If you want to see what animals of the far past looked like — beyond books and Internet sites — several sites in Nebraska and Iowa display fossils from millions of years ago.
Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park
Every summer for the past few decades, paleontologists have worked at Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park to uncover the remains of ancient animals that died about 12 million years ago when an ash cloud from a volcano hundreds of miles away settled here, suffocating all life. Everything perished — from lizards to cranes to barrel-bodied rhinos to the plants they ate and even the scavengers that usually would have eaten the remains of others.
Then something remarkable happened. The ash that killed them also buried them, preserving them for thousands of centuries.
The visitor center at Ashfall tells the 12 million-year-old story that begins with the wildlife perishing and continues as paleontologists uncover the remains of up to a dozen types of animals in a 17,500-square-foot shelter. A Nebraska park permit is required.
Information: ashfall.unl.edu; 402-893-2000
Trailside Museum, Fort Robinson State Park
More fossils are displayed in the Trailside Museum at Fort Robinson State Park. The most impressive ones here are two mammoths that were battling each other thousands of years ago when they literally locked their tusks together and died, amazing the people who uncovered them in 1962.
Information: trailside.unl.edu; 308-665-2929
Agate Fossil Beds National Monument
South of Harrison, Agate Fossil Beds National Monument displays the skeletons of animals that lived up to 21 million years ago. These include small camels, rodents that were like beavers that dug spiral tunnels into the earth and one that paleontologists nicknamed “the terrible pig” because it looked so fearsome.
Information: www.nps.gov/agfo; 308-665-4113
Hudson-Meng Education and Research Center
North of Crawford, at the Hudson-Meng Education and Research Center, researchers continue to unearth about 600 buffalo that died about 10,000 years ago and try to learn what killed them all at once.
Information: www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/nebraska; 308-665-3900
Toadstool Geological Park
A few miles from Hudson-Meng is Toadstool Geological Park. Visitors walking around the unusual rock formations or taking a self-guided trail (brochures are at the trailhead) may see fossils, but collecting is prohibited. At Signpost 8 on the trail, a trail of footprints left by ancient rhinos in what had been soft earth about 30 million years ago are now rock hard and easy to see. Fees are $3 per day use, $5 per night for camping.
Information: www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/nebraska; 308-432-0300
Our Heritage Guest Ranch
You can collect fossils at Our Heritage Guest Ranch, which sits between Hudson-Meng and Toadstool. It sponsors guided fossil hunts in which fossil experts lead visitors on days-long excursions into the rugged hills west of the ranch buildings, and what’s found can be kept. Call ahead.
Information: vacation-ranch.com; 308-430-1239
More fossil hunting sites in Nebraska are listed at www.fossilspot.com
Devonian Fossil Gorge
Floods in 1993 and 2008 eroded the area below the spillway at the bottom of Coralville Lake, just north of Iowa City. Once the waters receded, people noticed fossils from about 375 million years ago. Now the Devonian Fossil Gorge is a tourist attraction where visitors can pick up fossils to examine them but cannot walk away with them. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit required.
Information: www.mvr.usace.army.mil; 319-338-3543
Fossil & Prairie Park Preserve
More Devonian fossils are easily found on the grounds of a former quarry that is now the Fossil & Prairie Park Preserve immediately west of Rockford. Collecting is allowed. Donations accepted.
Information: www.fossilcenter.com; 641-756-3490
More fossil hunting sites in Iowa are listed at www.fossilspot.com