Category Archives: Travel

Prehistoric Trackways National Monument

Tiny tracks from 280 million years ago are preserved in red siltstone.

Tracks in the Rocks

Mountains are nature’s mystery novel. Captured in layers of rock are stories about time, about life, about death. As I pass the Robledo Mountains just northwest of Las Cruces, New Mexico, I ignore the dry, sparsely vegetated cover, knowing an extraordinary story awaits me within the rock of the Prehistoric Trackways National Monument.

The monument, managed by the Bureau of Land Management, is relatively new, so infrastructure consists of a few interpretive panels, two dirt parking lots, and a hiking trail that switches up the hillside. I called ahead and signed up for a guided tour—the best way to discover the secrets of the Robledos.

Colin Dunn, paleontologist with the Bureau of Land Management, shows us a rock loaded with fossils.Skip the Dinosaurs

On that bright, spring, Saturday morning, a small group of hikers gather around Colin Dunn, the BLM paleontologist. We’ve come to see the fossilized trackways of creatures that squelched through mud 280 million years ago. “We’re skipping the dinosaurs,” Colin says. “Mammals, flowers, birds. Just skip it.” These tracks were made by animals 60 million years before any flower bloomed or dinosaur roamed the earth.

The trackway eroding from the Robledo Mountains dates to the Early Permian. At that time, New Mexico was part of a single, massive continent known as Pangea. The rocks that surround us are sediments from a shallow, warm sea that lapped against a tropical shoreline.

Fragments of sea urchin spines and shells make a jumble of shell hash in a rock.Shell Hash

We hike up a dry creek bed. Colin stops to show us long, thin sea urchin spines, round disks of crinoids (sea lilies), flat colonies of bryozoan, and ridged shells of clam-like brachiopods. These fossils create a layer of “shell hash”—a jumbled assortment of life in the Permian sea.

Tracks of a Dimetrodon are deeply impressed into red siltstone.


As we move inland from sea to shoreline, thick beds of red rock jut from the hillside. Colin scrambles to the first terrace. Crouched before a large, flat slab of siltstone he points out a series of tracks. About the size of my hand, the “palm” of each print is round and deeply impressed. The toes are long, thin, and sharply pointed.

“These are Dimetrodon tracks,” Colin tells us. Dimetrodon was the terrestrial terror of the Permian world. Lizard-like, with a bony sail fin down its back, the largest Dimetrodon was 13 ft. long and weighed 500 lbs. “This one was pretty small,” says Colin. “It was only about 100 lbs.”

Colin pulls a small rock out of his pocket. Clusters of three lines, each arranged like an arrow, cover the surface. “I was at White Sands and saw beetles making tracks just like this. I was totally geeking out!”

Walchia fronds from an upland forest washed downstream and pressed into the mud.Walchia Fronds

I am too. Fossilized bones fascinate me, but these tracks? Even better. Bones write the story of death. These footprints tell the story of life. I can picture an araeoscelid (go ahead and think lizard) scampering for cover, a beetle making its way across the mud, and the corkscrew twist of a worm as it drills a burrow. Raindrops dimple one rock; a mat of Walchia tree fronds from an inland forest is impressed on another. The fronds look like the potted Norfolk Pines I used to buy at the home improvement store.

By studying these tracks, paleontologists are unveiling twists to the mystery of Permian life. Initially, scientists believed Dimetrodon was a low-slung, lumbering thug. But the tracks—set close together and lacking belly scrapes or tail drag marks—suggest Dimetrodon was a sprinter rather than a plodder.

Colin tells me of petrified log jams and other track sites at the monument. He won’t share where they are though. “Have you heard of Fossil Cycad National Monument?” he asks. I shake my head, no.

“That’s the problem. Fossil Cycad had one of the world’s greatest concentrations of cycads. Then people came in and took them all. They shut down the monument because there wasn’t anything left to see. I don’t want that to happen here.”

I don’t either.

A sign at the monument tells of the trackway discovery and warns people not to collect rocks.

Getting There:

The Prehistoric Trackways National Monument is open to the public, but the best way to visit is with a knowledgeable guide. Tours to the Discovery Site are given once a month on Saturdays. Contact the Bureau of Land Management for more information.

To Learn More

Traces of a Permian Seacoast is a wonderful, beautifully illustrated book about the fossil trackways of Prehistoric Trackways National Monument. Purchase it from the link below to help support this blog!


Also posted in Chihuahuan Desert, Fossils, Geology, New Mexico

Places: West Texas Rest Stops

"Watch for Snakes" Warning Sign at a rest stop in west Texas

Watch for Snakes!

I’ve always thought of roadside rest stops as a necessity. You’re in, you’re out, you’re on your way. But I’m working on a photography project about the history of automobile tourism in West Texas, and I’ve started looking at rest stops in a slightly different way.

I grabbed my camera at this rest stop on I-10 between Balmorhea and Fort Stockton when I saw the “WATCH FOR SNAKES” sign. I’ve noticed warnings like this before, but they’re usually on a path leading to the picnic tables. This prominent sign made me think. Should I watch for snakes in the restroom? Given the fact that the rest stop is in the Chihuahuan Desert of West Texas, and that the restrooms have cool, tile floors, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if I found a rattlesnake curled up next to the toilet.

So I was on the lookout for snakes.


Buffalo Soldier with his horse

Buffalo Soldier Tile Mural

But I found something even more wonderful. Across the bathroom wall was this tile mural of a 19th century Buffalo Soldier and his horse. The Buffalo Soldiers were African-American infantry and cavalry troops stationed at Fort Stockton (1867-1886) and Fort Davis (1867-1885) after the Civil War. The soldiers were responsible for protecting travelers on the San Antonio-El Paso road, constructing telegraph lines, guarding watering holes, and conducting campaigns against raiding Apache and Comanche warriors.

This mural made me think. Were all of these mid-1960s rest stops decorated with murals depicting local history? I grabbed my map, checked for the next rest stop, and headed east.


A theropod dinosaur stomps across the landscape

Acrocanthosaurus Stomps Across a Cretaceous Swamp in Pecos County

The next stop was just past SH 190 (the Iraan turnoff).

Here, a salmon-pink dinosaur stomps across the wall, glittering white teeth bared. This one puzzled me at first. A dinosaur? Out here? But then I remembered a roadside park near Girvin (a few miles northwest of the rest stop) where, 120 million years ago, a theropod dinosaur squelched through the mud.  In 1965, highway workers uncovered its three-toed tracks preserved in the limestone of a creek-bed. Paleontologists decided that an Acrocanthosaurus—a genus of dinosaurs that existed in the early Cretaceous (125 mya to 110 mya) and had a distinctive short ridge along its spine—left the tracks as it foraged along the shore of an ancient sea.

Eureka! I was on to something. Like a bloodhound hot on the trail, I started looking for rest stops. The 1960s-era rest stops were not only examples of quirky, fun public art, but also related to the history of the region. I love this kind of thing.

Brands and an oil rig are depicted in the Nolan County rest stop.

Brands and Oil in Nolan County off Interstate 20

Over the next couple of days, I went on a rest-stop treasure hunt. Even my mom got involved. I’d promised her a Grand Adventure for Mother’s Day and suggested we drive the backroads of Central Texas looking at wildflowers. Instead, she remembered an old rest stop up near Fort Worth. Could we go check it out? You’ve just got to adore mothers like that. The old rest stop near Fort Worth was gone, but we discovered some other treasures.

The Nolan County rest stop (on I-20 between Sweetwater and Trent) was the most complex one that I visited on my three-day trip. Tile-work murals cover the entire bathroom. A frieze of historic brands circle the walls and against the back wall is an oil rig, quail, deer, and a variety of other wildlife.


Standoff between a cowboy and his Hereford.

Cowboy and Herefords, Nolan County

On the side wall of the Nolan County rest area the mural continues, depicting a cowboy with his Herefords. As with the other murals, there’s a story to tell. Nolan County was founded in 1876 and by 1880, there were 52 ranches in the area. Herefords, a British breed that was exceptionally suited to the Texas environment, gradually replaced Longhorns as the cattle of choice on the ranches. I wondered if the brands shown on the walls were those of the first 52 ranches, so I gave Melonnie Hicks, the Executive Director of the Pioneer City-County Museum in Sweetwater, a call. I caught her at a bad time, and she wasn’t sure about the brands. But, she told me, the museum has actual brands from those historic ranches, and anyone that’s curious can drop by the museum and take a look.

The oil rig is a nod to the discovery of oil in Nolan County in 1939 and an oil and gas industry that boomed in the 1950s.


Exhibits in rest stop on Interstate 20

The History of Auto Tourism Exhibit in Eastland County

I have to admit that I have a fondness for the old-style rest stops and their art, but I can see why the Texas Department of Transportation is replacing some of them with new, mega-safety rest areas. The old ones are small. Some are dark. People complain that there aren’t doors on them, making them potentially unsafe.

In 2001, TxDot began building a different style of rest stop. These are big, open, airy buildings with lots of parking, playgrounds, and even WIFI. But they’re more than that. To reduce the number of fatigue-caused accidents, TXDot engineers wanted people to stay longer. They worked with county historical commissions, schools, and other local groups to create rest areas that portrayed the local community. In a sense, they’re small museums, complete with interpretive panels, artifacts, and hands-on, computer-based interactive exhibits. They’re a destination on their own.

So next time you’re out for a long drive, pull off and enjoy the art and history of Texas rest stops. Which are your favorites?

Also posted in Chihuahuan Desert, Places, Texas Tagged , , , , , , |