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Posted by Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism

by Phyllis M. Cahaly, CMD, Director of Partnership Marketing, Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism

Massachusetts is known for its history, ingenuity and its many firsts. But did you know that long before, VERY LONG before, the American Revolution (1776), the founding of the Boston Common (1630) and the landing of the Pilgrims (1620) at least four different kinds of Dinosaurs known by their footprint names roamed Massachusetts? They would be Anchisaurus, Grallator, Podokesaurus holyokensis and Eubrontes giganteus – kind of rolls right of off your tongue, right?!

Dinosaur tracks, photo courtesy of Beneski Museum of Natural History, Amherst, MA

Dinosaur tracks, photo courtesy of Beneski Museum of Natural History, Amherst, MA

Let’s travel back, way back, to a time we learned about in school; remember those geologic eras known as Cenozoic, 65 million years ago, Mesozoic, 245 million years ago, Paleozoic, 545 million years ago and the Precambrian, 4.5 million years ago? It turns out there is a strong connection between those eras, Western Massachusetts and especially Turners Falls, Massachusetts!

The calm flowing waters of the Connecticut River reflect the sky before plummeting onto the rocks below the Turners Falls Dam.

Turners Falls, MA, photo by Paul Franz

Turners Falls, located in Franklin County, has a total area of 2.3 square miles and a population, at last count in 2020, of 4,500 people. You can take a Geologic Walking Tour of Turners Falls and visit 10 individual and unique locations where you will learn about everything from River and Rock overlooks to the Red Rocks called Sugarloaf arkose or a string of rock formations. Here’s a list of the walking tour sites:

The Great Falls Discovery Center in Turners Falls, MA.

Great Falls Discovery Center, Turners Falls, MA

  1. Great Falls Discovery Center
  2. River and Rock Overlook
  3. Rock Garden
  4. Sugarloaf Rock
  5. Climate Change Formation
  6. Our Lady of Czestochowa Polished Rock
  7. Peskeomskut Park
  8. Our Lady of Czestochowa Polished Rock
  9. Living Fossils: Ginkgos
  10. The World-Famous Armored Mud Balls of Turners Falls
The cover of the book "A Geologic Walking Tour of Turners Falls, Massachusetts," with a photo of Turners Falls against a yellow background.

A Geologic Walking Tour of Turners Falls, Massachusetts

Author of the Geologic Walking Tour of Turners Falls, Steve Winters, retired Professor of Earth Science at Holyoke Community College, is passionate about our geologic treasures. Steve is a Turners Falls resident and trained hydrogeologist who is an innovative environmental science educator and who has a way of telling the stories hidden in rocks that makes science come alive. “We really are living in Dinosaur Valley here in Western Massachusetts,” says Steve. “Believe it or not, this is the first place on earth where dinosaur footprints were studied and researchers still come from all over the world to study and learn here. There’s living fossils, or Ginkgos trees, all along the walking tour and the World-Famous Armored Mud Balls, a Turners Falls exclusive.

Some of the rolling mud chunks picked up pebbles of hard rock that stuck to their surfaces, as if wrapping the chunks in a protective armor. When the mud balls reached the lakeshore, they were quickly covered by a fine mud or sand and preserved for ages as the Famous Armored Mud Bals of Turners Falls.A Turners Falls exclusive. Although not common in the geologic record, armored mud balls from marine environments have been found and are still forming in alluvial fan environments near glaciers and ocean beaches.

World-Famous Armored Mud Ball, Turners Falls, MA, photo by Steve Winter

Wait – World Famous WHAT? What the heck is an Armored Mud Ball? It’s an end product of rolling mud chunks that pick-up pebbles of hard rock that stick to their surfaces, kind of wrapping the chunks in a protective armor around the mud. When the mud balls reached the lakeshore, they were buried by mud and/or sand and then turned into stone to be preserved for ages and now known as the ‘World Famous Mud Balls’ exclusive to Turner Falls.

These unique Jurassic Armored Mud Balls, are currently being considered as an Official Massachusetts State Sedimentary Structure due to their importance to science and as a tourism draw to the Commonwealth. In those same geologic layers are dinosaur fossils too, indeed, Dinosaur Valley.

A large dinosaur skeleton sits in front of a large crowd of onlookers at the Beneski Museum of Natural History, Amherst, MA; photo by Lynn Graves

Beneski Museum of Natural History, Amherst, MA; photo by Lynn Graves

Dinosaurs have two different naming systems, one for the skeletal remains and the other system for the tracks or trace fossils that they leave behind. You’ll discover these facts, and so much more, as you continue your paleontology quest. One essential stop is a visit to the Beneski Museum of Natural History at Amherst College. This world-class exhibit of dinosaur skeletons and footprints and dazzling minerals is always free of charge. It is one of New England’s largest natural history museums featuring three floors of exhibits with more than 1,700 specimens on display. Be sure to visit the Hitchcock Ichnology Collection, the most extensive collection of dinosaur footprints in the world.

A footbridge for the M & M Trail over Mormon Hollow Brook in the Wendell State Forest.

Mormon Hollow Brook, Wendell, Franklin County, photo by Paul Franz

While in the Pioneer Valley, another must visit is Dinosaur Footprints, Holyoke, MA where you’ll find hundreds of prehistoric tracks, the first dinosaur prints ever to be scientifically described, revealed in slabs of sandstone. This museum is run by The Trustees and is also free of charge.

The skull of a triceratops sits on display at the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

The Harvard Museum of Natural History, Cambridge

Closer to Boston, check out the Harvard Museum of Natural History, Cambridge, MA and their variety of dinosaur exhibits in the Main Gallery on the third floor. Admission fee is $15 adults and $10 for children ages 3 to 18.

Speaking of colleges, Richard D. Little, Professor Emeritus, Greenfield Community College, and colleague of Steve Winters, has written and presented tours and talks to thousands.  Over his 50-plus years in this area, he has traveled a good part of the world exploring geological topics, and today he leads his Fantastic Landscapes Tours. “We have unique Mesozoic rocks and fossils (dinosaurs!) along the Connecticut River Valley and I conclude that this part of Massachusetts is the best place in the world to study geology!” states Professor Little. “In just a few miles along Rte. 2, you can see all three rock types in excellent exposures, including a Jurassic lava flow with impressive basalt columns and cliffed viewpoints. There are important geological heritage with outstanding rock outcrops illustrating the birth and death of the supercontinent of Pangea. The death of Pangea gave us the Jurassic rift valley whose rocks are now exposed in the Connecticut River Valley where Dinosaurs roamed and armored mud balls rolled into history.”

Prof. Richard Little with Armored Mud Balls, Turners Falls, MA

Prof. Richard Little with Armored Mud Balls, Turners Falls, MA, photo by Prof. Richard Little

Which brings us back to those Armored Mud Balls! Watch Professor Little’s videos to learn more about these nuggets. Also, be sure to view the video on the “Amazing Geology of Gill and Vicinity.”

You’ll discover great things to do for February School Vacation, like the Prehistoric Planet Vacation Week Program in Central Massachusetts, and on our blog.

Have fun out there!

The sun sets over the Connecticut River as seen from the White Bridge with Montague on the left and Greenfield on the right.

Connecticut River Montague, MA. photo by Paul Franz

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