Visiting Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historic Park | Camping in NE Nebraska | October 2020 | Written by Curtis
With warm weather quickly dissipating, by the second weekend in October we were trying to make the most out of what nice nights we had left. We started looking for a place to run off, see the sights, and go camping. For this weekend we decided to knock out the remainder of Northeastern Nebraska in our county collecting goal, and group together some sites that are just a little too far away to warrant a day trip unto themselves.
Our first day was ambitious in terms of driving and county collecting. The focal point was to be Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historic Site, an active archaeology site jointly run by the Nebraska Parks Program and the University of Nebraska. I did some research the day before and was able to get tickets to tour. It was a good thing we chose this weekend because it was the last one of the season.
We loaded up the car with camping gear and warm clothes and headed North. For the first half of our drive we primarily followed US-275 North and West up to the towns of Fremont and West Point. We stopped in West Point to see the Cuming County courthouse and stretch the legs before pressing on. The courthouse was on the plain and utilitarian side of things, but we were going to see so many more this weekend so we were hopeful.
Our driving route got more unconventional as we approached Norfolk, we took state highways South and West out of our way to stop at the Stanton and Madison county courthouses…in the towns of Stanton and Madison. Unfortunately, these too were simple office buildings. Not everyone can have a Classical Revival courthouse, especially if they burn down.
We drove North on US-81 through Norfolk only to get off again for yet another office building (with flowers), this time in Pierce County…in the town of Pierce. We continued on state highways until we hit US-20 near the town of Plainview. We had time to kill before our official tour time (COVID restrictions required that visitors to Ashfall Fossil Beds not arrive early), so stopped at a city park in Plainview and looked for a missing letterbox near the rather creepy Klown Doll Museum. The museum was closed, but from what we could see from the curb, you don’t want to spend the night.
With enough time killed, we drove further West on US-20 and a bit north of the highway to the Fossil Site. Previously, I don’t think either of us have been at any form of archaeological dig…except for Jess’ childhood friend’s backyard, where there were unicorns. So this was a first for us, but hardly a last, Nebraska is literally littered with fossils, so much so that Nebraska was among the first states to legally establish a ‘State Fossil’ – the mammoth.
But Ashfall Fossil Beds is unique as it has a high concentration of large mammalian species that died in a relatively short period of time creating an ecological snapshot called a lagerstatte. Based on geological evidence, a volcanic eruption of the Yellowstone hotspot, somewhere in present day Idaho, caused an ashcloud to cover the area of present day Wyoming and Nebraska. Animals would breathe in the dust. Seeking relief, the animals would congregate at watering holes where, over the period of months, they would die and the ash would accumulate. The net result was then dozens of animals caught in death through about 2-3 feet of volcanic ash.
In the 1970’s an archaeologist discovered the skull of a now extinct hippo-rhinoceros which then lead to the uncovering of multiple entire skeletons of multiple different species, almost all of them nearly as intact as when they died (normally the weight of the rock crushes and breaks the bones and fossils, or seismic events and erosion separate the pieces).
The original dig removed most of the skeletons and moved them to museums, but the current dig is more in situ and more for public viewing. They have built a large barn (the Rhino Barn) where they have excavated the top 9 feet of prairie sod to reveal the top of the volcanic ash, then archaeologists remove the soft ash until they uncover fossils. Instead of removing the fossils, they simply remove sufficient ash to show the full skeleton. As we walked through, the barefoot archaeologists pointed out some of the more interesting specimens and answered questions. Charlotte was more interested in smelling the boardwalk than looking at bones though.
We concluded our time at Ashfall by taking a short walk through the prairie. No fossils there, just nature and the beginning of fall. We left the dig and continued North to the Missouri river and our hopeful campsite, but not before nabbing a fourth courthouse for Knox county. Again, the courthouse was rather bland, but sometimes it’s about having a goal.
We ‘shopped around’ for a campsite along the Missouri river before settling in near a river access in a wildlife management area. We made soup on our camp stove and watched a beautiful sunset. While windy, it was still warm and we fell asleep listening to big fish splashing in the water…that is until Charlie decided to get sick inside my sleeping bag. Oh the joys of camping.