When most people think of Nebraska, they rarely think of a vast ocean full of creatures swimming around. Almost never do you associate the Cornhusker State with a tropical rainforest. But, oddly enough….”The Good Life” ONCE was all of these things.
And, the reality is that many, many (Ok, we are talking 12 MILLION) years ago, Nebraska wasn’t too far off from a Savannah, not too different from what you might find on a safari in Africa today!
And with that, came some pretty awesome animals and creatures.
Nope, no cows were found munching on the grasslands. But instead, giant animals, such as rhinos, giraffes, and camels roamed freely!!! Yup, right here in NEBRASKA!
^Pin This To Your Travel Board!^
But then (Duh Duh Duhn…..)
disaster struck when a super volcano erupted not far from (today’s) Idaho, spreading ash far enough into Nebraska to wipe out most of these creatures, leaving some pretty phenomenally well-preserved ashfall fossil beds all these years later.
In fact, just like in Pompeii, Italy, the effects of the volcano left this corner of Nebraska so well preserved that, once uncovered, it was as if you stepped back in time 12 million years ago.
While this is pretty sad for all those animals, it actually created one of the most fascinating natural landmarks in Nebraska today.
Even if you aren’t a history nerd or a paleontology expert, seeing first hand the archaeological digs at the Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park is just one Nebraska State Park that everyone in the midwest needs to experience.
Ashfall Fossil Beds Nebraska Location
Ashfall State Park is located in Northeast Nebraska, with the closest town being Royal, Nebraska.
We combined our afternoon trip to the Nebraska fossil beds with our weekend trip to Niobrara State Park (about 30 minutes away). You could also tack it onto a trip to Ponca State Park or Lewis and Clark SRA. A lot of people love to go camping near Ashfall Fossil Beds- more on that below.
Skip Down Below To Get More Logistical Information (such as Ashfall Fossil Beds Hours, Admission etc) on the Park As Well.
Start At the Visitor Center
Here is the thing that I personally love about travel.
You can simply go to locations around the world for the sake of travel, but with just even the tiniest bit of context, history and background information, you can suddenly enjoy your visit SO much more. And that is so true at the Ashfall Beds!
Granted, I’m a bit of a travel planning nerd, so I, of course, got lost in the depths of the Google web as I clicked on more and more sites on the pre-historic timelines of Nebraska. While you don’t need to do this, I do think it is worth a quick google search of “Ashfall Nebraska” or something similar to get a quick low-down on the volcanic eruption that caused the fossil park to be created.
However, the above isn’t a MUST, as the Ashfalls Visitor Center does a pretty remarkable job of bringing you up to speed.
Insider Tip: Do the Self Guided Audio Tour!
You have two options for this:
1) Log into their free wifi and scan the QR code. Unfortunately, this was quite a cumbersome task. It took forever to try to “sign up” and then it didn’t even end up working on my particular phone!
2) Dial the Phone Number. Call into the self-guided, pre-recorded tour line and it follows along with you as you go stop to stop. Hang up when you are done with your stop and redial at the next location and it automatically picks back up where you left off.
The information on the self-guided tour isn’t THAT much more detailed than just reading the information, but if you are more of an audio than visual learner (or just don’t like to read a lot of stuff!) it’s a great option!
We easily spent 30-45 minutes just in the visitor center alone, so it is definitely worth it to take your time and it’s actually REALLY fascinating history!
Explore The Rhino Barn
Head on outside and stick to the right-hand path that leads you down the hill. You’ll follow a “timeline” along the sidewalk, which again, was actually REALLY fun to read and just imagine what “life” in Nebraska was like all those years ago.
The Rhino Barn is where all the meat and potatoes of this historical landmark in Nebraska is located and is where the actual fossil dig site is STILL being worked on today.
What was really fun to experience was that there just weren’t massive rhinos and other animals preserved for our observation, but instead we could actually SEE the excavation being done right in front of our eyes.
Apparently, if you are into paleontology or archeology, you can actually do a fossil internship here!
So, there we were, standing above this massive Nebraska historical site, AS it was being uncovered! And better yet, we were able to interact and talk to the interns about what they were doing, why, how long it has taken, how long it WILL take and more!
(Hint: we are talking decades worth of active digging in the future, so you’ve still got plenty of time to watch it being uncovered in real-life!)
