Ice Age Fossils State Park

Monumental Mammoth
Monumental Mammoth at the entrance to Ice Age Fossils State Park
Photo by Megan Edwards

The first thing that caught my eye as I arrived at the entrance to the new Ice Age Fossils State Park in North Las Vegas is the first thing every visitor notices: the huge elephantine sculpture silhouetted against the mountains and sky. The “Monumental Mammoth,” which debuted at Burning Man in 2019 and later made an appearance at the Life is Beautiful Festival in Downtown Las Vegas was the work of a coalition of professional artists, community partners, and volunteers. Now in its permanent home, it makes an impressive and evocative welcome to Nevada’s newest state park.

Ice Age Fossils State Park Visitor Center
Photo by Megan Edwards

In the visitor center, we learned that Tule Springs, the longtime local name for the area, was home to stunning wildlife back in the Pleistocene epoch. Known now as “megafauna,” the animals that inhabited the wetlands included not only mammoths, but also giant ground sloths, saber-toothed cats, American lions, yesterday’s camels, ancient bison, ancient horses, and dire wolves. While their current-day descendants share some of their attributes, none share their enormous size.

Camelops (AKA Yesterday’s Camel) skeleton in the Visitor Center
Photo by Megan Edwards

We also learned what first drew paleontologists to Tule Springs. It was not only the Pleistocene fossils, which have been found in many places, but also the evidence of human habitation along with the animals. At first, carbon dating seemed to show that humans lived in the Las Vegas valley far earlier than other places in North America. This tantalizing possibility led to an excavation in 1962 and ’63 now known as “The Big Dig.” Seventeen large trenches were dug in the area to expose fossil-containing strata. Improved dating technology finally disproved earlier hypotheses but inspired new questions about the interaction between the megafauna and humans and their possible role in the animals’ extinction.

Megafauna sculptures line the short trail near the Visitor Center
Photo by Megan Edwards

Armed with the excellent information provided by the displays and short film in the visitor center, we headed outside to enjoy the trails. The first is a short loop lined with accurate, life-sized steel sculptures of the prehistoric animals. Placards provide info, and there are also places to sit or find shade. We then headed east on a trail that leads to Trench K, the largest of the ditches created by The Big Dig. It was fascinating to see the exposed strata. The trails are mostly wheel-chair accessible, and dogs on leashes are welcome (although not inside the visitor center).

Back at the parking lot, we talked with park ranger JT Terwilliger, who told us about developing the park and creating the trails.

JT Terwilliger, Park Ranger
Photo by Megan Edwards

“We want people to stay on the trails,” he said, explaining that the delicate desert ecosystem in the park is easily damaged by human foot traffic. He also mentioned that rattlesnakes live in the area, which makes it even more sensible to stay on the marked paths.

Mr. Terwilliger also told us that the park, which as of this writing is open only on weekends, will soon be open five days a week. Check the park’s website or Facebook page for updates.

As Las Vegas grows, Ice Age Fossils State Park will eventually be surrounded by city. It’s wonderful to know that 315 acres of major geological and paleontological significance has been preserved for all to study and enjoy.


2 responses on “Ice Age Fossils State Park

  1. On the way back home we stopped for lunch at the Sunshine & Tailwinds Cafe at the North Las Vegas Airport. It is an excellent airport cafe with great visibility of the runways and a walking deck on three sides. The food was quite delicious and the staff was very pleasant and friendly.

    Plus there are lots and lots of model airplanes and memorabilia from the Thunderbirds.

    The restaurant is in the main terminal located at 2730 Airport Drive.

    Highly recommended!

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