Fossil Butte National Monument – 3 Reasons it’s Worth the Detour

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Fossil Butte is a seemingly insignificant U.S. National Monument smack dab in the middle of nowhere. It’s nearly 3 hours from any other National Park or Monument, 15 miles from the nearest city (Kemmerer, WY),  and about 1 hour from Interstate 80.

So unless you’re trying to fill out your National Park Passport book or you’re really into fossils, it can be hard to justify making the journey.

I’m going to do my best to convince you otherwise.


As a birthday gift in 2015, a good friend of mine gave me the 2016 Centennial Edition of the Passport to Your National Parks® book and I decided one of my new missions in life was to fill it with stamps.

I still have a ways to go with covering every page, but in October 2016 I took my second solo cross-country trip and knocked out a few of them. My favorite stop was Fossil Butte National Monument.

This is apart of my U.S. National Parks Series of posts. If you have your own story to share about Fossil Butte, leave a comment or contact me! I’d love to hear about your experiences 🙂


About Fossil Butte National Monument

Fossil Butte is an 8,198 acre (33.18km²) U.S. National Monument located in Lincoln County, Wyoming in the Southwestern portion of the State.

The area is a high cold desert, with sagebrush, Pines, and Aspens comprising most of the local vegetation. The wildlife in the area is mainly Mule Deer, Pronghorns, various birds, and sometimes Moose and Beaver.

I saw a bunch of Pronghorns.

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Fossil Butte was designated a National Monument on October 23, 1972 for lots and lots of reasons: Lots and lots of fossils.

The monument sits on a 13 square mile section of what was once Fossil Lake (900 square miles), the smallest of the three Great Lakes during the Eocene Epoch 56 to 43 million years ago. The others were Lake Gosiute (up to 15,000 sq mi) and Lake Uinta (no sq mi data I could find). For reference, the current Great Lakes up by Michigan are 94,250 sq mi, so Fossil Lake was rather tiny.

However… Size isn’t everything 😉

You can do a lot with a 900 sq mi lake and the ecosystem of Fossil Lake certainly did.

Generations of prehistoric plants and animals lived, died, sunk to the bottom of the lake, and were preserved in 2 million years of sediment (the lake dried up after this time).

Fossils are constantly unearthed in the park and are in such pristine condition (bones are found in place rather than scattered) that they offer scientists a host of data about the climate, how it changed, its effect on the wildlife present and also how that wildlife coexisted.


So Why Should you Visit?

There are quite a few reasons Fossil Butte was my favorite stop on this two-week journey. Here are a few:

Reason #1: The Fossils are Cooler Than you Might Imagine.

I mentioned earlier that the fossils in Fossil Butte (apart of the Green River Formation)  are anatomically right where they should be. This is highly unusual and only a handful of digs in the world can say the same. In fact, Fossil Butte has the highest quality fossils from the Cenozoic Era in North America.

The reason for these fantastically preserved fossils is that Fossil Lake was rather calm and undisturbed, especially in the lower sections of the basin, and the sediment was extremely fine. Because of this, as plants and animals died and decomposed in the water, they didn’t move around much. The fine-grained rocks and sand drifted over the bones and plants, hardened and created beautiful Limestone windows to the past.

Some of the 300 casts and fossils on display at Fossil Butte:

  • Birds and bats and other flying creatures
  • Plenty of fish (some mass mortality specimens where large schools of fish die all at once)
  • Plants, plants, and more plants (which are vital to understanding past climate patterns of a given area)
  • Insects and flowers
  • Invertebrates
  • Mammals like early horses (seen above in the collage)
  • Reptiles and invertebrates
  • A 13 foot crocodile that’s the first thing to catch your eye when entering the visitor center (comes complete with fossilized poop)

So yeah, nearly all types of once-living creatures can be found on display at fossil butte and you’re guaranteed not to find anything as collective and well-preserved anywhere else in the U.S.

For more fossil images from Fossil Butte that I didn’t capture, click here.

Reason #2: Truly Cool Exhibits and Activities

Snapchat-5650523987286459879You’ll notice this sign as you enter the park. As you continue driving, more signs pop up and the reason behind them begins to make more sense.

The signs take you on a to-scale journey through planet Earth’s history.

9 inches = 1 million years.

So understandably, as you drive further down the road toward the visitor center, the signs get closer and closer together as more and more earth-shattering events (heh) take place.

