The watering holes attracted prehistoric animals among Nebraska’s tall grasslands. From horses to camels and rhinoceroses, with wild dogs looming nearby, animals roamed the savanna-like region.
Then, one day, it all changed. Hundreds of miles away, a volcano in southeast Idaho erupted. Within days, up to two feet of ash covered parts of present-day Nebraska. Some of the animals died immediately, consumed with ash and other debris. Most of the animals lived for several more days, their lungs ingesting ash as they searched the ground for food. Within a few weeks, northeast Nebraska was barren of animals, except for a few survivors.
More than 12 million years later, a fossil was found in Antelope County, near the small town of Royal. The skull of a baby rhino was discovered by a Nebraska paleontologist and his wife while exploring the area. The fossil was exposed by erosion. Soon after, exploration started in the area.
As more discoveries were made, the site grew into a tourist attraction. Today, people visit Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park to check out hundreds of fossils from 12 species of animals, including five types of horses, three species of camels, as well as a saber-toothed deer. The infamous saber-toothed cat remains a dream discovery.
Visitors view fossils inside the Hubbard Rhino Barn, a 17,500-square foot facility that protects the fossils while allowing visitors to roam on a boardwalk. Kiosks provide information on fossils located in specific areas.
As you tour the barn, if a summer intern or paleontologist is nearby, they are open to discussing their work, as well as answering questions. During our visit, we learned that an intern had discovered a fossilized dog paw print.
Outside the barn, visitors can read facts about the area, including that mammoths migrated to North America about 1.5 million years ago. A yellow flag in an area a short distance from the main walk to the barn indicates the discovery site of the rhino skull. Red flags showcase spots where additional fossils were discovered.
Visitor activities and views at Ashfall Fossil Beds
In addition to the Hubbard Barn, Ashfall Fossil Beds features a discovery area where children can cipher through sand searching for their own fossil discoveries. A small barn is used for special exhibits, as well as classes.
The visitors center houses some animal remains, as well as paleontologists working on recent finds.
About 60 million years before the area was home to the savanna, Nebraska was part of a tropical sea. Fossils found in the area include a plesiosaur, a mammal from the Jurassic Period. The fossils displayed were found on the Santee reservation, about an hour away.
Sculptures representing animals from the region are located around the state historical park.
Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park kicks off its summer hours Memorial Day weekend when it’s open daily through Labor Day. Otherwise, check the website here for hours. A state park permit ($6 per vehicle for an in-state day permit or free with an annual pass) is required for visiting the park, in addition to the $7 entrance fee.