Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in Nebraska a Fascinating Place to Explore


Located near the town of Harrison in northwestern Nebraska, Agate Fossil Beds National Monument was authorized as such in 1965 but was not officially declared a national monument until more than 30 years later in 1997. Maintained by the National Park Service, this valley of the Niobrara River is best known for its vast collection of fossils, particularly those of Miocene mammals that roamed the Earth as much as 20 million years ago.

Indeed, Agate Fossil Beds National Monument is a world-renowned archaeological site and experts from the world over have come here to study the remains of such ancient animals as the Menoceras, a small rhinoceros; Miohippus, predecessor of the modern horse; Stenomylus, a camelid not unlike the South American Vicuna; Amphicyon, a bear dog; and Palaeocaster, an ancient land beaver.

History shows that the original inhabitants of this land, the Lakota Sioux tribe, knew about the ancient bones, but modern scientists and archaeologists rediscovered them beginning in the 1880s. Visitors may take the Fossil Hills Trail to Carnegie and University Hills were the bones were once quarried and/or may visit various archaeological exhibits at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument's expansive Visitor Center.

Both Fossil Hills Trail and Daemonelix Trail are easy trails to traverse and can be enjoyed by most everyone who can tolerate a vigorous walk. Fossil Hills is a 2.5-mile loop that crosses the Niobrara River wetlands and loops the bone bed. A one-mile side trail accessible off the Fossil Hills Trail takes visitors to the homestead of Harold Cook, used by scientists as they were sorting bones. Daemonelix Trail is a one-mile loop that allows visitors to cross ancient sand dunes and view the petrified homes of ancient land beavers who fashioned spiraled burrows. The top of the trail provides an excellent view of the property.

Part of the land of which this 3,000-acre national monument sits was once the property of James H. Cook and his wife Kate. Cook's Agate Springs Ranch also became an important gathering place for Chief Red Cloud and other members of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Indian people. Here there was a sharing of cultures between Red Cloud and Cook's family and visitors can see the fruits of that relationship in an impressive display of American Indian artifacts that the Sioux gave to Cook and his wife from the 1880s through the early 1900s. Photos of Red Cloud, the most photographed 19th century American Indian, and Cook are also on display.

The Visitor Center also offers a 12-minute film on the history of the Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, which provides a good introduction to the site. There's also a bookstore/gift shop on the premises.

Agate Fossil Beds is in a very remote area of Nebraska and no camping facilities are located onsite. A picnic area is available near the Visitor Centers as are vending machines. Limited other amenities, such as gas stations, restaurants, and stores, are available about 20 miles from the park.

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