Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument — Photo courtesy of Terrisa Meeks
The Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument, located a stone's throw from Las Vegas, is unique in a few ways. Most notably, it’s filled with a tremendous number of Ice Age fossils, although they’re not that easy to spot. The badlands of the monument are beautiful and make for an interesting hike, but you might wonder where all the fossils are if you’re looking for a tusk sticking out of the ground.
Spotting fossils can be tricky, agrees Jill DeStefano, president of the Protectors of Tule Springs, a group that works in conjunction with the National Park Service in caring for the monument.
"Fossils are very similar to the color of the white sands. If your eye's not attuned to it, you may well be walking across the top of it without even knowing," says DeStefano.
The best way to see the monument and its more prominent (and remote) fossils is through a tour. If you want the chance to have a tour, then you’ll need to check ahead with the Protectors of Tule Springs to sign up. The group is limited to 25 people per tour, and they open their rare fall and spring tours first to their membership, then to the mailing list they have.
Bison fossil found in the Tule Spring Fossil Beds — Photo courtesy of Jill DeStefano / Protectors of Tule Springs
Although you may need a tour to see some of the more remote and intact fossils, hiking through the monument gives you the chance to see wild, undeveloped desert and the Upper Las Vegas Wash. The distinctive badlands and seasonal wetlands are very different than the terrain commonly seen on other hikes in Las Vegas.
One popular spot for access into the monument is close to Tule Springs Park, more formally known as Floyd Lamb Park. At the intersection of North Durango Drive and Moccasin Road, hikers drop into a badlands that stretches for miles. You won’t find any trails, but you will find a few old ATV trails to follow through the desert.
Plans to develop the monument are still in their infancy. Recently, a fundraising drive was held to bring in money for signage so that people can have some idea about what’s in the fossil beds and why they’re important.
Balancing the desire to let the public know about the incredible treasures in the Fossil Beds against the need to protect this important fossil site is tricky, DeStefano says.
"We want to share with everybody, but you always have to weigh giving total public access with protecting the resources," says DeStefano, who also teaches. "The kids I teach never get to see a national park, because we don't have one here. I can hardly wait to get them all out there."
For now, if you’re hiking in the monument, be sure to follow safe desert hiking guidelines, and look around very carefully: you may be standing right next to a fossil!
The monument is located on the far northwest side of the Las Vegas valley, and a side trip into one of the many access points along its perimeter makes a great side addition to an exploration of the areas outside the city, such as the Desert National Wildlife Refuge or Mount Charleston.