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    Fossil Freeway: hunting for fossils between Nebraska and South Dakota

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    Martí Micolau

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    Many do not know it but the northern area of ​​Nebraska and the one south of South Dakota have ancient stories to tell, dating back millions of years ago, when mammoth and other extinct animal species plowed these lands undisturbed. Fortunately, these species have left abundant traces of themselves, especially in the region we are talking about today, which preserves one inestimable amount of prehistoric evidence, all ideally connected by a main road, the Fossil Freeway, the artery that will allow us to make an authentic journey through time.

    We will cross the immense prairies of the Great Plains, framed by whitewashed gullies and canyons dotted with pine trees, we will meet the pilgrims ofOregon Trail, we will admire unusual masterpieces sculpted by mother nature and, of course, we will stock up on fossils of all kinds, from bison to mammoth, to the most unlikely extinct species.


    • Where you'll be
      • Mammoth Site (Hot Springs)
      • Toadstool Geologic Park
      • Hudson-Meng Bison Kill
      • Trailside Museum a Fort Robinson State Park
      • Agate Fossil Beds National Monument
      • Scotts Bluff National Monument
      • Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area
    • How to insert this itinerary in an on the road?
    • Where to sleep according to the itinerary
    • Safety advice

    Where you'll be

    Here are all the stages of the itinerary, ordered from North to South, obviously nothing prevents you from making the journey in the opposite direction.

    Mammoth Site (Hot Springs)

    Let's start immediately with the attraction that plays the lion's share in this itinerary dedicated to fossils: Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, the site with the largest concentration of mammoth remains in the world (61 specimens in all), with the particularity that all these specimens are males, all ended up together in the same sinkhole which proved fatal for them.

    Inside the museum you can go inside the sinkhole and walk among the remains not only of mammoths, but also of 87 other animals belonging to the Ice Age, as well as take a look at full-scale replicas of mammoths, and at reproductions of Lyuba e Dima, the mammoth mummies discovered in Siberia.

    The entrance ticket includes a guided tour of approximately 30 minutes, as well as the opportunity to freely roam the exhibition halls and visit the laboratory where the fossils are prepared. For timetables and prices consult the official website.

    Toadstool Geologic Park

    This natural area is certainly one of Nebraska's most amazing hidden gems, a geological area full of strange mushroom-like rock formations, which could easily be used as a set for a science fiction film. The most experienced of road trips will not have missed the Toadstools in Utah, well know that those of Nebraska are no less!

    To reach the site you will need to exit Highway 71 and take the dirt road Toadstool Road, follow it for 18,5 km along the tracks of a railway, and then cross it (be careful because there is no level crossing). You missed? Here are the coordinates of the turn.

    The site is always open, and a small payment is required for entry to be left directly on the site (official site).

    After parking the car you can be content to wander freely around the park, or take the Toadstool Trail, a ring path of 1,3 km a / r that will allow you to admire bizarre geological conformations, evocative gullies and fossils that testify the passage of animals dating back to 30 million years ago.

    If you have time and desire to walk there is also another path, the Bison Trail, a route of almost 10 km a / r (about 100 meters in altitude) that connects Toadstool Geologic Park to the next attraction, Hudson-Meng Bison Kill.

    Hudson-Meng Bison Kill

    Photos at SkybirdForever

    In the mid-50s in the lands ofOglala National Grasslands, farmer Albert Meng was trying to expand a source for his cattle and, during the operation, he discovered to his surprise a considerable amount of bones. Subsequent archaeological surveys revealed the remains of as many as 600 "ancient bison", species much larger than the current American bison, dating back to about 10000 years ago.

    From this incredible discovery the site was born Hudson-Meng Bison Bone Bed (also called Hudson-Meng Bison Kill) whose importance lies not only in being the largest bison fossil site never found, but also to have started a series of searches in the surrounding areas that led to the unearthing of the Mammoth Site di Hot Springs.

    Initially it was believed that these bison had been killed by man, however it was later convinced that the reason for death is to be found in natural causes, still in reality shrouded in mystery. Admission is subject to a fee. For prices and opening hours, consult the official website.

