Sometimes you visit a place that stays with you. Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park and National Natural Landmark in Nebraska had that effect on us. The park is located in a very rural stretch of northeast Nebraska on Route 517th Avenue off U.S. 20. The closest town, Royal, is about 10 miles away with a population of about 60.
We learned about the park online at visitnebraska.com. It sounded interesting and seemed like something to stop and see. So, we did. Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park and National Natural Landmark is an active archeological site. Paleontologists there are working to unearth prehistoric animal skeletons buried in volcanic ash. Let that thought sink in for a moment.
We had a warm and sunny day to make the drive from West Point, Nebraska. We prefer the peacefulness of the rural countryside when we travel and it was a pretty drive of rolling green hills, farmland and wildflowers. After arriving we made our way to the park's Visitor Center and talked with staff. Since we travel with our dog, one of us went inside to get the scoop about the park and the other stayed outside with the pup. Staff did tell us a small fee was required to enter. A Valid Nebraska Park Entry Permit is also required and can be obtained on site. Staff also let us know we were welcome to take our leashed dog with us along the outdoor path and into the Rhino Barn. Rhino Barn? Let that thought sink in for a moment.
As we wandered along the path from the Visitor Center, there were signs and markings along the way describing information about prehistoric animals that once roamed the area. Interesting. There were signs and markers showing the location of fossils that had been first located and excavated in the 1970s. Neat! Then we arrived at a large metal building named the Rhino Barn. Neither of us were prepared for what we saw once we stepped inside.
Opening the door to the Rhino Barn we entered into an active archeological excavation. There, staff were meticulously working with small hand tools to reveal the fossils of animals we had never heard of before. These fossils were not simply impressions of prehistoric animals left behind in the rocks. Instead, they were the actual full-skeletal remains of Barrel-bodied Rhino, Hornless Rhino, Bone Crushing Dogs, Saber tooth Deer, Camel, Slender Three-toed Horses among others. Too many fossils to count, the prehistoric animals lay in mass right before our eyes. Buried and preserved in volcanic ash, they lay as they fell twelve million years ago at what was thought to be a watering hole. It was a stunning sight to see.
We had so many questions while standing in the Rhino Barn. The Nebraska State Game and Parks Department works collaboratively with the University of Nebraska, Lincoln to manage and research the Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park. There are many display boards on the walls of the barn to help explain how the ash arrived in Nebraska, what animals have been found and how the animals were affected by the changing environment. There is also a staff member on site to answer questions.
The park is not open to the public the entire year, so check out ashfall.unl.edu before making the drive. There is a small bookshop/gift shop at the Visitor Center. There you can learn more about the park. We purchased a book about the Ashfall Fossils put together by the University of Nebraska so we could learn more.
Ashfall Fossils State Historical Park and National Landmark will leave you thinking about the site well after you finish your visit. Scientists are discovering full skeletons of animals you'd never think of finding in Nebraska. The thought is mind blowing. Wander there for a visit if you can.
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