If driving across America conjures up images of characterless interstate highways, strip malls and rest stops full of greasy burgers, greasy donuts and maybe even a few greasy characters -- think again.
There's another country to see within our borders -- one that's older than the blacktop itself. It's the America where dinosaurs once thrived and mammoths were as common as road signs. Fierce cats and other deadly mammals once had to fight for territory and food here instead of pulling into the nearest road stop.
And it's a country you can still see today because Mother Nature has a unique way of preserving her memories through fossils -- the remains and impressions of plants, trees and animals locked forever in the Earth.
So when you're planning your next holiday, forget Vegas and Disney. Why not travel back in time and embark upon a fossil road trip? Here we give you 10 can't miss sights that'll have you feeling like a modern-day Indiana Jones in no time!
Your fossil hunt begins on the East Coast in the town of Aurora, N.C. Here, a nearby phosphate mining operation regularly unearths treasure troves of fossil-rich sediment from its draglines. Fortunately, instead of discarding this sediment, the mining company donates it to the Aurora Fossil Museum. Even more fortunate is the fact that the museum allows visitors to plunge their fossil-seeking hands into these piles (known as the Pit of the Pungo) to unearth whatever they can.
Being a coastal operation, the most typical fossils that you'll find here are giant shark and whale teeth from ancient species, along with corals and other long-forgotten sea life. The phosphate mine that donates to the museum is often considered one of the most important sources of Pliocene and Miocene fossils in the world, which means anything found here likely dates from between 1.8 and 24 million years ago [source: Aurora Fossil Museum].
The museum has a range of fossils on display and offers and underground look at fossils embedded in the Earth in its Mine Room. Even though you're allowed to keep what you find in the fossil piles, you can also purchase authentic shark teeth necklaces in the gift shop on your way out. Aurora also hosts an annual fossil festival with expert lectures, auctions and fossil fun for everyone.
The reach the next destination, you'll have to do a lot of driving through Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois and Iowa -- but it will be worth it when you get there -- Badlands National Park in South Dakota.
The very thing that gives this haunting region its name -- a wind-ravaged landscape of exposed stone -- makes it good hunting grounds for fossil seekers. The tall stone pillars are veritable history books of geologic and biologic activity in the region beginning with the Cretaceous period (75 to 67 million years ago) where fossilized clamshells are trapped and a yellow, fossilized soil known as paleosol can be seen, followed by the late Eocene Epoch (37 to 34 million years ago) that holds the remains of large rhinoceros-like animals called titanotheres, and then finally the Oglicocene Epoch (34 to 26 million years ago million years ago) where the remains of sheep-like mammals known as oreodonts have been found [source: National Park Service].
If you are visiting the park in the summer months, don't miss a stop at the Big Pig Dig -- an archeological site first brought to the attention of scientists in 1993 by tourists who saw a large hipbone sticking out of the ground. The creature to which that bone once belonged was identified as a hornless rhinoceros known as a Subhyracodon (it was originally thought to be a pig, thus the name) and the site has been a treasure trove of fossil discoveries ever since. Today visitors are able to watch paleontologists at work unearthing, cleaning and tagging new-found fossils. The dig site is near the Conata Picnic Area.
To make up for all that driving on the last leg of the journey, the next stop on the road trip is nice and close -- it's just a short hop to The Mammoth Site located at Hot Springs, also in South Dakota.
Here, 26,000 years ago, woolly mammoths used to drink at a spring-fed pond -- until they became trapped in a sinkhole and died.
Today, The Mammoth Site is the world's largest mammoth research facility. By following walkways through the enclosed, air-conditioned facility, visitors are able to see mammoth bones that are still in situ in the Earth. The facility also offers visitors the chance to visit a working paleontology lab and an active dig site, in addition to viewing striking reconstructions of both mammoths and other ice age mammals.
