The Fossil Freeway
Visit the Fossil Freeway
WESTERN NEBRASKA is blessed with some of the great trails in American history, but only one of these routes takes you back millions of years. The roadblocks in these time travels are saber-toothed cats, king-sized cousins of the rhino, prehistoric pig creatures on steroids, 3-toed ancient horses, and hog-like creatures bigger than buffalo.
This incredible journey is not the Land of the Lost, but a paleontology path preserved for curious visitors from across the globe. The fascinating ride about the state’s western region offers thousands of amazing discoveries along the Fossil Freeway.
The Fossil Freeway Coalition was formed in 2007 to give a scientific shout-out to six of the state’s most spectacular historic attractions. One of the enthusiastic experts of this land of discovery is Mark Harris, who is chairman of the Fossil Freeway Coalition and associate director of the University of Nebraska State Museum. He proudly promotes the region’s prehistoric past.
“Not many people realize Western Nebraska is a hotbed of fossil discovery in the world,” Harris said. “This route stands out in its rugged beauty and the ancient creatures found and preserved along the way. Few places in the world can boast about so many fossil discoveries covering such a huge range in ancient history.”
Even a cyber journey can be a wonderland for curious travelers as you enter the organization’s Web site at fossilfreeway.net. Here’s a quick ride on the world’s oldest freeway.
The magical trail to the past begins in South Dakota with perhaps North America’s most fascinating Ice Age treasures at the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs. Visitors will be treated to a tour of the world’s largest mammoth research facility and experience an active paleontological dig site. (605) 745-6017.
At Toadstool Geologic Park’s moonland you’ll find fascinating fossils that seem from another planet. The extinct animals discovered include the oreodonts, which were sheep-like creatures with fierce canine choppers. There’s also the brontotheres, built like an 8-foot-tall rhino.
For more information, contact the Nebraska National Forest office in Chadron at (308) 432-0300.
As you head another 3 miles down the Sioux County trail, Oglala National Grassland looms, with the Hudson-Meng Education and Research Center. This is where 600 bison were slaughtered 10,000 years ago by ruthlessly efficient paleohunters. These stealth stalkers were responsible for the world’s largest Alberta bison kill. (308) 665-3900.
About 25 miles south at Fort Robinson State Park, the Trailside Museum of Natural History displays fantastic findings from fossil hunts that first began in this Pine Ridge area in 1891. The museum’s exhibits includes the skull of a 40-foot-long sea lizard, called the mosasaur, as well as a bone from the famed three-horned dinosaur, the triceratops. One of the red-hot attractions is the Ice Age showdown, Clash of the Mammoths which are the skeletons of two mammoths whose tusks are still locked in combat. (308) 665-2929.
To the west, near Harrison, Agate Fossil Beds National Monument awakens long-gone creatures like a mini rhino called the menoceras, the buffalo-sized hog-like creature called the dinohyus, and perhaps most amazing of all, a long-necked moropus seemingly created by the Greek gods as part bear, horse and sloth. (308) 668-2211.
The journey south toward Gering brings travelers one of the state’s great landmarks at the Scotts Bluff National Monument, which also is home to many fascinating fossil discoveries and odd prehistoric creatures dating back millions of years. (308) 436-9700.
South of Gering, the Wildcat Hills Visitor’s Center opens the southern gateway to the amazing world of the Fossil Freeway, and the nearby nature center includes a fossil of two saber-toothed cats locked in fatal battle 25 million years ago. That prehistoric cat fight was discovered in Western Nebraska in 1932, and the center also displays a perfectly preserved snapping turtle that is 23 million years old. Spectacular murals reveal more of these amazing animals. (308) 436-3777.
So enjoy the happy trails into history. But take your time, because you have about 50 million years to travel.