Ice Age Fossils State Park: The Complete Guide

Ice Age Fossils State Park

Courtesy of Nevada State Parks

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Ice Age Fossils State Park

Address
8660 N Decatur Blvd, North Las Vegas, NV 89085, USA
Phone +1 702-486-5126

In the spring of 2021, a couple had to halt construction on their Las Vegas swimming pool when a construction crew unearthed a pile of bones. It wasn’t a crime scene, but the remains of a large mammal that paleontologists believe lived in this area around 14,000 years ago.

The find was likely a surprise to the couple, who had just moved to Las Vegas from Washington state. But to Las Vegans, the discovery of Ice Age-era bones isn’t a shock. After all, locals know that the largest and most varied collection of Pleistocene Era fossils can be found just 20 minutes north of the Strip around what is now the Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument. In fact, the area’s collection is so rich that Nevada recently dedicated a portion of that massive area as Ice Age Fossils State Park.

Between 2.6 million and about 12,000 years ago, the Las Vegas Valley was a wetland fed by natural springs, and an important watering hole for massive, now-extinct mammals. Scientists date many of the discoveries to around 200,000 years ago when the Las Vegas Wash hosted herds of Columbian mammoths, camelops, American lions, dire wolves, saber-tooth cats, ancient llamas, massive prehistoric horses, and ground sloths. In fact, the Columbian mammoths were the largest elephant species ever to roam the earth (think molars the size of human heads and six-foot tusks), and you can see evidence of these mammoths at the Tule Springs Fossil Beds.

The discoveries were first made in the 1930s when a group of quarry workers first unearthed a pile of mammoth bones. A famous paleontologist from the American Museum of Natural History traveled to the area to begin excavating as scientists began looking for evidence of contact between early humans and extinct Ice Age animals. That excavation was later taken up by 1960s-era scientists in Nevada’s “Big Dig,” the trenches from which you can still see in this area. Unfortunately, you won’t see the almost 10,000 fossils that were removed from the southern portion of the area due to the San Bernardino County Museum in California removing them as part of an agreement with the Bureau of Land Management.

The area of the Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument is a massive 23,000 acres and contains the 315 acres of the Ice Age Fossils State Park. Tule Springs was declared a National Monument in 2014 and Ice Age Fossils State Park got its official designation in 2017. Both are so new that they don’t yet have visitor centers, paved roads, or signage. But when Ice Age Fossils State Park opens in the winter of 2022, it will have a modern visitor center and a network of interpretive trails that will lead to the fossil beds and “Big Dig” trenches.

Things to Do

There is something magical about wandering a state park that hasn’t been completely overrun with visitors yet. But you will need to know how to get in since there are no signs. The park’s entrance for now is on N. Decatur Blvd., across the street from Shadow Ridge High School. It’s open from sunrise to sunset (and there’s obviously no admission fee). You can wander freely, imagining how it would have felt as a lush, green, springs-fed watering hole for some of the largest mammals ever to wander the earth. One of the major excavation sites is the “Big Dig” that started n the 1960s near Decatur Blvd. You can still see the group of trenches—some up to a mile long—where thousands of fossilized bones were excavated.

If it’s just a little too alarming to have zero direction, check out the Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument, where there are three interpretive kiosks that serve as access points and resources for information. You’ll find them near the intersections of N. Durango Dr. and Moccasin Rd., N. Aliante Parkway and Moonlight Falls Ave., and right off the exit from US 95 on Corn Creek Rd.

If you’d like a little more interaction than a solo wander, reach out to Protectors of Tule Springs, a nonprofit group that leads interpretive hikes by appointment, assisting the National Park Service and Nevada State Parks. Once the first interpretive trail system is developed in North Las Vegas, you’ll see kiosks that introduce you to the area’s geologic features, ecosystems, fossil deposits, and the history of this area. Other fossil-rich places you can visit that are currently undergoing excavation and research can be visited by appointment with the Protectors of Tule Springs. For instance, the Super Quarry, which you’ll have to hike two hours to reach, is where the bones of three mammoths were unearthed, including one with the longest trunk yet discovered in the fossil beds—11 feet long.

Best Hikes & Trails

Since Tule Springs Fossil Beds and Ice Age Fossils State Parks are both so new, there are no permanent trails established. But the National Park Service established the Aliante Loop as a temporary trail to gather visitor use data and help plan for future trails by measuring the increasing frequency of visits. Some of the best times to walk the trail are spring and summer when the wildflower blooms are out in full force.

