Omaha is about 500 miles from Hudson-Meng. Norfolk and Grand Island are about 150 miles closer.
But no matter where you start from, you’ll end up about 10,000 years in the past when you visit the Hudson-Meng Bison Kill Research & Visitor Center northwest of Crawford, Neb. It is an archaeological excavation in progress.
Loy Nebergall of Omaha called to tell us about Hudson-Meng, a hidden gem she has visited for years: “There are tons of bones out there.”
The bones of about 900 bison lie buried in an area the size of a football field. This now-extinct species resembled modern bison but was about 20 percent larger with horns that curved outward with a spread of 6 to 10 feet.
The ancient beasts died mysteriously as a group. Initially, as excavation began in the 1970s, it was thought they had been killed in one hunt. Later scientists raised theories of a mysterious mass kill, possibly by disease. Current thought points to wildfire, an ancient scourge that hit the area again last year.
Hudson-Meng sits in the Oglala National Grassland near Toadstool Geologic Park in northwest Nebraska. A three-mile trail connects the two.
“We are the largest bison kill site in North America,” said Kathleen Hanson, a U.S. Forest Service ranger at Hudson-Meng.
It is matched only by sites in Siberia.
“In the archaeological world, Hudson-Meng is a really big deal. If people are into history and archaeology, it’s great,” said Dennis Kuhnel. He’s director of the property as a forest service employee based in Chadron.
When visiting Hudson-Meng, begin at the corrugated steel research and visitor center on the hill, said Hanson. You can see the vistas of the Great Plains and the Black Hills from the hill.
Inside the building, the bone bed is open for visitors to see. The building also houses a bookstore that sells bottled water and snacks, Hanson said.
There’s a restaurant about a five-minute drive from the site, she said, and picnic tables on the Hudson-Meng grounds.
Be sure to take the outdoor walk that has interpretive signs.
Tours begin inside the building.
“The strength of Hudson-Meng is personal attention in tours,” Kuhnel said.
Rangers frequently demonstrate how to use an atlatl, a spear-throwing device developed by ancient peoples. Visitors can use an atlatl to “hunt” fake bison on a hill, Hanson said.
Volunteers on-site sometimes demonstrate flintknapping, the making of stone tools, which is quite popular in the area, she said.
Hudson-Meng’s 25th annual Knap-In will run Aug. 30 through Sept. 1. New this year will be an atlatl competition.
Kuhnel described the Knap-In as “a gathering of ancient Indian crafters, demonstrators and re-enactors.”
Hudson-Meng is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Admission is $5 for adults, $4.50 for senior citizens 60 or older, $3 for ages 5 to 12 and free for children 4 and younger.
Tours last about 45 minutes, but can be shortened as needed. Tours aren’t at fixed times but are given as visitors show up. The last time to start a tour each day is 4 p.m.
Wondering about the bison site’s name?
Sheep rancher Albert Meng discovered the bones around 1950 while digging a stock pond. Crawford’s mayor then, Bill Hudson, promoted the site and got a professor from Chadron State College to investigate.
The rest is history.
“We have visitors from all over the U.S.,” Kuhnel said, and a significant number of Europeans. Scientists also have come from Japan and Russia. Word-of-mouth often is how visitors learn of Hudson-Meng, he said. Rangers at Toadstool or Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, S.D., tell tourists about the bison bone bed, he said.
Toadstool, Hudson-Meng and Mammoth are three of the seven stops along the Fossil Freeway. The others, all in Nebraska’s Panhandle, are the Trailside Museum at Fort Robinson State Park, Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, Scotts Bluff National Monument and Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area.
Email hidden gems to email@example.com, or mail them to Hidden Gems, Omaha World-Herald Building, Suite 700, 1314 Douglas St., Omaha, NE 68102-1811.