By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
Want to see a fossil firsthand? No, we aren’t talking about your great aunt Mary, but about really old fossils. Check out these national monuments, parks, and recreation areas that claim fossils as part of the reason for a visit. For additional information about any of these sites, visit the National Park Service Web site at www.nps.gov.
1. Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, Harrison, Nebraska
Located along the banks of the Niobrara River in northwestern Nebraska, the monument preserves an area of the High Plains where wetlands meet stair-step terraces that lead up to buttes. The buttes contain fossils dating back 20 million years. Back then the land was a grass savanna comparable to Africa’s Serengeti Plains. Dinohyus (a giant pig-like animal) and Menoceras (a short rhinoceros) roamed the area. Carnivorous beardogs and land beavers foraged along the riverbanks. Stop at the visitors center to see the fossilized remnants of ancient grasses, hoofprints of prehistoric animals, and fossils. Displays include a life-size fossil diorama depicting life and death at a water hole more than 19 million years ago. This monument is open daily except on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
2. Badlands National Park, southwestern South Dakota
Head north from Agate Fossil Beds into South Dakota to see a second Midwestern park that features a rich collection of fossils. The 244,000-acre Badlands National Park is better known for its deeply eroded buttes, pinnacles, and spires than for the fossils hidden below. All the same, they date back some 23 to 35 million years. The types of animals found here are much the same as those found farther south “” prehistoric versions of a horse, sheep, rhinoceros, and pig “” but the wider span of years provides a broader sense of the evolution of animals. The park is open daily, 24 hours a day. Visitors can see a movie about the park, take the 30-mile Loop Drive, and/or hike on numerous trails. The Ben Reifel Visitor Center is open year-round (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day), while the White River center is open only during the summer.
3. Big Bend National Park, southwestern Texas
Big Bend National Park crouches along the Rio Grande River. Along with spectacular views, Big Bend preserves fossils dating back 100 million years. Literature from the park boasts, “Over 90 dinosaur species, nearly 100 plant species, and more than two dozen fish, frogs, salamanders, turtles, crocodiles, lizards, and even early mammals have been discovered here.” That makes it one of the most complete records of prehistoric life known. If possible, avoid visiting during the months of March and April when the park is very crowded, as well as during major holidays throughout the year. Luckily, there are four campgrounds in the park, because it takes several days to see its attractions.
4. Curecanti National Recreation Area, Gunnison, Colorado
The area’s three reservoirs “” Blue Mesa, Morrow Point, and Crystal “” get most of the attention, but recently discovered dinosaur fossils are gradually receiving more notice. Although the park is open year-round, the visitors centers are staffed only from mid-May through the end of September.
5. Dinosaur National Monument, Vernal Utah, and Dinosaur, Colorado
It was 1869 when John Wesley Powell visited this area and named it Echo Park, but he wasn’t the first to see it. Prehistoric rock art proved Powell was a latecomer “” and before the rock artists, dinosaurs were around. Be sure to stop at the Dinosaur Quarry Visitor Center. On display is a rock layer containing fossil bones that forms an entire wall of the building. Paleontologists have carefully chipped the rock away from the bones, which remain in place for visitors to see “” more than 1,500 fossil bones are visible.
6. Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, Florissant, Colorado
Tired of seeing animal fossils? Travel to a valley just west of Pikes Peak and you’ll see different kinds of fossils: petrified redwood trees and incredibly detailed insect fossils. Almost 35 million years ago, volcanic eruptions buried the valley and petrified the redwoods, along with thousands of insects and plants. Hike the half-mile “Walk Through Time Trail” or the one-mile “Petrified Forest Trail” to see the petrified stumps of gigantic trees. Visit the main visitors center to view the fossilized bugs. The park is open daily, except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Sub-zero temps are common in winter; after all, you’re at an elevation of 8,500 feet.
7. Fossil Butte National Monument, Kemmerer, Wyoming
According to the park service, this 50-million-year-old lake bed holds one of the richest fossil treasures in the world. It took 2 million years to transform a lake bed into the butte you see today. Now it is a sagebrush desert, with pine and aspen forest farther up. At the Fossil Butte Visitor Center you can watch a demonstration of “fossil preparation,” as well as see fossils on display, including those of a 13-foot crocodile, the oldest known bat, and a petrified mass of 356 fish that all died at the same time.
8. Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Salt Flat, Texas
Rising from the desert, this mountain mass contains parts of a fossilized limestone reef. It takes imagination to picture this place under water, but the presence of coral fossils proves that it was at one time. The park is open year-round. You might want to avoid a winter visit unless you’re partial to snowstorms, freezing rain, or fog. High wind warnings are common from winter through spring. (We found it a good place to ride out a 75-mph windstorm.)
9. Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument, Hagerman, Idaho
These beds preserve life over a huge span of time. It has the world’s richest-known fossil deposits from the late Pliocene Epoch, dating back 3.5 million years; the largest concentration of Hagerman Horse fossils in North America; and fossilized plants and animals dating all the way back to the earliest appearances of modern flora and fauna. The monument is open daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and Thursday through Sunday the rest of the year. The visitors center has an information center, fossil exhibits, a slide show, and ranger-led programs. Guided tours are available seasonally.
10. John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Kimberly, Oregon
Within the heavily eroded volcanic deposits of the John Day River basin lies a fossil record of plants and animals that lived between 40 million and 65 million years ago. The monument is divided into three separate units. All park trails, overlooks, and grounds are open during daylight hours. In the Sheep Rock Unit, the Thomas Condon Visitor Center displays mammal fossils, along with other interpretive exhibits. The visitors center is open daily from March 1 to Thanksgiving. The rest of the year, it’s closed weekends and holidays.
11. Oregon Caves National Monument, Cave Junction, Oregon
This monument is small in size, but rich in diversity. Aboveground, the monument encompasses a remnant old-growth coniferous forest. Below is a marble cave that took hundreds of thousands of years to create. Tourists now dominate the inner cave, but during the Pleistocene Era, jaguars and grizzly bears held court. Honest “” they have fossils to prove it! The monument is open all year, although cave tours are offered from spring through fall. The cave is closed in winter, but the Valley Visitor Center, located in Cave Junction, is open year-round.
12. Petrified Forest National Park, northeast Arizona
The Petrified Forest offers quite a bit of diversity: one of the world’s largest and most colorful concentrations of petrified wood; the multicolored badlands of the Chinle Formation called the Painted Desert; as well as 225-million-year-old fossils. The park is open every day except Christmas. At the Painted Desert Visitor Center, off of Interstate 40, a 20-minute video is offered regularly. At the south entrance to the park (U. S. 180), the Rainbow Forest Museum exhibits reptile and dinosaur fossils, along with petrified wood.
13. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, units at Medora and Watford City, North Dakota
The colorful North Dakota badlands provide a scenic backdrop for the park that memorializes President Teddy Roosevelt’s effort to preserve the United States’ natural resources. Throughout the park you’ll find badlands, open prairie, bison, prairie dogs “” and fossils. To see the restored skeleton of a Champosaur, a four-foot crocodile-type reptile, along with other fossil specimens, visit the Medora Visitor Center. The park officially is open all year, but may close in the winter because of inclement weather. The park’s North and South units offer scenic drives and extensive hiking trails.