110 million years ago, dinosaurs ruled Maryland. And one of the best places to discover them is a small park midway between Baltimore and Washington, DC.
Located in Laurel, Dinosaur Park houses land that has been revealing fossils since 1858. It was here that the second-ever discovery of a dinosaur fossil in the United States took place, and more than 100 years later the land continues to expose ancient treasures.
But it wasn’t until 2009 that the land became formally protected, and the recentness of its designation shows. The tiny site is within, of all things, a business park, with a steady line of grey warehouses serving as uninspiring breadcrumbs on the road to prehistory.
There’s a steady drizzle when I arrive. The handful of interpretive signs and four-car parking lot are equally disappointing. This part of the park is open from dawn-dusk every day, but I can’t imagine anyone coming on a day the fossil area is closed to visit just it.
Just off the path from the parking lot to the fenced-in fossil area, I spot a disembodied deer leg, the gnawed-on knee bone shimmering in the rain. This does not bode well, I think to myself.
The protected site stretches for 41 acres, but the public area is a tiny fraction of that: a shed, a small pavilion, and a giant mound of dirt.
110 million years ago, that mound of dirt was a lake bed. Partially connected to a nearby river, the lake caught dead plants and animals as they floated downstream. In time, the lake and river disappeared, but the fossils remained.
And it is astounding how many fossils there are. Despite the park’s modest appearance, the site is considered the most-important dinosaur deposit east of the Mississippi. And they have found not only dinosaurs, but also early mammals, trees, flowering plants, sharks, crocodiles, and turtles.
Visitors are given a brief spiel on the history as well as an overview of the types of fossils typically found. The most common are ancient pine cones and lignite, the latter being so prevalent that staff refers to it with a hint of disdain.
Digging is not permitted. Rather, visitors are encouraged to walk around looking for fossils made visible by recent rains. Unfortunately, looking in the rain is less encouraged–I’m told that with everything wet, the glint of a fossil will just look like reflecting water.
I set off anyway, and one of the guides takes me to the top of the dirt mound to escape the thickening mud at the bottom. Nobody is very optimistic that we’ll find anything as the drizzling rain steadily turns to a downpour.
But I do find something, glinting in the dim light. At first, I think it’s fossilized coral. But as I wipe the mud away I begin to realize it’s a tooth.
I consider pocketing it. Instead, I do the right thing and give it over to the paleontologists.
They’re not quite sure what it is. Probably the tooth from a Cretaceous-era crocodile. Possibly the tooth from a Cretaceous-era dinosaur. They package it up and prepare to send it to the Smithsonian for analysis.
And this is a really cool thing about Dinosaur Park: while you don’t get to keep what you find, your name is listed with your discovery on on-site displays and an online directory. You might even find your fossil showcased in the National Museum of Natural History!
The other cool thing is that you are working alongside actual paleontologists at Dinosaur Park. If I had found that tooth on my own, I never would have realized it dated from the Cretaceous, and I certainly wouldn’t have the Smithsonian at my disposal to tell me what it was.
I’ll find out in a few weeks just what it is I found. In the meantime, I’m planning my next trip back to Dinosaur Park. It may not be the prettiest place in Maryland, but it is certainly one of the most interesting.
If You Go
Dinosaur Park is located at 13291 Mid-Atlantic Boulevard in Laurel, MD. It’s a quick drive from either I-95 or I-295. The open house days are the only time the fossil area is open to the public–these days are free and are offered on the 1st and 3rd Saturday of each month from 12-4 PM.
The park is also available to rent for school and private groups.