The signs wrap around the visitor center and end on the present day with details about many of the events as they relate to Fossil Butte, the rest of the paleontological record, and humanity as a whole.

This exhibit gave me a minor existential crisis.

 

Dioramas

Shoreline Diorama; Courtesy National Park Service

The Shoreline Diorama shows life along Fossil Lake’s shallow shores during the Eocene Epoch. If showcases 10 arthropods, 10 plants, 1 bird, 1 reptile, and 3 mammals, all coexisting and fighting for survival.

Try to spot them all!

Forest Diorama; Courtesy National Park Service

The Forest Diorama is a depiction of the land surrounding Fossil Lake. Many moons ago, you’d find thick forests and dense marshlands with flora much like woody flowering plants you’ll find in Asia today. Looking at the diorama, it’s easy to tell that the area was covered in a blanket of humidity, perfect for lush plant life to thrive and a far cry from today’s high cold desert. Species on display include: 22 arthropods, 24 plants, 3 bird species, 1 mammal, and 4 reptiles.

It’s fun to search for them all

Other Fun Activities!

  • Fossil Preparation Demonstrations are available 10 am to 3 pm daily and show how scientists prepare and examine fossils for display
  • Ranger Talks include a Monument Exhibit Tour where you can learn about all of the 300 fossils on display, a Fossil Butte Past & Present talk where you’ll understand exactly how the area went from lush forests to a sagebrush ecosystem, and a Timeline Tour that talks you through the existential dread of the timeline exhibit.
  • The Fossil Quarry Program (Summer only) includes a Ranger-led 1/2 mile hike uphill to the Fossil Butte Research Quarry where you’ll learn about the ongoing research in the area, help search for fossils, and record findings and notes. You can literally discover a fossil by taking part in this program any Friday or Saturday between June 16th and August 26th from 11 am to 3 pm. And now I want to go back so I can experience this.
  • Fossil Rubbings are also available in the Visitor Center so you can take a piece of Fossil Butte home with you (and stick it on the fridge)

Reason #3: The Silence and Serenity is Perfect (and There are Hiking Trails!)

You’ll notice after reading some of my blogs that I’m a lover of Nature in its purest form. The main reason I travel to these faraway places (specifically during the off-season) is to get away from the hustle and bustle of daily life. It helps me recharge, wind down, and find peace.

Unadulterated Nature is the closest I’ll get to a religious experience.

For me, there’s nothing quite like sitting on top of mountain (or a Butte in this case), with the nearest humans miles away, where I can let my mind wander and my eyes focus on anything in front of me, whether it be a hawk circling overhead, a beetle crawling on a pine bush, or a vast landscape that seems endless and full of possibilities.

A scenic road in Fossil Butte is exactly what I was looking for.

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I visited in late October so it was rather chilly and windy, but the sun did its best at keeping me warm. The photo above was captured on the scenic drive road that leads 4 miles past the visitor center and up the Butte. It’s a rather narrow and steep road and it turns from gravel to dirt (in my case mud) so I don’t recommend taking an RV or trailer up it as there are very few areas to turn around.

The scenic road has three unmarked roads/trails (noticeable by the gates at their beginnings) that offer hiking opportunities:

  • Cundick Ridge is a 2 mile out-and-back trail with a minimal elevation gain. It is accessed by the first gate on your right side.
  • Eaglenest Point is a 2 mile out-and-back trail with some elevation gain. It is also accessed by the first gate.
  • Rubey Point Road is a 3 mile out-and-back trail with some elevation gain. It is accessed by the second gate on your left side.

There are other trails near the visitor center that have more interesting sights to see.

The creatively named Nature Trail is one I would have loved to hike a couple weeks earlier.

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Courtesy National Park Service

As you can see by the map, it’s a 1.5 mile loop 2.5 miles down the road from the visitor center. The reason I would have loved to visit a couple weeks earlier is because of the Aspen Groves that litter the trail. As you may know, Aspens are white-bark trees that look absolutely stunning during Fall because their leaves change to a bright yellow. It’s gorgeous.

A fun fact about Aspens: A grove is actually one living organism, connected by the roots.

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You can see all the Aspens. Imagine walking through them, surrounded by a sea of yellow.

