The La Brea Tar Pits are one of LA's weirder sights. In the area near Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, natural asphalt (tar) has been seeping to the earth's surface for tens of thousands of years. It forms sticky pools that look like something from an old horror movie, with methane gas bubbling up through the inky, black surface.
Don't get the wrong idea, though. You don't go to the La Brea Tar Pits just to look at a black, gooey, stinky pond. What's interesting about the tar pits is the animals that have gotten trapped in them, more than 10,000 individual creatures stuck and preserved over about 30,000 years.
Today's scientists excavate the tar and remove the tar from the bones of some pretty exciting Ice Age animals. They are on display in the George C. Page Museum which is next to the tar pits. Among them are mammoths, giant sloths, dire wolves, and saber-toothed cats.
Reasons to Visit the La Brea Tar Pits
- You can see the skeletons of giant sloths that are bigger than a Saint Bernard, fearsome sabre-toothed cats, gigantic wooly mammoths - and even a prehistoric giraffe.
- At the local natural history museum, you'll see just a single animal or two from each species. At the Page Museum, the thousands of tar pit finds give a rich picture of the Ice Age that is much more interesting than looking at just one skeleton.
- The tar pits are unique and one of the world's best places to learn about the Ice Age.
Reasons to Skip the La Brea Tar Pits
- If you're looking for dinosaurs, you won't find them here. They became extinct 65 million years before the Ice Age began.
- If animals and natural history don't interest you, you'll have more fun somewhere else.
Tips for Visiting the La Brea Tar Pits
- If you plan to go on a busy day, avoid standing in a long line by buying your tickets online before you go.
- If you have a membership at another science museum, check to see if they accept it. It might save you some money.
- Tar sometimes oozes up through cracks in the sidewalk in the neighborhood. It's a mess if you get it on your shoes, making this one of those few times when it's good to keep looking down to see what you're stepping in.
- It's fun to watch people cleaning and sorting fossils in the fishbowl lab at the museum, but you can only do that during the week.
- Don't just stop at the small lake out front and conclude that there's nothing to see. Drop into the Museum to get their guide map and take a walk around the surrounding grounds to see all the pits and excavations.
- It might be obvious to you, but some people don't expect the tarry/petroleum smell that comes from the pits.
What You Can See in the George Page Museum
Inside the George Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits, you'll find specimens from more than 1 million fossils recovered from the area. They include a wood fragment about 40,000 years old and skeletons of dire wolves, saber-toothed cats, mammoths, short-faced bears, giant sloths and ancient buffalo, as well as many birds and other creatures.
Besides the exhibits, you can watch one of their feature films. Kids especially like the "What It's Like to be Trapped in Tar" exhibit. Catch the live stage show "Ice Age Encounter," featuring a life-size Saber-tooth cat puppet. When a docent is on duty, the kids can go hunting for "fossils" and get a certificate to prove they did it.
What You Can See Outside the Museum
The museum charges admission, but you can see the La Brea Tar Pits outside for free.
The lake near Wilshire Boulevard was formed when the La Brea Tar Pits were excavated for asphalt in the nineteenth century. Today, it's full of water, covered with an oil slick. Methane gas bubbles up to its surface. On its south shore, you'll find a recreated scene of a mammoth trapped in the sticky tar.
A stroll around the grounds outside the museum has more to see. You'll find several pits of oozing black stuff to peer into on the grounds. The Pit 91 viewing area is open to the public. Nearby, you can peer through the fences that surround Project 23, a new experiment in removing fossils from the tar. Sometimes, the scientists working on the project are there and will answer your questions.
What You Need to Know About the La Brea Tar Pits
The museum is open daily except for some holidays. They charge an admission fee. Check their current hours and prices at the La Brea Tar Pits Website.
Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits
5801 Wilshire Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA
The Page Museum and the La Brea Tar Pits are on Wilshire Blvd in the "Museum Row" area. It's near the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Petersen Automotive Museum.
The official parking lot is behind the museum. Parking there costs almost as much as one adult admission. You can usually find street parking on Sixth Street within an easy walk. Even if you park on the south side of Sixth which has parking meters, you'll save money, but if you can find a spot on the north side, there are none.