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Nevada’s Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

Nevada’s Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park is a truly unique place, no doubt the only one of
its kind. Part historic mining town, it is more importantly a place where the fossilized
remains of the ichthyosaur are on display.

My husband, Mike, and I recently spent a couple of days exploring Berlin Ichthyosaur State Park. I first found the cherished 1,153-acre
park back in the mid-1990s, before we met. I visited during a cold spell in early spring,
and I was just about the only person in the park. I saw no employees while I was there, and
I was the only person camped in the campground that night. Still, I had a good time, even
though it was cold. I had wanted to go back ever since to explore more of this park on the
western slope of the Shoshone Mountains. Most of all, I wanted to share this special place
with Mike.

I knew Mike would like the park. It’s fun traipsing around the turn-of-the-20th-century mining town at Berlin. In 1896, the Berlin Mine was established,
and by 1908, the town was in its heyday. During that time Berlin and its Union suburbs
(located about a mile away near the campground) were home to about 200 to 250 people.

Of course, the majority of the folks were miners, but there was also a doctor and nurse, a
forest ranger, a prostitute and charcoal-makers. The town died by 1911. Today it is listed
on the National Register of Historic Places.

We enjoyed peeking in the windows of what is left of the town. The 13 historic buildings include a 30-stamp mill, assay office, union hall, store and post office and stage station. We walked around the buildings and peered in the windows at dusty displays of rattlesnake tails and more. Interpretive signs helped describe what we were seeing, and told of other sites that no longer exist. At sunset we stood in the cemetery wondering about the half-dozen people who are buried there.

That night we took advantage of the warmth of the evening by sitting outside and reading until late. We learned even more about what was in store for the next day. We both agreed that the mining town was interesting, but the park was originally established in 1957 to protect a true treasure – the largest and most abundant concentration of ichthyosaur fossils. Not surprisingly, the fossil area is a designated Registered Natural Landmark.

The next morning we ate some breakfast then headed off on a short hike to explore the old settlement of Union. Nothing much exists today, but interpretive signs let us know what was once there. In 1863, a small group of prospectors discovered silver in Union Canyon and the small mining camp of Union was settled.

One of the highlights of our visit occurred at 10 a.m., when we paid a small fee for a tour of the fossilized bones of the prehistoric ichthyosaur.
Our tour began outside the big A-frame shelter that serves to protect some of the fossils.
The fossil house shelters a quarry of hundreds of exposed bones and remnants of the ancient
sea floor.

As we stood listening to our guide, it was hard to imagine that this mountainous
region was once a sea linked to the Pacific. It was the domain of giant sea monsters, or
“fish-lizards,” called ichthyosaurs.

Larger than humpback whales, they grew up to 60-feet long and weighed an estimated 40 tons. But the animals were not fish, they were highly
specialized marine reptiles that became extinct about 90 million years ago. With narrow
snouts full of pointed, flesh-ripping teeth, they no doubt ruled the warm, shallow waters
that covered Nevada during the late Triassic period. Excavations have revealed abundant
deposits in the eroding mountains that built up long after the sea serpents’ remains were
buried under sedimentary rock on the ancient seafloor. Their skeletal parts can be seen in
many places in the park, which is home to some of the world’s biggest ichthyosaurs.

concrete wall outside the shelter depicts a life-size ichthyosaur, which is also Nevada’s
state fossil. The one shown here is 56 feet long, with a head 10 feet long and eyes about a
foot in diameter. These enormous predators readily ate less able swimmers, living up to
myths of the most awful sea monsters imaginable. Ichthyosaur remains are found in all the
continents of the world except Antarctica.

Although Professor Seimon W. Muller found the first ichthyosaur fossils in 1928, extensive excavation didn’t begin until 1954, when UC-Berkeley professor C.L. Camp and Dr. S.P. Welles, with a squad of student volunteers, uncovered six quarry sites with an estimated 40 individual ichthyosaurs.

After our interesting tour we did a little more exploring before heading away. As we left the park,
we both agreed that Nevada’s Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park is a wonderful treasure.

The park’s campground has 14 sites that include covered picnic tables, grills and fire pits.
Water, trash bins and outhouses are provided, although water is only available from
mid-April through October. RVs longer than 25 feet are not recommended. There are a couple of trails in the park, one of which leads a short distance to the fossil shelter. Along the way, campers can learn about the native plant life and the Native Americans who used to live there. The fossil shelter and campground are located about 2 miles from Berlin.

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