    To reach the site by car you will have to take the aforementioned Toadstool Road, then take another dirt road, Sandcreek Road, follow it for 10 km and turn right to reach the site. Along this road you will also meet a nice reconstruction of a border village (High Plains Homestead), an attraction that we also reported in our ebook Real America in 17 Days: Traveling in the Great American West.

    As already mentioned, there is also the possibility of walking to the site directly from Toadstool Geologic Park, walking the path Bison Trail.

    Trailside Museum a Fort Robinson State Park

    Fort Robinson provided a base for the US armies during the wars with the natives from 1876 to 1890. Among the most important clashes that occurred we can remember the battle of Warbonnet Creek, which brought the leader of the Lakota Crazy Horse to defeat (a commemorative plaque commemorates the place of his death), and the Fort Robinson Massacre, one of the most tragic moments of the Indian wars.

    Now, this important historical site is incorporated into the Fort Robinson State Park, a natural area of ​​about 9000 hectares where it is possible not only to visit the various historical premises of the fort, but also to walk the many paths of the park and do various outdoor activities. What does all this have to do with fossils? Well, you should know that one of the historic buildings of the fort (the old theater) houses the Trailside Museum, which holds an authentic treasure!

    In these lands, more than 10000 years ago, 2 large mammoths collided, and a large fossil remains of this challenge, perfectly preserved in the exhibition hall of the exhibition Clash of the Mammoths, where there is also a full-scale reconstruction of the skeleton of a mammoth and the mural created by Mark Marcuson that re-enacts the titanic challenge. The same painter also edited the paintings of the ancient species whose fossils were found in Nebraska.

    Admission to the museum is subject to a fee (being managed by the University of Nebraska, the parks card is not accepted), for timetables and prices I refer you to the official website.

    Agate Fossil Beds National Monument

    This site owes its main interest to the numerous Miocene mammal fossils found near the 2 hills renamed Carnegie Hill e University Hill. The Visitor Center (times) also doubles as a museum, including a fine exhibit reconstructing the skeletons of Miocene mammals found here, as well as the collection of Native American artifacts that the Indian chief Oglala Lakota donated to the family of James H. Cook, who owned a ranch in this area.

    Here are some examples of mammalian fossils found here:

    • Menoceras: a kind of rhinoceros smaller than the modern one
    • Daphoenodon: a cross between a dog and a bear
    • Daeodon: an entelodon the size of a bison
    • Moropus: a goblet related to today's horse
    • Stenomylus: a cross between a camel and an antelope
    • Palaeocastor: an "ancient beaver" digging large spiral-shaped burrows underground

    You can also take 2 easy paths that, crossing the site's grasslands, lead to the plateaus where the fossils were found:

    • Daemonelix Trail (1,6 km round trip), which includes some fossils, such as the spiral lair of Palaeocastor, and beautiful views from above of the High Plains and the historic Agate Springs Ranch by James H. Cook.
    • Fossil Hills Trail (Agate Fossil Beds Trail) (4,3 km round trip), a paved path also suitable for wheelchairs that leads to the historic quarries where excavations were carried out in the early 1900s.

    Scotts Bluff National Monument

    Always part of the complex of Wildcat Hills, this imposing rocky massif was an important landmark in history first for the natives and then for the pilgrims of theOregon Trail, the troubled path of more than 2000 miles from the Missouri River to Oregon undertaken by settlers during the 800s.

    You can visit the site by car, along the Scotts Bluff Summit Road, a 2,5 km scenic road that represents a real piece of Nebraska history: built in 1933, it is considered the oldest concrete road in the state and, according to some sources, would host the only 3 car tunnels that you will find in Nebraska; but above all, it will allow you to reach the top of the massif and admire the surrounding panorama. Arrived at the car park (Summit Parking Lot) you will find 2 panoramic points, both reachable with short asphalted paths:

    • South Overlook, a viewpoint overlooking the Mitchell Pass, some sections of the Oregon Trail and the Visitor Center. Access is from the south of the car park and the path to reach the viewpoint is within everyone's reach (just half a km round trip).
    • North Overlook, which offers beautiful views of the North Platte River Valley and the towns of Scottsbluff and Gering. Access is always from the car park and the path is slightly longer than the previous one (1 km round trip).

