By Michele S. Byers
Do you remember watching “The Land before Time” and wondering if Littlefoot and his cadre of dinosaur friends would succeed in their arduous trek to find the Great Valley? Would they reach the bountiful forests, warm sun and pristine rivers and wetlands in time to save themselves?
Littlefoot’s Great Valley may have been the immense fold in the Earth’s crust that runs from the Coosa Valley in Alabama northeast through New Jersey to the Champlain Valley in Canada, Vermont and New York. A few hundred thousand years after Littlefoot’s fictional journey, a great comet struck the Gulf of Mexico off the Yucatan and wiped out all descendants of Littlefoot and his friends, except the birds, 65 million years ago.
You may be surprised to learn that New Jersey’s great valley, the Kittatinny Ridge and Valley region in the northwest corner of this state we’re in, is so ancient that it preceded the dinosaurs.
Located in Sussex and Warren counties, the Ridge and Valley region is the part of the same geologic formation as the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. The Appalachians started rising about 480 million years ago – long before vertebrates left the ocean and colonized the land – and they reached heights similar to the Alps.
Nearly half a billion years of erosion have filled the deep valleys with sediment and left only the exposed inner core rocks of the once great mountains. These rocks are too old to contain dinosaur fossils, but they offer some of New Jersey’s most spectacular scenery.
Why not visit New Jersey’s great northwest and experience this “land before time”?
Kittatinny Valley State Park, rich in plant species diversity, contains a belt of limestone outcrops that was once a shallow sea between the massive mountains. High Point State Park contains the Kuser Bog Natural Area, a cold evergreen swamp that is like a little piece of Canada stranded in New Jersey, left behind after a massive ice sheet gouged through the northern part of the state only about 12,000 to 15,000 years ago.
In the extreme cold and wind near High Point Monument, rare arctic wildflowers grow between the cracks in the rocks. As the climate warms, their habitat is moving upward in elevation, and these plants may disappear as the top of the mountain becomes too warm.
At Stokes State Forest, ask for the Ice Age trail brochure, which takes you past “kettle hole” ponds – formed by the melting of buried blocks of glacier ice – where rare amphibians now breed. Or visit the steep mountain stream at Tillman’s Ravine Natural Area.
In Worthington State Forest, hike the Appalachian Trail at Dunnfield Creek Natural Area, a spectacular rhododendron forest, or climb Mount Tammany for stunning views of the Delaware River and the famous Water Gap. Take in the magnificent vista of northwestern New Jersey from Sunrise Mountain (a short walk from the parking area), and climb the staircase at Buttermilk Falls in Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.
New Jersey is a marvel of geologic diversity. The Ridge and Valley region is not to be missed.
Curious about the fossilized remains of dinosaurs? Check out New Jersey’s Inner Coastal Plain, a region that is quite young compared to the immense age of the Appalachians.
The Rowan University Fossil Park in Sewell, Gloucester County, is one of the most important fossil sites in the world. An old clay mine cuts deep into sedimentary layers to a spot where fallout from the comet strike landed, now rich in the rare element of iridium. Remains of dinosaurs that died in that very spot are being excavated by paleontologists. To find out more, go to www.rowan.edu/fossils
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills.