We headed northwest from Omaha for a 3 hour drive up to Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park, where the University of Nebraska is running a long-term dig of a fossil bed created by the supervolcano in Idaho 11 million years ago. During this time, the land was dominated by the ancestors of horses, camels, wolves, rhinos, and other creatures. It is speculated the area was a waterhole type location and many animals congregated there as many inches of volcanic dust choked them and the vegetation to a regional extinction.
Admission is $5 per person over the age of 3, and you also have to have a state park parking permit ($5 or $26 for the year). It really is in the middle of nowhere, but the signs from the highway are pretty clearly marked, so you don't have to worry too much about missing them.
The Visitor's Center:
A window on the side had two students sorting and cleaning fossils and answering questions.
Meanwhile, out behind the center was the Rhino Barn, an 18,000 square foot building over the main dig.
Along the path you could see many more potential sites and older digs. The area was discovered in the 1970s and excavated over the next 20 years.
In the Barn, one grad student was actively digging and several cameras were trained on him so you could see better what he was up to. Another student answered questions. In the hillside, you can see over the main layer of excavation is a layer devoid of any animal or vegetation remains. This is from the local extinction event that lasted many years, but life slowly came back.
A display of an assembled rhino.
According to the students, there's enough are under the barn alone to keep excavating for another 30 years.
Many rhino skeletons, mostly mothers pregnant or with calves are found here in a large group. They can tell enough to know all the lungs (except those of the unborn) were suffering from disease brought on by inhaling the fine ash from the volcano. Kind of sad.
Outside there was a dig for kids, with individual bones bolted into the trough. It was also shaded.
Another barn near a sheltered picnic area held a much bigger dig with full skeletons to uncover.
Several hands-on displays demonstrated how bones fit together. A llama skeleton "puzzle" helped illustrate.
Miriam found a giant ammonite, which is her favorite fossil.
Overall, it was a nice day-trip from Omaha, and there was enough to interest both kids and adults. Two hours can easily be spent here. There are a few paths around the area, but we didn't explore them much.
It IS in the middle of nowhere, but if you've got a map, it's hard to get lost. There's not much in terms of places to eat, but many small towns have city parks with benches and playgrounds for a picnic lunch or pit stop. Norfolk is the nearest city of consequence, and it has just about anything you'd want to eat at.
As a side note, we were looking for a place to picnic on the way up, and not seeing a park in Norfolk (though a different highway on the way back took us right past a great big one), we stopped in Meadow Grove (pop 332) when we saw a sign for the city park. It was really nothing more than a picnic table and a yard-grade fountain (when we told the kids to take their lunches to the table, they said "Isn't that somebody's yard?") though there were also public bathrooms. We caused quite a stir in the tiny town with our two-car caravan with out of state plates. A small crowd gathered at the library across the street and gawked at us. The local sheriff even walked over and said hello then asked if we were lost- I'm guessing the librarian called him up. Probably the biggest excitement they've had in a month or two. Wonder if we made the local paper.