Sunday, November 15, 2015

In the Badlands of the Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument

The Monument is an interesting place, whether you see fossils or not.

In the days before Las Vegas swallowed a large patch of the Mojave Desert, you could see Tule Springs as you approached from US95. It was a distinct patch of green in the middle of the desert. When I was growing up, the park and its historic buildings were popular for school field trips. I remember the extensive badlands all around Tule Springs Park, which is officially known today as Floyd Lamb at Tule Springs.

Tule Springs, however, isn't just the park—the name encompasses the larger area, which in ancient times was a marshy place that attracted late Pleistocene Era mammoths, camels, horses, and bison. Now, Tule Springs includes the fossil beds holding remnants of those creatures and the Upper Las Vegas Wash. In Vegas' boom years, parts of the badlands were lost to development, and the land that’s now protected as a national monument was nearly sold for development in 2003. Thanks to the hard work of many dedicated people over the course of several years, the new Tule Springs Fossil BedsNational Monument now protects over 22,000 acres of this fossil-rich, undeveloped desert.

I set off to find a way into the Monument close to Tule Springs Park and wound up at the end of Durango, where the street dead ends into an access point into the Monument.

Here’s the thing: this is a brand-new Monument—the newest in the United States—and if you’re expecting a visitor’s center and kiosks and a interpretive trail with a bunch of neatly labeled fossils, you’re going to be disappointed.

In my opinion, this lack of development is a major bonus.

If you like exploring wild, untamed places, you’ll find plenty of things to appreciate in the Fossil Beds. Before you get into the more untouched sections, you’ll find evidence of the area’s former life—shotgun shells, ATV tracks, trash. Beyond that, the Upper Las Vegas Wash is as wild as it can be.

The Monument is long, skinny piece of land, running somewhat parallel to US 95 for several miles and wrapping around Tule Springs Park. It’s full of Ice Age fossils, which scientists have known about since the 1930s.

I wasn’t expecting to see tusks sticking out of the ground… at least, not in the area closest to the parking lot. I did think that I’d be able to identify some fossils, but although I picked up several interesting rocks and closely examined the badlands, I was never able to identify a fossil.

(Later, in speaking with Jill DeStefano, President of the Protectors of Tule Springs, I learned that I had probably walked right over and past all kinds of fossils without knowing it. Learning to identify fossils takes some training, she explained. You can sign up with the PTS for tours, if you'd like some guidance.)

Although I may not have found any fossils, I found a landscape that made me think of the Mojave Phone Booth.

If you’ve never heard of this cult landmark, it’s exactly what it sounds like: a functioning phone booth that was out in the middle of nowhere, in what is now the Mojave National Preserve. People from all over the world trekked to the booth to answer the calls that came in from other people all around the world. Until the Park Service decided it needed to be removed, and then the odd attraction was gone.

But although that single attraction is gone, if you wander the Mojave you’ll still find deserted and abandoned mines, ranches, homes, and other eerie bits of evidence about the former inhabitants of the area.

The fossil beds are like that.

Why? Let me explain what we found on the day we explored.

Two Descansos

I’ll admit I have a fascination with roadside memorials, also known as descansos, although I’m rarely in a spot to get out and read memorials. The larger memorial closest to the access point on North Durango looks like it’s been there a while, but the smaller one atop the hill appears to be about a year old.  

Right next to the big descanso, we found…

The Stove Shrine

At first, we thought the metal parts on the ground were pieces of a car. Then we found that it was a stove that looked like it had been blown up. Then we found…. Stove Shrine.

“There’s like a bag of something inside,” my son said, peering under the dome of plastic.

“Don’t touch it,” I said.

“Don’t worry,” he replied. “That’s creepy.”

The Badlands... or, “Where are the fossils?”

“Is this a fossil?” was the most common thing we said to each other during the first 45 minutes of our hike, usually followed by, “Well, if it’s not a fossil, what kind of rock is that?”

Our preoccupation with fossils soon gave way to a general fascination with the badlands, which are littered with the remnants of their former life as a free-for-all area for shooting and ATV riding.

As we turned the corner around the first set of badlands, I saw someone had put up a rock labyrinth. We sighted in on the furthest badlands we could see, setting out across…

The Upper Las Vegas Wash

It’s big. It’s wide. It’s without any kind of trails, and it had obviously just been full of water not long before because the ground was still wet in places and we found plenty of puddles.

There were no tracks, no trails, and no people. The only thing north of us was open desert. The badlands behind us hid most of the houses. To the west, we could see the peak of Mt. Charleston, and to the east we could see the shooting complex.

The creation of the Monument protected the Upper Las Vegas Wash as well as the fossil beds. The Upper Wash is part of the valley’s watershed and drains into Lake Mead. It’s home to jackrabbits (we startled a large one), all manner of birds (including burrowing owls, which we didn’t see), tortoises, and rare desert plants like the Las Vegas bear poppy.

My son and I clambered up and down the uneven ground of the Wash, an area that I would have been nervous about venturing into had there been even the hint of a cloud anywhere in the distant western sky. It’s a mammoth (no pun intended) stretch of Wash, and evidence of the water that had just swept through (during some of the same storms that flooded Scotty’s Castle inDeath Valley) was everywhere.

After crossing the Wash and examining more badlands for fossils, we turned and headed back to the trail head.

The Weather Balloon

At first we thought we’d found a hunting snare, but we traced the string to a weather balloon, which made both of us giddy with excitement. My son was delighted to note that a handle was included for easy carrying.

(Naturally, we returned the balloon back to NOAA with pictures of where we found it.)

The Mussel Shells

“Are those oysters?

“Yep, and clams.

We were both baffled. We looked around for anything that would indicate someone had camped in the vicinity because there was a large pile of oyster and clam shells, all of which looked very modern--not to mention the broken porcelain bowls. It was a huge pile of shells. We never found a good explanation.

The Upside-down Truck Cab

…but only the truck cab, no bed, with a pile of new-looking women’s clothing next to it. I stayed on top of the Badlands while my son explored the weird scene. We again looked for anything that would look like someone had been camping/squatting, but found nothing.

It’s easy to get lost in the badlands, and we climbed atop them twice to make sure we had our bearings when we were heading back to the car.

In most badlands, you’re contending with ATVs, but here you’re free to explore without being run over. I was a little worried about the obvious evidence of illegal shooting, but never heard shots nearby or saw anyone shooting.

Groups like the Protectors of Tule Springs are doing their best to help keep the area cleaned up, to install signs, and to help educate people about the importance of the area. It’s a precious repository of Ice Age fossils and an important swath of desert that was (thankfully) saved from being sold and developed into more houses. Get out there and enjoy it before it becomes tamed.

There are several points where you can access the Monument; one of the most popular is actually at the far north end of Decatur, the site of the “Big Dig” where heavy equipment was brought in to excavate trenches in the 1960s.

Have you been to the new Monument? Or have you ever found a fossil while out exploring? If you have, leave some comments!
All pictures by Terrisa H. Meeks

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