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Dinosaur Footprints in New Mexico? Step This Way

Three types of dinosaurs traveled across a large expanse of land. They trekked through damp sand and mud. Although they finished this journey one hundred million years ago, the proof of their presence still remains at Clayton Lake State Park, in northeastern New Mexico.

In the 1970s, a dam was built and Clayton Lake was created. This same dam needed a spillway to control water flow; during the construction process, silt was removed from the spillway, revealing an ancient surprise.

Five hundred dinosaur footprints were uncovered at the site, which is thought to be the southern end of the ‘dinosaur freeway.’ There are theories that this freeway marked a migration route, but this remains unproven. Can you imagine a seasonal influx of dinosaurs? It would make the descent of spring breakers welcome by comparison.

Not that all dinosaurs were scary and carnivorous. There are clearly visible three-toed tracks, believed to belong to iguanodontid dinosaurs, which were herbivores. Still, some of these specimens were fifty feet long and weighed in at eight tons, so you wouldn’t want to mess with one.

The larger prints come from these creatures’ back feet, the smaller ones from the front feet. At the longest point, these three-toed prints are slightly less than twelve inches. Who knew that dinosaur feet were the literal equivalent of ‘a foot?’

There are other types of tracks here too, including those thought to belong to pterosaur – think flying reptiles! Theropod dinosaurs also passed through Clayton Lake. These creatures tended to be carnivorous and were the ancestors of modern birds.

It seems fitting that, today, the lake is on a migration path for several species of birds, including bald eagles, ducks, and Canadian geese. Did the map for this route descend down the evolutionary chain from theropods to eagles?

  • Two main roads cross in the center of the town of Clayton: Monroe/Main Street (also known as the 64, 56, and 412 – just to confuse you) and 1st Street (called the 87 or 402). To reach Clayton Lake, turn onto 1st Street and take it in a slightly NW direction. Veer right onto the 370, at the edge of town. Follow this road (also called Lake Road) for about eleven miles through the boonies. Make a left onto State Route 455 and continue into the park.
  • There is a $5 fee per vehicle.
  • Clayton Lake contains rainbow trout, catfish, bass and walleye – assuming the birds don’t snag them first. Make sure you have a license from the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish before casting your line.
  • Stop by in winter for bird watching, but check the weather forecast because we found that the dinosaur tracks were harder to see after a rain – however they photographed better. Stay on the boardwalk surrounding the tracks for the obvious reason of protecting the site, but also because we encountered a snake! Campsites and RV hookups are available.


Two paws!  A snake found us.



Lane & Juliet

The writing and photography team behind Southwest Compass, the travel blog for the American Southwest.

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