were driving across South Dakota,, we stopped to walk in a park of rock strewn prairie. One of the information stations we stopped at explained the short horizontal marks in this one rock were fossil footprints seen sideways.

    1. That’s right. I remember how strange it was seeing them from the side. It prepared me for tracks I saw here in Colorado. I find tracks you can see from the top even more intriguing. We see footprints in mud and sand all the time, and so seeing these fossilized prints brings home the fact that dinosaurs aren’t some imaginary construct. They were living, breathing creatures.

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