Ashfall opens for 26th season

Paleontology intern Mikayla Struble works on a Pseudhipparion fossil at Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park in 2016. | Courtesy image
Paleontology intern Mikayla Struble works on a Pseudhipparion fossil at Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park in 2016. | Courtesy image

Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park will open for its 26th season May 2. Visitors can view the recently discovered skeleton of a three-toed horse.

The 2017 season schedule is:

  • May 2-26: Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (closed Sunday and Monday)

  • May 27 to Sept. 4: Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

  • Sept. 5 to Oct. 8: Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday 1 to 4 p.m. (closed Monday)

The 360-acre park near Royal is home to numerous skeletons of prehistoric animals – including rhinos, camels, three-toed horses and birds – preserved in the area where volcanic ash killed them 12 million years ago.

While at the park, visitors have the opportunity to watch as paleontologists uncover new fossils in the 17,500-square-foot Hubbard Rhino Barn.

Near the close of the 2016 season, paleontology intern Mikayla Struble from Montana State University was conducting work in the barn when she uncovered the skull of a three-toed horse skeleton. The skeleton is several feet from the viewing deck and presents visitors with an optimal viewpoint.

"At first, I thought it might be a pelvis," Struble said. "But after exposing more, I was excited to realize it was a skull."

Struble spent six weeks brushing and scraping volcanic ash to reveal a fully intact skeleton.

"Mikayla illustrated the horse's skeleton on a life-size cutout," said Rick Otto, park superintendent. "The cutout is a very useful reference for tours at Ashfall. Visitors are now able to see the exact size of this small fossil horse."

Not much bigger than a large dog, the horse, Pseudhipparion, is the smallest of the species found at Ashfall. It is also the most abundant, with more than 50 fossils – from newborns to older adults – excavated at the site. Pseudhipparion originated about 14 million years ago and became extinct 10 million years ago, generally becoming smaller throughout that time, differing from most horse lineages in that respect.

Visitors can also view museum exhibits on other Ashfall animals in the visitor center and talk with researchers as they prepare specimens for study. Interactive exhibits on petrified wood, Nebraska rivers and the contributions of farmers and amateur paleontologists to the Ashfall story can be found in the Dickinson Fossil Heritage Center.

In addition, visitors can enjoy the natural setting on nearby trails. Picnic tables are available at the park, and campers may use nearby Grove Lake Wildlife Management Area.

A National Natural Landmark, Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park is a collaborative project of the University of Nebraska State Museum and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. It is two miles west and six miles north of Royal. Admission is $7 per person, with children 2 and under admitted free. A valid Nebraska State Park Permit is required and may be purchased on-site. For more visitor information and directions, call 402-893-2000 or click here.

Nebraska Today