You’ll find the 3.25-mile trail’s start at the North Aliante Parkway Kiosk. It has a compacted soil surface that isn’t maintained or paved but is also relatively flat, so could be suitable for wheelchairs and strollers. The walk is an easy-to-moderate loop that only rises 75 feet in elevation.

Flora & Fauna

While you’re hiking around, keep an eye out for the four unique and endangered species of plants and animals that live here, specifically the Las Vegas Buckwheat, Merriam’s Bear Poppy and Las Vegas Bear Poppy, the Halfring Mikvetch, and desert tortoise. If you’re lucky, you’ll even see a burrowing owl. These small owls don’t dig their own burrows but take up residence in pre-dug holes, and can be found on ridges keeping watch on the entrance. Other protected species in the area: kit foxes, coyotes, bobcats, desert iguanas, red-tailed hawks, and golden eagles. Ice Age Fossils State Park even recommends you look out for packrats, which have been here so long there are fossilized remains of the ancestors of the current-day residents of the park. As always, stay actively aware of the presence of some of the area’s less desirable meet-ups: rattlesnakes and scorpions.

Where to Stay Nearby

There’s no camping in the national monument or the state park, but the area is only 18 miles from Downtown Las Vegas, so consider wandering fossil beds by day and taking in Downtown’s fun dining and nightlife scene after park hours.

  •  The Golden Nugget: This Las Vegas icon is well-priced despite the fact that it has really good restaurants, an awesome pools scene (The Tank and Hideout pool complex, which contains a $30 million, 200,000-gallon shark tank), and regularly updates its rooms.
  •  Circa Resort & Casino: The first casino to have been built from the ground up in 40 years in Downtown Las Vegas is also the tallest building north of the Strip. (It’s also adults only, so don’t bring the kids.) The resort has Stadium Swim, its rooftop amphitheater with six pools and sets facing a 40-foot-high screen. Its three-story sportsbook with a 78-million-pixel screen is the largest in the world.
  •  The D Las Vegas: Like the others on this list, this hotel sits right on the action on the Fremont Street Experience. The renovated former Fitzgerald’s has been transformed into a modern resort, with great suites and use of the amenities (like Stadium Swim) at Circa. 

How to Get There

The Ice Age Fossils State Park address is 8660 N. Decatur Blvd., North Las Vegas, NV 89085, about 20 minutes north of the Strip. You’ll need to plug the address into GPS, since there’s no visitor center or signage yet. It has begun construction on a facility that will include exhibits, a trail system that shows visitors the Ice Age Fossil Beds, and a permanent “Monumental Mammoth” sculpture. But for now, you’ll need to look for the land across the street from Shadow Ridge High School on N. Decatur Blvd. There are two pedestrian entrances where people may enter the park: near the intersection of N. Decatur Blvd. and Brent Ln., or near N. Decatur Blvd. and W. Iron Mountain Rd.

Tips For Your Visit

While the State Park is being built, there’s no admission, so just find the pedestrian entrances and enjoy between sunrise and sunset. As with any state park or national monument in this area, there are some rules and guidelines:

  • Pets are allowed in the park, but they must be always kept on a leash no more than six feet in length.
  • Temperatures from May-September are often above 100° F by midday. If you’re hiking during these months, go in the early morning.
  • Bring plenty of water and wear sturdy walking or hiking shoes, a hat, protective clothing, and sunscreen. It's also wise to pack salty snacks, a first aid kit, a map, a flashlight with spare batteries and a whistle. Be sure to tell someone where you're hiking and when you expect you'll return.
  • Desert thunderstorms can cause flash floods. If rain is in the forecast, seek high ground. Flash flooding through washes can occur rapidly, even if it's not raining where you are. Do not enter flooded areas; flash floods flow at high velocities and can carry large rocks and debris.
  • The upper Las Vegas Wash is in a constant state of erosion; even stable-looking surfaces may be undercut below and can cause the ground to collapse underneath you.
  • Rattlesnakes are native to the Mojave Desert. To avoid surprise encounters with a rattlesnake, stay on the trail and avoid densely vegetated areas where snakes may be resting. If you do see a rattlesnake, steer clear, and do not approach it or attempt to chase it away.
  • Don’t collect any evidence of your hike except the photographic variety.
  • Removing, disturbing, or damaging any historic structure, artifact, rock, plant life, fossil, or other feature is prohibited. State and federal laws protect this area and its resources.
  • Operating an OHV, UTV, or any other type of motorized vehicle is prohibited.
  • Camping and campfires are not allowed.
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Ice Age Fossils State Park: The Complete Guide