    If you have more time you can opt for the Saddle Rock Trail a path of about 5 km a / r with a difference in height of 172 meters that you can take at the Visitor Center and that leads right to the North Overlook.

    The park is free, and is always open from morning to evening, however the scenic route and the Visitor Center follow specific times so I recommend that you consult the official resource.

    Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area

    Just before reaching Scottsbluff, 16km south of the town of Low, along the Highway 71, you will meet a natural area of ​​more than 300 hectares characterized by rugged buttresses of white rock that emerge from verdant canyons covered with pines; It is also possible to explore the site by car, but be careful because in some places the road, in addition to being dirt, is also narrow, steep and winding, with some blind curves.

    However, the Visitor Center and some trails are easily accessible without having to venture into complicated roads. The Nature Center will be able to give you a lot of information on the local ecosystem and at the same time the opportunity to observe some important fossils of the area, such as a saber-toothed tiger tusk.

    From the center starts the Northlook Nature Trail, a short and easy path on a false plane of just over 1 km round trip; pretty simple too Cedar Ridge Trail (1,6 km a / r with 65 meters of altitude difference), which however offers more suggestive views. If you have more time you can instead take the Turkey Run Trail, a route of 3 km a / r with a difference in height of about sixty meters.

    How to insert this itinerary in an on the road?

    Although much of this itinerary takes place along the prairies of the Great Plans of Nebraska, a state belonging to the great region of the Midwest, the easiest way to include it in your travel itinerary is to organize a road trip in Real America. , as the Fossil Freeway runs near the western Wyoming border and then crosses into South Dakota, where Mammoth Site is located.

    If you are coming from Cheyenne, for example, along the route from south to north in reverse order of the list above, it may be a good idea to pass through here and then reach the Black Hills area, where you will find the iconic Mount Rushmore and its Indian counterpart, the Crazy Horse Memorial, waiting for you. This is the path that we have proposed in our itinerary in ebook format: Real America in 17 Days: Journey to the Great American West.

    Where to sleep according to the itinerary

    Obviously you can decide to complete this itinerary in its entirety or stop only at some stage (in our ebook on Real America we have included for example only Scott Bluff National Monument, Toadstool Geologic Park and Mammoth Site). To better organize yourself, I insert here a series of towns that can be used as a strategic stop during the journey (in order from south to north):

    • Cheyenne (Wyoming): capital of the state, it is an interesting town to visit and a good strategic point for those coming from the south, since it is 1:30 circa da Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area e Scotts Bluff National Monument. -> our tips for sleeping in Cheyenne
    • Scottsbluff County (Nebraska): the villages of Gering, Terrytown, Scottsbluff, Mitchell and Morrill are excellent as a location for those who want to sleep near the 2 attractions mentioned above and not far from Agate Fossil Beds. To find accommodation in these small towns you can consult this page -> accommodation in Scottsbluff County
    • Alliance (Nebraska): it will require a detour from the original route but it may be interesting to include in the itinerary for some roadside attractions, for example Carhenge, a Stonehenge made with vintage cars, and the vintage village Dobby’s Frontier Town. -> Alliance accommodations.
    • Dawes County (Nebraska): here you will find the towns of Chadron and Crawford, very close to attractions such as Fort Robison State Park, Toadstool Geologic Park e Hudson-Meng Bison Kill -> accommodations in Dawes County
    • Hot Springs (South Dakota): the reference town to visit Mammoth Site. -> Hot Springs accommodation

    Finally, if you follow this itinerary to reach the Black Hills, I refer you to our in-depth analysis on the most important towns in the region, where you can look for accommodation.

    Safety advice

    The great plains in these areas are home to rattlesnakes, so I advise you, for the natural areas indicated in this itinerary, to be careful, staying on the marked paths and following the instructions provided by the park staff to the letter. For example, here are the ranger guidelines for Scotts Bluff National Monument park.

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