Another trail you can find before reaching the visitor center is the Historic Quarry Trail. It is a moderately strenuous 2.5 loop with a 600 ft. elevation gain. It’s closer to Highway 30 than the other trails so you might hear the occasional 18-wheeler or train scuttle by (something I like to avoid).

 

map of Historic Quarry Trail
Courtesy National Park Service

A short side-loop leads to the Historic Quarry and during the summer and the streams that wind through the area near the trail attract mosquitoes so be sure to come prepared.

Even though these hikes are rather short, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t hike smart. Always bring more water than you need, wear sunscreen, pack some snacks, carry bug spray, bring your bear spray just in case, and always tell someone where you’re going and check in when you get back.


In Conclusion

At first glance, Fossil Butte National Monument may not seem like it’s worth the detour. Hopefully I’ve convinced you otherwise because this rarely-visited gem is well worth a day trip.

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Visiting Glacier National Park in the Off Season

 

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As a birthday gift in 2015, a good friend of mine gave me the 2016 Centennial Edition of the Passport to Your National Parks® book and I decided one of my new missions in life was to fill it with stamps.

I still have a ways to go with covering every page, but in October 2016 I took my second solo cross-country trip and knocked out a few of them. One of the more memorable ones was Glacier National Park.


This is apart of my U.S. National Parks Series of posts. If you have your own story to share about Glacier, leave a comment or contact me! I’d love to hear about your experiences 🙂


About Glacier National Park

Located in northern Montana and bordering the Canadian Provinces of Alberta and British Columbia, Glacier National Park encompasses over 1 million acres (4,000km²) and includes parts of two mountain ranges. It was established as a National Park on May 11, 1910.

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Glacier has 130 named lakes, is home to hundreds of species of animals (some endangered) and over a thousand species of plants. It was also home to many Native American tribes who took advantage of these natural resources as far back as 10,000+ years ago.

The parks’ landscape is covered in mountains, which were formed by glacial activity from the last ice age, leaving us the giant, jagged peaks we see today. There were an estimated 150 glaciers in the park during the mid-19th century and as of 2010, there are only 25 left. It’s estimated that by 2030, the park may have zero glaciers left if current climate patterns continue.

Glacier is also the world’s first International Peace Park in association with Waterton National Park in Canada. The two are known as the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park and have been best friends since 1932.

Planning Your Off-Season Visit

Glacier is a gorgeous park, no matter the season and it’s still a popular destination from Fall through the short-lived Spring. I visited during the second-to-last week of October for a couple of days.

The Bend

My first mistake was forgoing the proper amount of research so when I showed up in St. Mary on the East side of the park, I expected to find a campground, an open ranger station to get my stamp, or access to the ever-winding Going to the Sun Road…

Nope None of those amenities were available.

Seasonal road work had Going to the Sun closed, the St. Mary Visitor’s Center was deserted for the season and the only accessible campground was on the complete opposite end of the park. This brings me to my first tip:

Know the Seasonal Closings

By the end of September, all lodgings inside the park are unavailable along with many other services so it’s important to bring your own food into the park.

Many of the resort towns that dot the outskirts of the park are also closed so if you’re not a cold weather camper or you don’t want to sleep in your car, be sure to call local hotels before stopping by, only to find the lights off and the windows boarded up.

By November 1, the St. Mary and Apgar campgrounds are the only open campgrounds. They revert to a primitive state (no running water, no flush toilets), are first come first serve (which isn’t usually a problem), and are half-price.

Here’s the 2017 list of closing times for various services etc.:

  • Going to the Sun Road has sections open all year but closings can happen during inclement weather. During my visit, the East portion was blocked the entrance and the West end was closed to all vehicles except park workers, bicycles, and foot traffic at Avalanche Creek Picnic Area (14.6 miles from Apgar Visitor Center.) Click here to check current road closures.
  • Apgar Backcountry Permit Office closed November 1
  • Apgar Nature Center closed August 28
  • Apgar Visitor Center closed November 6
  • Logan Pass Visitor Center closed October 1
  • Many Glacier Ranger Station closed September 29
  • Park Headquarters open 8am-4:30pm year-round, closed for lunch from 12-12:30pm in the off season
  • Polebridge Ranger Station closed September 17
  • St. Mary Visitor Center closed October 9 (backcountry permit office closed October 13
  • Two Medicine Ranger Station closed September 29

All of these closings are subject to change each year and are available here.

