Memorial Day weekend was approaching, and initially I had planned a trip through the Black Hills to knock out some National Park Service units in South Dakota and to hike the high point of that state. But after eleven days in Washington earlier in the month and just a busy overall month, I just lost all mojo to spend days away from home. So I adjusted my plans to give me more time in my own bed – but that didn’t mean I wouldn’t knock off some new NPS units!
I’m part of the National Park Travelers’ Club, and thanks to a year already filled with adventures, I was approaching their bronze level of the Master Traveler Award. I have plenty of NPS units in my “backyard” (within a day’s drive), so why not go explore them? Early alarm rang, I threw some snacks and sandwich fixings in the lunch box, grabbed my coffee, and headed north to the middle of nowhere in Nebraska.
Agate Fossil Beds National Monument is truly in the middle of nowhere. Established in 1997, this monument is tucked up in the northwestern corner of Nebraska along the Niobrara River and far from civilization. Memory is fuzzy now, but I do believe I only saw one or two cars after I left the Scottsbluff area heading north! Even the National Park Service warns you of the remoteness – the nearest gas station that is reliably open is 34 miles south.
Agate Fossil Beds really has two prongs to it – the Miocene fossils and the history of James Cook and the Lakota. Most of the land that makes up the monument was originally part of the Agate Springs Ranch, which James Cook and his wife acquired in 1887. Shortly after, they discovered fossils and by the early 1900s paleontologists were digging and investigating. You won’t find dinosaurs here at – instead the fossils are of Miocene mammals such as the beardog and paleocaster (a sort of prehistoric land beaver), some of which are ancestors of mammals we see today. (The Miocene epoch stretched from 23 to 5.3 million years ago.)
Fossils aside, another part of the monument is the Cook Collection, which consists of Native American artifacts the Cook family received in the late 1800s and early 1900s from close family friends like Red Cloud, Chief of the Oglala Lakota. The family gifted the collection to the NPS and when the visitor center opened the items were put out for display.
I briefly stopped at the entrance sign for a photo and then headed to the visitor center. I arrived about thirty minutes after they opened, and it seemed like I was the only car in the parking lot that was a visitor, and not staff. After chatting with the ranger and grabbing a Junior Ranger book, I headed to the Cook Collection, which is located in the visitor center.
I then checked out the exhibits and fossils, and by now other visitors had arrived so the ranger cued up the 12-minute long informational video so we all filed in to watch it. After that I took to passport stampin’ and bought a souvenir patch.
There are two short hiking opportunities available at Agate Fossil Beds, the Fossil Hills Trail and Daemonelix Trail. The Fossil Hills Trail starts at the visitor center, so I opted to check out the 2.8 mile long lollipop first. This trail is concrete with a short wooden boardwalk section, although it can get steep in portions.
After meandering through the wetlands around the Niobrara River, the trail starts ascending up to Carnegie and University Hills, the site of the historic dig sites. Though there are no fossils on display, there are interpretive signs along the way, as well as several benches with shade canopies (the trail otherwise has no shade, and I was definitely working up a sweat in the summer humidity and heat!).
The Daemonelix Trail is located right at the entrance to the monument, so I jumped back in the car and headed to the spacious parking lot for this 1-mile hike. Unlike the Fossil Hills, you WILL get to see some fossils here! The highlight of this jaunt, aside from the beautiful scenery, is two displays of the fossilized spiral burrows of the Paleocastor. Looking closely, you can also see fossilized plant roots and insect holes, and the whole area has petrified sand dunes.
Overall, I spent about 2.5 hours at Agate Fossil Beds, and feel like I saw nearly everything except the Bone Cabin, which was Cook’s original homestead that is about one mile off of the Fossil Hills Trail. I quickly fixed up a tuna salad sandwich in the car to calm the grumbling stomach, and plotted a route to take me over to Fort Laramie National Historic Site to finish out my day.
Thanks to Google Maps, I ended up driving something like 40 miles of crazy backroads between Agate Fossil Beds before popping out north of Lingle, Wyoming. I had selected the “fuel efficiency” route because of gas prices, and yeah… at points I was on rutted double track without human civilization in sight. I giggled nervously, and hoped I wouldn’t run into car trouble as I eyed the “No service” bar on my phone. Needless to say, if you’re trying to connect these two NPS units and aren’t up for a backroad adventure, stick to the less fuel efficient route, ha!
Established as part of the NPS in 1938, Fort Laramie National Historic Site preserves Fort Laramie, one of the most renowned forts in the northern plains. Originally started as a fur trading post in 1834, it was acquired by the US Army in 1849 and remained open until 1890. Thousands of emigrants passed through here (maybe you did, too, if you ever played the game Oregon Trail!), and Fort Laramie also was the site of several treaty negotiations with Northern Plains Tribes.
I parked and grabbed some water and headed out to the visitor center. I found a patch and stuffed prairie dog to buy (I couldn’t resist him!), and chatted up the ranger as I collected all the passport stamps. The Junior Ranger book was super involved, so I sighed and decided I’d have to try again another day. I walked around the main ground and explored some of the buildings.
I have to admit, I wasn’t into Fort Laramie as much as Agate Fossil Beds, so my visit really did not do it justice. I’m more of a nature leaning person than old buildings type of person, eek! I did debate checking out the one hiking trail, the Confluence Trail, on my way out. This 1.6 mile trail is a designated National Recreation Trail on the confluence of the Laramie and North Platte rivers. However, the urge to get home won out, and I headed back to Cheyenne.
Overall, this was a fun day spent exploring some new things (though my mom will argue I went to Fort Laramie as a kid, so maybe not everything was new!). Agate Fossil Beds is not much a detour for those heading to the units in the Black Hills, so easy to tack on and learn about some fossils most don’t know about it (sorry dinosaurs, it is not always only about you!). Most importantly, this latest around of NPS unit bagging dang near qualified me for my bronze level Master Traveler Award… I just need to visit one more NPS unit this year! Woohoo!