The Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument is located near the town of Hagerman, Idaho, and holds the largest collection of fossils of the Hagerman Horse throughout North America, at 4,351 acres. The richest known collection of fossil deposits out of the late Pliocene in the world is located here, and the monument is home to many attractions that showcase the process of excavation and identification of fossils and is a large contributor to the educational curriculums of local cities in Idaho.
Throughout the Historic and Archaic periods, American Indians dwelled in the area. It was around 1700 AD that the horse, which originally evolved from the prehistoric Hagerman Horse, was reintroduced into the area. This gave the tribes located here mobility and increased their ability to range. During the 1800s, Snake River Indians would trade products such as fish and others with trappers and traders. During 1841, travelers across the Oregon Trail passed through the area, and the Indian tribes were forcibly removed from the area.
The first fossils were found in 1928, when a rancher from Hagerman (Elmer Cook) presented fossil bones to the US Geological Survey, and these made their way to the Smithsonian. James W. Gidley, of the Institution, excavated a large area to uncover the largest area to contain the ancestor of the Hagerman Horse. In time, over 20 horse skeletons and pieces from over 200 additional individual creatures were excavated, and these travelled across Europe to land in various museums. In 1975 the area was designated a National Natural Landmark. The vast collection and ongoing excavation makes this one of the most significant digs in the world and is renowned internationally for its contribution to Paleontology.
In 2014, the Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument partnered with a sister park, the Sibiloi National Park in Kenya, due to their paleontological significance. This relationship helps them share research between both locations and help develop the world’s understanding of climate fluctuation from the past and the response of prehistoric species. The dig sites share periods from the fossil record, as well as some animal and plant species, including species of prehistoric horse, demonstrating their intercontinental migration.
One of the largest Pliocene concentrations of fossils in the world and a place of international significance, the Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument provides many attractions for visitors with a mind for prehistory, human history, and science.
Oregon Trail Overlook Parking Lot – Upon first arrival, visitors will be greeted by one of only four locations in the National Park Service to offer original Oregon Trail monuments for display. Visitors will be able to see wagon ruts from the original wagons of the Oregon Trail, when emigrants were moving west for cheap land and opportunity.
Visitor Center – In the Visitor Center is the primary collection of fossils and activities available for guests. The visitor center is where all activities take place and is the museum collection of fossils and other relics. For reasons of safety visitors are not able to go out among current, ongoing excavations due to the possibility of landslides and hill collapses. In the visitor center is an orientation film that is viewable by request. It is 12 minutes, and explains the function and attraction of the park, as well as features and current projects. The attractions at the Visitor Center are many and varied:
- Auditorium – The auditorium is a location for special events, displays, and temporary exhibits. Many local student programs display their contests here, and temporary displays and exhibits from other museums including other fossils are often rotated through here. The offerings in the auditorium are subject to season.
- Hagerman Horse – Equus simplicidens is the ancestor of the modern horse, which originally evolved in North America and then migrated all over the world. There are more than 200 individual specimens excavated from the Hagerman Horse Quarry. This display is a cast of the fossil and not the original due to fragility and possible radon emission.
- Other Fossils – One of the most paleontologically significant collections of fossils is at the Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument. It has national and international acclaim for its contribution to the world’s understanding of the Pliocene epoch. The display is a continuum that demonstrates the history of the Ice Age to the Pleistocene to the early “modern” era of flora and fauna. Visitors can view species excavated from wetlands, grassland savanna, and riparian biomes. Fossils include:
o Largest collection of Satherium piscinarium, the giant otter
o The third most significant site of Pliocene birds in North America
o The first fossil specimens for the peccary, swan, deer mouse, vole, grison, pronghorn antelope, giant badger, and puma lacustris (a large cat)
o Camelops, an ancestor to the camel, mastodons, saber-toothed-cats
o Borophaginae, a large bone-crushing variety of the dog ancestor
- Simulated Dig – A display for visitors of all ages from children to adults to experience a dig as it would be found firsthand. It is a collection of simulated fossils in earth with tools to learn the process of excavation and identification.
Hiking trails – In addition to the visitor center, there is much parkland to experience and enjoy for visitors. Trails vary in difficulty from strolls to more intense hikes. This is a staffed park, with hours, amenities, and park rangers on hand to answer questions and offer their assistance. There are roads for RVs and trailers as well. The hikes showcase the areas unique geology and are a draw for visitors who enjoy beautiful scenery.
The National Park Service is an organization that places a special emphasis on education about their parks, the reason for their dedication and the science they uncover. With a Monument based on fossil digs, the Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument provides many opportunities for students young and old to learn more about excavation and Pliocene history.
Be A Junior Ranger – The Hagerman Fossil Beds have a workbook available for the NPS Be A Junior Ranger program, that students can use to learn more about the location, its history, and its significance. Ranger-led activity and question and answer programs are held regularly that invite both parents and students to develop their wilderness skills.
Field Trips – The monument schedules regular field trip activities with local schools. These target students from kindergarten, all the way through to high school aged, and include fun activities and games relating to fossils from excavation to identification to classification. Conservation, an appreciation of the Earth’s past, and an understanding of how knowledge of ancient extinct species can help move humanity into the future are all emphasized with these field trips.
Idaho Junior Duck Stamp – The monument hosts the Idaho Junior Duck Stamp contest, held annually. This is a design-based conservation program that teaches wetland conservation and waterfowl life to kindergarten to high school students. The program involves an exploration of the natural world, investigation of wildlife management and biology, and fosters cooperation and team building in learning about the world around them.
An attraction under the purview of the National Park Service, the Hagerman Fossil Bed National Monument is in observation of federal and local holiday and has seasons of operation. It is not open during all times of year and is closed during federal holidays starting on Labor Day. However, it does host many of its own events and may hold special events during local holidays in the town of Hagerman.
One such event is the Teacher-Ranger-Teacherprogram.This is an event that the Hagerman Fossil Bed National Monument offers yearly. By creating a toolbox of activities and resources for both parents and teachers, the program is a school ambassador and professional development program that seeks to place an emphasis on learning skills for locations and in relation to paleontology and fossil discovery. It provides workshops and internship for the creation of programs and projects for students of local schools to explore both in and out of the classroom, including using the park as its own classroom.
In addition, the Monument celebrates National Fossil Day and National History Day. National Fossil Day is especially relevant to the Hagerman Fossil Beds, and on that day the monument center hosts art contests as well as activities for kids and talks for educators, students, kids, and parents. National History Day holds an essay contest for students, and submissions about the fossil beds will be posted on the NPS website.
Guided hikes and summer walks and talks are both events that can be booked in advance by visitors to the national monument. These provide opportunities for visitors to get a complete picture of everything the monument has to offer, including expert historical and paleontological knowledge.
Dining and Shopping Opportunities
The nearby town Hagerman is available for visitors who wish to eat at restaurants of various ilk. There are grocery stores and local shops from which to purchase goods, trinkets, apparel, and jewelry. Campgrounds are available in and around the town as well as lodging and supplies for hiking.
Hagerman, ID, Phone: 208-933-4105
More Idaho things to do