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Nebraska’s Miocene Fossils

Originally Published in Trailer Life Magazine

You need not be dinosaur crazy to enjoy Nebraska’s Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, but if you’re traveling with youngsters who cannot get enough of the extinct reptiles, perhaps you can introduce them to these fascinating creatures that lived long ago by exploring this national monument’s paleontological and cultural wonders. This High Plains bonanza is sure to generate smiles and create lasting family memories.

Accessible via Interstates 80, 90 and 25, the monument straddles the Niobrara River and is located 34 miles north of Mitchell, Neb. on Highway 29. Some of the animals found on site are called monsters because they were unlike any creatures that exist today, and most of the fossils found here come from species that lived during the early Miocene Epoch, between 19 and 21 million years ago. The creatures that wandered this terrain were adapting to a climate that was drying out, as forest and jungle turned to grasslands.

The animals that existed at what would become Agate Fossils National Monument were not really dinosaurs; they were some of the species that came after the dinosaurs. Perhaps the most interesting of these more recent species were the small rhino Menoceras, the frightening Dinohyus and the Moropus, a giant sloth-like creature that stood approximately 8 feet tall. Exhibits in the visitor center describe several different creatures in detail; but many find the tale of the full-grown, two-foot-tall camel the most fascinating.

As interesting as the monument’s paleontology is, many visitors will find the site’s cultural exhibits equally enlightening. Red Cloud of the Oglala Lakota Sioux traveled 150 miles by wagon from the Pine Ridge Reservation with his friends and family to visit the Agate Springs Ranch owner James Cook. Nearby residents would attend the festivities, which included dancing and singing. These gatherings are celebrated today in the James H. Cook Collection, an extensive assemblage of Native American artifacts that helps to illuminate part of the region’s past.

The monument is open year-round, and with short hikes visitors can explore the entire region around the Niobrara River.

Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, 308-668-2211, nps.gov/agfo.

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