At many fossil sites, scientists work for months to unearth bits of disconnected bone or ancient tracks imprinted in stone. Ashfall Fossil Beds Historical State Park, however, is the home to the largest number of mostly intact three-dimensional prehistoric animal skeletons in the world [source: Ashfall Fossil Beds State Park]. This is because, about 12 million years ago, a super volcano erupted in what is now Idaho. The volcano spread a giant cloud of ash over a wide area including the northeastern section of Nebraska where this park is located. As the ash was inhaled by the animals living in this area, they died over the course of several weeks and, because their bodies were then surrounded by the falling ash, their skeletons were well-preserved for millennia. In fact, some of them still have evidence of their last meals in their mouths or stomachs.
Today, visitors can see complete skeletons still in the Earth and watch all of the excavation work as it happens. An enclosed facility known as the Hubbard Rhino Barn has been built around the primary excavation site, so a visit is possible in all types of weather. More than 350 full skeletons and 25,000 fossil specimens have been unearthed belonging to animals such as a raccoon dog, a bone-crushing dog, a saber-toothed deer and a barrel-bodied rhino -- the most common animal at the site.
In addition to the rhino barn, visitors can also stop in at the fossil preparation lab where paleontologists are available to answer questions. Nature trails and picnic facilities are also available.
At most fossil sites around the world, you can see the preserved bones of animals that once roamed the Earth. At Agate (named after a type of moss that grows there), you can actually see the petrified home of a now-extinct animal. The palaeocaster or "ancient beaver," dug 6- to 8-foot corkscrew tunnels into the Earth that led to its den. First found in 1892, the twisted stone was once thought to be the root of a plant and was given the colorful name of Daemonelix, or Devil's Corkscrew.
Of course, that's not the only fossil you can see at Agate. The land preserves the skeletons of animals that lived about 20 million years ago -- during the Miocene Epoch -- including the Dinohyus or "terrible pig", which was a cross between a bison and a pig, and the Menoceras, the small predecessor of the modern rhino.
The visitor's center displays actual or re-created fossils and has a diorama of mounted skeleton replicas. The 2.5-mile Fossil Hills Trail circles around the area where "The Great Bonebed of Agate" was discovered in 1904 and has signposts that identify historic and geologic features.
Not all fossils are of animals and next we trek south to the Florissant Fossil Beds, where you can take a break from the bones and explore the solidified remains of giant sequoia trees -- the largest of which is 14 feet across and known as Big Stump. The tree stumps, which are among the largest diameter petrified trees in the world, are still standing in upright positions, just as they have been for approximately 7 million years [source: The American Southwest].
The best way to see the stumps is to take the Petrified Forest Walk, a 1-mile stroll that goes past the sequoias, as well as a former excavation site where fossils belonging to more than 1,700 different species have been retrieved from the Earth.
There are plenty of mammal fossils to be found along your road trip, but the reason to head north for our next stop is that Fossil Butte is home to the largest deposit of freshwater fish fossils in the world [source: Wyoming Tourism]. These fossils, from organisms that lived more than 50 million years ago during the Eocene Epoch, are embedded in the various layers of limestone that descend 100 feet from the top of the butte.
Start your tour at the visitor's center where you can see more than 80 fossils, including a 13-foot crocodile and the largest-known articulated bat, and enjoy demonstrations that show how fossils are prepared. If you are visiting during the summer months, on Fridays and Saturdays between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., you can hike to the fossil research quarry and help park staff round up fossils. There are also several other hiking trails and some great picnic spots.
This spot has the distinction of being one of the most fossiliferous Pliocene-aged sites (5 to 1.8 million years old) in the world due to the fact that approximately 3,000 new fossils are found each year from animals that lived between 2.4 and 5.4 million years ago [source: Idaho Tourism]. It is also home to Idaho's state fossil: the Hagerman horse (Equus simplicidens), which is considered to be the evolutionary link between the modern horse and its prehistoric predecessor. In fact, the site contains the largest concentration of these fossils in North America and is considered one of the top six most important sites in the world regarding the fossil history of horses [sources: Idaho Tourism; National Park Service].
