Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument: The Complete Guide

Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument
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Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument

Las Vegas, NV 89124, USA
Phone +1 702-293-8853

Who knew that thousands of years ago, an area just north of where the Las Vegas Strip now lies was once the roaming ground for prehistoric Columbian mammoths, camels, saber-tooth cats, and sloths? The answer is no one—until a group of quarry workers unearthed a pile of mammoth bones in 1933. The discovery was so stunning that a paleontologist from the American Museum of Natural History came out to the area to begin excavating—a pursuit that lasted for decades as scientists looked for evidence of contact between early humans and late Ice Age animals.

You won’t see the almost 10,000 fossils that were removed from the southern portion of this area because they were collected by the San Bernardino County Museum in California. However, according to the Protectors of Tule Springs—a group of locals that banded together in the early 2000s to advocate for Tule Springs becoming a National Monument—if you don’t encounter bones and bone fragments in your own wandering around this area, you’re doing something wrong.

By 2010, researchers had found and recorded 436 paleontological sites here and in 2014, the area finally became a national monument. Because it’s such a new park, Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument doesn’t have a visitor center and there’s minimal signage. There are no real trails for hikers to follow (and because so little has been done to make the area visitor-friendly, it is also not an easy visit for those with mobility issues). Still, there’s something magical about visiting a place that has been essentially untouched for 2 million years. So before Tule Springs Fossil Beds have been completely excavated and all the signage is in place, consider getting here to do some exploring and discovering of your own.

Fossils buried in the ground

Courtesy of Travel Nevada

Things to Do

Wander Through the Desert

Up until around 7,000 years ago, Ice Age mammals roamed the area including Columbian mammoths, which were the largest species of the North American elephant relatives and had tusks that reached 16 feet in length and molars the size of a human head. The camels and bison were larger than their modern equivalents and there were some so-called “megaherbivores” including two species of giant ground sloth that were the size of cars.

It still feels untouched since the monument and park have yet to install a visitor center. So the best thing to do is to wander around, imagining how this place would have looked as a lush, green area filled with wildlife. Within Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument, there are three interpretive kiosks visitors can find 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 wandering solo isn’t your style, reach out to Protectors of Tule Springs, who lead interpretive hikes by appointment. 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 history of this area.

See the Fossils

The fossils found in the monument range in age from 250,000 to 7,000 years old. One of the major excavation sites is the Big Dig which started in 1962 near Decatur Blvd. You’re free to visit it whenever you’d like, and you’ll see the group of trenches—some up to a mile long—where scientists have carted out thousands of pieces of evidence of prehistoric animal life.

If you want a better chance of seeing fossils than simply wandering, the other fossil-rich places you can visit that are currently undergoing paleontological research can be visited by appointment with the Protectors of Tule Springs. One of these sites, the Super Quarry, is where the bones of three mammoths were unearthed, one with the longest trunk yet discovered in this area—11 feet long. You’ll need to hike two hours there and back to see the quarry site. While you’re hiking, keep an eye out for the very rare Bear Paw Poppy plant that grows in the Las Vegas Wash.

Become a Citizen Scientist

As you undoubtedly know, collecting and taking any specimen from an area like this is completely prohibited. But the National Park Service encourages laypeople to become citizen scientists—reporting what they see and how they see it so scientists know what to look for and where they might consider excavating next. The park’s Citizen Science project involves photographing plants and fossils following the instructions on the Park Service’s time-lapse station so they can be documented over the months and seasons. Download the Fossil Discovery form to help science out in your wanderings.

Hike the Aliante Loop Temporary Trail

Since Tule Springs Fossil Beds is a new park, 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 trailhead for the 3.25-mile loop at the North Aliante Parkway Kiosk. It has a compacted soil surface that isn’t maintained or paved but is also relatively flat, so it could be suitable for wheelchairs and strollers. The walk is an easy-to-moderate loop that only rises 75 feet in elevation.

Where to Stay Nearby

There’s no camping in the national monument, but Tule Springs is only 18 miles from Downtown Las Vegas, so you might consider exploring the national monument by day and taking in Downtown’s fun dining and nightlife scene after park hours.

  • The Golden Nugget is a not-so-hidden gem that’s gently priced despite the fact that it updates its guest rooms regularly and has great restaurants. One of the hotel’s best features is The Tank and Hideout pool complex, which contains a $30 million, 200,000-gallon shark tank.
  • Circa Resort & Casino is the first casino to have been built from the ground up in 40 years in Downtown Las Vegas and is the tallest building north of the Strip. (It’s also adults only, so don’t bring the kids.) The resort has Stadium Swim, a rooftop amphitheater with six pools all facing a 40-foot-high screen playing. There's also a three-story sportsbook on-site with an enormous 78-million-pixel screen.
  • The D Las Vegas, like the others on this list, 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

Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument is just short of 20 miles north of the Las Vegas Strip. It stretches 35 square miles between US Highway 95 north of Centennial Hills to Creech Air Force Base (the USAF facility where the drone program is housed). If you’re driving north or south on I-95, take exit 93/Durango Rd. north, then follow Durango past Floyd Lamb park to the end of Durango at Moccasin Road, where you’ll find plenty of parking. From here, two trails loop over the hills and washes to the north.

Tips for Your Visit

As in any state park or national monument, there are a few rules you must follow (plus a few common-sense tips for the desert):

  • Pets are allowed in the park, but they must be always kept on a leash no more than 6 feet in length.
  • No fees or passes are required to access Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument though group events require a special use permit.
  • Temperatures from May through September are often above 100 degrees F (38 degrees C) 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. Consider also taking 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. Flash floods flow at high velocities and can carry large rocks and debris.
  • The upper Las Vegas Wash is constantly eroding; even stable-looking surfaces may not be, so take care when you're walking.
  • Rattlesnakes are native to the Mojave Desert, including Tule Springs Fossil Beds. 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 take anything from the park.
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Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument: The Complete Guide