What is so impressive about these fossils in Nebraska is that so many of them are perfectly preserved. It was fascinating seeing whole, intact rhinos and other giant creatures that one day, laid down, never to get up again. In many spots, there is no reconstruction, no guessing about how they MIGHT have looked. No, they are lying in front of you EXACTLY how they looked 12 MILLION years ago.
WRAP YOUR HEAD AROUND THAT!
In fact, there is even one spot where a baby rhino is believed to have died lying next to it’s mama, most likely nursing as they passed. How fascinating is that!
Ashfall Nebraska For Kids (and kids at heart)
One of the things that I have learned after having kids is that museums and historical sites aren’t exactly what they want to do on trips.
However, the Ashfall State Park is absolutely perfect for kids of all ages.
In the visitor center, little ones can peer through microscopes and pretend to be a paleontologist detective themselves!
There are multiple hands-on displays throughout the center that help balance all the textual information.
Outside of the Visitors Center are two particular spots that kids LOVE. The first is a “dig site” that kiddos can look at actual bones from prehistoric animals and uncover them from the sand.
If you want to pretend like you are doing the real-deal digging of the rhinos, there is even a building where you can do just that. There are full-sized replicas where you can grab your brush and “discover” the fossils yourself! There is also some other phenomenal hands-on exploration and learning in here as well.
If your kids are a bit older and can ask questions, the interns on site were seriously so great to talk to. They clearly loved their research and wanted to share it with others. I liked how most of them didn’t talk in fancy schmancy scientisty terms but instead in ways us non-paleontologists (and kids) could easily understand.
Traveling Parent Tip:
As a former educator and life-long traveler, we’ve found that the more we can include our kids on our travels, the more they enjoy their experiences, but better yet, LEARN! Here are a few items to add to your amazon cart to help make the fossil site that much more fun for your kiddos.
Other Important Information For Visiting the Nebraska Ashfall Beds
Location and Address: 86930 517th Ave, Royal, NE 68773
Admission: You must have a valid Nebraska State Park Permit for your vehicle (here’s all the info you need on NE Park Passes) in addition to $7.00/per person (2 and Under are Free)
Nebraska Ashfall Beds Hours and Opening Times:
- October 15-May 1: Closed For the Season
- May 1-May 25th: Tuesday-Saturday 10am-4pm. Closed Sunday and Monday
- May 26th-Labor Day: Monday-Saturday 9am-5pm. Sunday 11am-5pm
- Sep 4th-Oct 14th: Tuesday-Saturday 10am-4pm. Sunday 1pm-4pm. Closed Monday
Hikes: There is a really easy, .3 mile loop walk starting from the Ashfalls which goes through the Verdigre Creek Valley and even has a waterfall!
How much time is needed at the Nebraska Ashfall Beds: This is a bit of a tough one. We had a picnic lunch here, took our time and let our kiddo “dig” so we easily spent several hours. If you really just wanted to see the fossils, you could be in and out within an hour or less, but that would be a huge disservice to your experience.
Souvenir Shop: Like most shops, expect to pay a pretty penny, but there are some pretty good geography and biology books, rocks and knick knacks.
Picnic Tables: There is a really nice, big pavilion with plenty of picnic tables, so don’t forget to bring your own lunch and overlook the beautiful scenery!
Wheelchair Accessible: All of the main buildings and picnic area are wheelchair accessible!
Ashfall Fossil Beds Camping Options
A lot of people like to go camping near Ashfall Fossil Beds, since this part of Nebraska is surprisingly rugged, rolling, and beautiful (nope, not the flat cornfields you might have imagined!) While there is nothing actually IN the actual Ashfall State Park, you still have a few options to choose from:
Grove Lake: Grove Lake 866 Rd, Royal NE. GPS Coordinate:42.378749, -98.118911)
Niobrara State Park: About 35 minutes North of Ash Falls NE. This is arguably one of the best state parks to camp at in Nebraska and there are cabins to choose from as well. Here is our Ultimate Guide to Niobrara State Park
Neligh, NE: There are a few camping options in Neligh (about 20 minutes from Ashfalls) that include both RV sites as well as tents.
I never actually knew that there were prehistoric fossils near me. I don’t typically think of Nebraska as a particularly historically dense state outside of things like pioneers and Native Americans and I certainly don’t think “dinosaurs” or other ancient fossils right here in our own backyard.
But sure enough, if you are willing to look, Nebraska has plenty of surprising adventures in every corner of the state!