Just north of Las Cruces off of highway 185, is a place where dinosaurs walked. Well, actually most of New Mexico is where dinosaurs walked, but Prehistoric Trackways National Monument is one of the few places that the evidence of their existence can be plainly seen. Best of all, it costs nothing more than effort to see them.
Administered by the Bureau of Land Management, Prehistoric Trackways is about 5,000 acres and is a relatively new monument, only recieving the designation in 2009. About 10 miles north of Las Cruces on 185, a sign shows the turnoff to the Trackways. You will go down the road, over a bridge crossing the Rio Grande River. The next road to the right leads to the Trackways. There is no sign! The first time I drove past and missed the turn. The second time I googled the location and GPSed my way in. There is a small parking area where there is a kiosk showing some of the trails. There will be a trail running from the parking lot called the ridge trail. It lives up to its name running along the ridgetop of a deep wash. The picture above is taken from that trail and shows how deep the wash is.
After the trail winds over what appears to be a small extinct volcano, it drops down into the wash the trail has been following. The length is roughly two miles. Take some water. At the bottom you quickly realize that the occassional streambed is a sheet of hard rock and yes, it is full of dinosaur tracks.
When you start looking there are prints everywhere and it seems endless. This is considered the largest volume of paleozoic tracks anywhere in the world. The site was discovered by a Las Cruces resident named Jerry MacDonald in 1987. He had overheard tales from locals that they had seen places where these were visible and collecting the stories together he went hunting for them, eventually finding the location we all get to enjoy today. He also hauled out on his back 2500 pieces of the trackways which are now housed at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. If one is unable to hike out and see the trackways in their natural state, a visit to the museum might be a worthwhile aternative.
There are over 14 miles of trackways through out the Monument. This one is the easiest to access and I have to admit, there was a fair amount of work involved with the ridge hike. The others are scattered in various locations and are more difficult to get to. I recommend this one because the trail is marked and it only takes a few hours to do.
In some of these there are distinct claw marks showing their reptilian lineage. This area was also covered with what was known as the Permian Sea. Prehistoric crocodiles roamed these shores called Eryops.
While I was hiking, another hiker caught up with me and we walked through the trackway together. He’s pointing out the toemarks of what had to have been a huge beast. Not sure what it was. At the trackways you can get up close and really study these 280 million year old fossils.
There were also Dimetrodons, dinosaurs that had large fins on their backs. During the paleaozioc era this area would have been the edge of a large sea surrounded by volcanoes and thick foliage. These dinosaurs would have been hunting and avoiding being eaten. It would have been a thick humid place, not like the desert and mountains we see now.
The evidence of the long ago seas are here as well. These fossilized wave ripples from the bottom of the sea makes the conclusion obvious.
Fossilized sealife lays all around intermingled with the dinosaur tracks. Look closely, it’s everywhere.
Once you are back there and experience this amazing place, the hike is well worth it. One just has to keep in mind that there are no facilities of any kind here. No bathrooms, no water, no food trucks, though the latter might not be a bad idea.
As I followed the Trackway I realized that the wash we were following led back to the parking lot. I saw the wash when I first got there but decided it made more sense to follow the trail. If I had known that that was the same one I would have saved myself the climbing up the ridge. It would have been shorter and easier. Now I admit I really enjoyed the view from the ridge trail and it was a nice hike.
The picture above shows the Rio Grande River as it appears from the ridge trail. I’m looking forward to seeing how the Bureau of Land Management does improvements on the site. Marking the road with a couple of signs would be a good start. Finding Prehistoric Trackways National Monument is worth the effort, especially if you are a dinosaur nut like me. This is a chance to actually walk in the footsteps of dinosaurs. It’s an outing that is hard to beat.
Writing and photography by Mikel B. Classen. Copyright by Mikel B. Classen 2020
For more information on Mikel B. Classen, his writing or photography visit his website at http://www.mikelclassen.com