If you’ve traveled to your share of historic sites, like a 19th-century battleground or a presidential birthplace, why not time-travel to the way, way back along the Prehistoric Texas Trail? Visit excavation sites that are millions of years old and connect with your inner caveman.
While the state of Texas came into being in 1836, the land that is Texas has been around a lot longer—approximately 600 million years. Over that time, earthquakes and volcanoes pushed and pulled the land, creating mountains and inland seas that became habitats for early reptiles, mammals, and eventually humans. Those early Texans are gone, but evidence of their existence lives on, and luckily said evidence is available for modern-day mammals to view.
Some of the Lone Star State’s best sites and exhibits lie along the Prehistoric Texas Trail, which runs roughly from north to south through the center of the state. With stops at several of these spots, we turned a recent drive from Fort Worth to Austin into a trip back in time.
Dinosaur Valley State Park
Our first stop was Glen Rose, a small town just south of Fort Worth. It’s called the “Dinosaur Capital of Texas” because—113 million years ago—hundreds of dinosaurs used the nearby Paluxy River bed as a sort of pedestrian highway. Their footprints were captured in thick mud that hardened over time, leaving an abundance of tracks and trails that still are visible today at Dinosaur Valley State Park.
We parked in the lot closest to Track Site Area 1, the largest of the four sites that make up the park. In a very un-prehistoric move, I pulled out my smartphone and logged on to the park’s website. Using my phone’s GPS, I was able to open links on the site that showed us exactly where to find each set of tracks—Sauropod footprints in blue and Theropod in red.
I found my first dinosaur print by stepping in it, literally. It was a yard-long hollow in the white rock of the riverbed. The experts say it was left by a Sauropod, which was a 70-foot-long, 13-foot-tall herbivore. It was these Paluxy River footprints that gave paleontologists their first proof that the Sauropod—initially thought to be a marine mammal—actually walked on land.
The smaller, three-toed prints crisscrossing the riverbed belonged to the Theropod, a highly carnivorous junior version of Tyrannosaurus Rex. As we made our way through the park, we got a “Flintstone-esque” feeling. Following the clear step-by-step progress of the Sauropod footprints, it was easy to picture an enormous, long-necked mommy dinosaur making her way down the river, followed by her young’uns.
Waco Mammoth Site
About an hour south of Glen Rose is Waco, home to the Waco Mammoth Site. Before heading over, we took care of our mammoth appetites and had lunch at the Health Camp. A Waco tradition, this burger joint opened in 1949 and still operates out of the original small diner on the circle near Baylor University.
After our hunger had been happily assuaged, we arrived at the site, located on 100 acres of beautifully wooded countryside, and went straight to the dig shelter, which opened in 2009. Upon entering, we found ourselves on a bridge that overlooked an actual dig site, with the remains of several mammoths still half-encased in the ground.
The skull and tusks we could see were astonishing in size, and imagining a whole herd of these animals roaming the very grounds where we stood brought history lumbering to life. The bones of the first mammoth to be unearthed at this location were discovered in 1978. Since then, the skeletons of 24 Columbian mammoths have been excavated, including the nation’s first and only discovery of a nursery herd.
The Gault Site
Continuing south of Waco for about half an hour, we arrived in the town of Belton and checked in at the Bell County Museum. There we toured an interactive exhibit about the Gault Site, one of the largest excavated sites of the Clovis people, who are thought to have occupied the region as long ago as 13,500 years.
Large murals showed what the Clovis communities may have looked like, and a film titled The Gault Project: An Adventure in Time gave us a fuller understanding of the size and significance of the excavation itself.
Armed with our new information, we were ready to go directly to the actual excavation site, just a short half-hour drive southeast. A Texas State Archeological Landmark, the Gault Site has yielded more than two million artifacts, including examples of the oldest known architecture in North America.
Driving another 45 minutes south, we arrived in Austin at twilight, just in time to see the spectacular city skyline. The sight of it was a bit odd, compared to the day we’d spent with the dinosaurs and mammoths. As a last bow to our prehistoric cave-dweller state of mind, we stopped at Iron Works BBQ and dug into a big heap of beef ribs.
Say the word "mammoth" and most people envision the long-haired woolly mammoth. However, those shaggy creatures were natives of the more northern climates. The Columbian mammoth—larger than the woolly, with less hair but slightly longer tusks—lived in the more temperate southern zones, like Texas and California. In fact, the mammoths found in the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles were Columbian, not woolly.