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Dinosaur State Park in Connecticut: A trove of tracks and more

Marsalas Davis, 8, left, and brother Markaz Davis,

Marsalas Davis, 8, left, and brother Markaz Davis, 7, of Milwaukee, visit the exhibit center at the Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, Conn., July 14, 2006. Photo Credit: AP / George Ruhe

Connecticut's dinosaurs were probably no match for Dreadnoughtus, the prehistoric monster whose skeletal remains were recently unearthed in Argentina. But the tracks they left behind, which are a centerpiece of Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, Connecticut, still made a big impression on a recent visit with my 5-year-old friend Matthew.

A return visit

"Awesome," Matthew says after he presses a button on an interactive display, lighting up a half dozen of the 500 tracks on the floor in front of us. I share his enthusiasm, not only because I also love science, but because I stood on this very spot for the first time almost 50 years ago, when I was a boy. On that summer day in 1967, my dad, mom and siblings were en route to a family vacation when we visited the site where, months before, a state worker's bulldozer had exposed a slab of sandstone covered with dinosaur footprints. My sister and I had even walked in a few of the unearthed tracks.

The park, which opened in 1968, has grown to include interactive displays, a discovery classroom (renovated last year), an arboretum, auditorium and book shop. However, the centerpiece is still one of the largest on-site displays of dinosaur tracks in North America. I recently revisited the park with my "modern family," which includes Matthew's brother, Brandon, 12, their mom, Abby, and her brother, Douglas.

A miniature Jurassic park

Driving through the park gates feels like entering a smaller version of Jurassic Park, albeit minus the rampaging T. rex. A large part of the 60-acre grounds are an arboretum full of conifers and other plants from the late Triassic period, when the tracks were made in a lake bed some 200 million years ago. (The strong pine tree scent also lets you know you're in New England.) The geodesic dome that now houses the tracks is nestled among these tall trees. We followed a path painted with three-toed dinosaur tracks to the dome. Before going inside, Douglas snapped a picture of Matthew grinning through the face hole of a bright-yellow dinosaur cutout.

A loud, birdlike call and the crack of thunder from a sound system beckoned us to the trackway beneath the cavernous dome. Along the trackway, a diorama similar to the ones at the American Museum of Natural History depicts land animals from the Triassic period. A life-size model of Dilophosaurus, the giant carnivore believed to have left these prints, loomed over our heads.

The trackway leads to the discovery classroom, which includes an interactive geologic exhibit. We also stopped in the small bookstore, where Matthew found a plastic tube full of miniature dinosaur figures, and, with a dollar fed into a vending machine, Brandon turned a shiny penny into a dinosaur track.

Outside, kids were mining for gems and fossils ($5.50 to $9 per bag of mining rough, for sale in the bookshop) and making casts from actual dinosaur footprints (free, but visit the website for a list of materials you'll need). It was almost closing time, so we took a hike along the park's two miles of nature trails, imagining ghost dinosaurs roaming all around us, making tracks.

WHAT Dinosaur State Park

WHERE 400 West St., Rocky Hill, Connecticut

INFO $6 adults and teens, $2 children ages 6-12, free for children under 6; 860-529-8423, dinosaurstatepark.org

On the trail

-- The Connecticut Dino Trail includes the Connecticut Science Center in downtown Hartford. North of Rocky Hill, it features a roaring, animatronic Dilophosaurus, a child-friendly Julius the Apatosaurus in a rooftop garden, and a dinosaur-themed 3-D movie. Info: 860-724-3623, ctsciencecenter.org.

-- About 40 miles from Hartford, the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven houses 150-million-year-old dinosaur relics, including Jurassic Period skeletons of Apatosaurus and Stego- saurus. The museum also exhibits Rudolph Zallinger's dinosaur painting, "The Age of Reptiles." Kids can touch specimens on fossil carts in the exhibit halls and in a discovery room. Info: 203- 432-5050, peabody.yale.edu.

-- If you're looking for a pay-one-price bargain, a Dino Trail passport admits you to all three attractions, as well as The Dinosaur Place at Nature's Art Village in Montville. It's available online at ctdinotrail.com.

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