The visitors center has an instructional DVD and a variety of fossils on display because the Hagerman site is not only full of horse fossils, but is also considered to have the world's richest late Pliocene Epoch deposits with more than 220 species of plants and animals [source: National Park Service]. Regular events allow visitors to go out on digs and help paleontologists unearth new discoveries.
Unlike other fossil sites that often offer a peek at one particular period of ancient history, the John Day Fossil Beds hold within a ruggedly dramatic landscape a history of extinct life spanning from 6 million to 54 million years ago. It is one of the best records of evolutionary change on Earth [source: National Park Service].
Hiking trails around the Sheep Rock Unit offer visitors a chance to see fossils still in the Earth, and the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center offers a series of superb exhibits about the animal and plant life that once thrived in the region. Fossil talks and walks are also scheduled during all seasons except winter.
As with all national parks, the removal of fossils is prohibited by law, so you might want to stop in at the nearby town of Fossil to purchase a souvenir to take back home.
The last stop on our trip is the La Brea Tar Pits in downtown Los Angeles, where residue from an underground lake of oil bubbles to the surface and is known as asphalt. Because asphalt is incredibly sticky and because it's been rising up from the Earth for thousands of years, it has trapped scores of animals -- especially those that lived in the region between 10,000 and 40,000 years ago.
Excavation of this site has produced 1 million bones belonging to more than 231 species of vertebrates with the most common being the dire wolf followed by the saber-toothed cat [source: La Brea Tar Pits]. Today, it is the world's only active urban ice age excavation site.
The onsite Page Museum offers visitors the chance to look through large windows at a lab where bones are being cleaned and repaired. Films, talks and events for children make the past truly come alive.
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- Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park. "Ashfall Fossil Beds." (June 30, 2011) http://ashfall.unl.edu/ashfallstory.html
- Aurora Fossil Museum. "Welcome." (June 30, 2011) http://www.aurorafossilmuseum.com/
- Australian Museum. "Murgon." (June 30, 2011) http://australianmuseum.net.au/Murgon
- Black Hills, Badlands & Lakes. "Badlands National Park." (June 30, 2011) http://www.blackhillsbadlands.com/home/thingstodo/parksmonuments/nationalparks/badlandsnationalpark
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- National Park Service. "Fossil Butte." (June 30, 2011) http://www.nps.gov/fobu/naturescience/naturalfeaturesandecosystems.htm
- National Park Service. "Geology Fieldnotes: Agate Fossil Beds National Monument Nebraska." (June 30, 2011) http://www.nature.nps.gov/geology/parks/agfo/index.cfm
- National Park Service. "Hagerman Fossil Beds." (June 30, 2011) http://www.nps.gov/hafo/index.htm
- National Park Service. "John Day Fossil Beds." (June 30, 2011) http://www.nps.gov/joda/index.htm
- Page Museum LaBrea Tar Pits. "Frequently Asked Questions." (June 30, 2011) http://www.tarpits.org/
- Ouramericanparks.com. "Agate Fossil Beds National Monument." (June 30, 2011) http://www.ouramericanparks.com/Paleontology-at-Agate-Fossil-Bed-on-Niobrara-River.html
- San Diego Natural History Museum. "Fossil Mysteries." (June 30, 2011) http://www.sdnhm.org/exhibits/mystery/fg_timeline.html
- The American Southwest. "Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument." (June 30, 2011) http://www.americansouthwest.net/colorado/florissant-fossil-beds/national-monument.html
- The Mammoth Site. "More than 26,000 years ago, large Columbian and woolly mammoths were trapped and died in a spring-fed pond near what is now the southwest edge of Hot Springs, South Dakota." (June 30, 2011) http://www.mammothsite.com/history.html
- Wyoming Tourism. "Fossil Butte National Monument." (June 30, 2011) http://www.wyomingtourism.org/overview/Fossil-Butte-National-Monument/32481