Beware the Wildlife

As stated above, the wildlife in Glacier is diverse but not all of its creatures are cute and cuddly (never cuddle a wild animal, ya dingus.)

During Autumn, it’s important to remember that many animals are preparing for the impending White Walker invasion and are territorial and on high alert.

NEVER APPROACH WILD ANIMALS.

Always keep your distance. Many animals carry diseases, some view you as a threat, and others might see you as a quick and easy meal, especially if you’re traveling alone.

Bears

These guys usually hibernate from December to May but if you’re visiting during Fall, you should absolutely have a can of bear spray on you at all times. Many females are searching for food, which may be scarce (making them hungry) and pregnant (making them ridiculously territorial). Bear spray may not prevent a bear attack and in some cases will actually make the bear angrier, but it’s your best bet to, y’know… not die when a bear wants to destroy you.

You should also have bear bells hanging from your pack to alert any bears of your presence before rounding a corner and startling one.

The park has two species: Black (the smaller guys) and Grizzly (the big, brown ones). It can sometimes be hard to distinguish which is which because their colors can sometimes look very similar. As the old saying goes, a quick way to figure out which one you’re looking at is to climb a tree. If it follows you, it’s a Black bear. If it knocks the tree down, it’s a Grizzly. (Only joking. Don’t climb a tree).

There’s a lot of different advice out there on what to do if you encounter a bear. From my understanding, you should initially make yourself as tall as possible and make as much noise as possible while backing away slowly. This may make the bear a little weary of you and think twice before potentially getting hurt in a scuffle.

If the bear charges, DO NOT RUN. Prey runs. In many cases, an initial charge is a scare tactic. Back away slowly and make a mean face while you’re at it. The bear won’t understand, but you’ll look cool. If the bear doesn’t stop, there’s no point in running. It will catch you so get ready; It’s time to fight.

Some folks say you should fight with all your might against a Black bear while once you’re knocked down by a Grizzly, you should play dead. Apparently, a Grizzly will gnaw on you for a bit and get bored while a Black bear will just keep chewing. Either way, your odds of surviving at this point are very slim.

For further reading about bears, here’s some nightmare fuel about fatal bear attacks in North America if you’re interested. But seriously, if you’re worried about encountering bears on your hikes through Glacier, find a hiking buddy. I met lots of solo travelers during my trip and most were more than happy to talk. I never asked them to join me on a hike but there’s no doubt they would have been all for it. Bears are less inclined to take on two foes at once.

Mountain Lions

They live in the park too and don’t hibernate. Mountain Lions are generally shy and avoid humans, but if you spot one, make lots of noise and look as tall as possible. If it attacks, your bear spray will be effective but a hiking stick is also a good thing to have around. You can use it to poke the tender spots like the eyes.

Elk

These guys are like Whitetail Deer, but much, much larger. If you spot one, keep your distance (at least 75 feet / 25 yards). They usually don’t attack, but you do not want to get into a scuffle with those razor-sharp hooves and pointy antlers.

Click here for more information on wildlife safety in Glacier National Park.

My Experience

As I said before, I was woefully underprepared for my trip to Glacier but I adapted and it ended up being a wonderful time. I had all the food I needed, I was happy to sleep in my car and I got a ton of fantastic shots with my camera during my two hikes.

A Quick Pit Stop

I want to highlight a small food truck I stopped by on my trek North. It was about 10am when I drove through Chester, Montana, a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. It literally takes less than 30 seconds to drive through the place but there’s a little park on this strip of Route 2 that I noticed had a little food truck sitting in the parking lot. I stopped up by and to my luck, the middle-aged wife and husband were just opening up shop for the day.

The details are hazy but I’ll do my best to retell their story.

I got to talking to the delightful couple (I can’t remember their names), mostly sharing traveling stories and my past with the woman. She told me how she grew up an Army brat, always on the move from base to base. She did a bit of traveling as she grew up and after having a kid or two, her and her husband either ended up in or chose to stay in Chester.

Regardless of their situation, they opened up the food truck a short time ago and most days plop themselves in the park and sell their burgers, dogs and other classic American fare to locals and folks like me who are just passing through. I ordered a specialty burger. If you’re every passing through Chester, Montana, stop in and buy their stuff! It’s delicious.

Capture

 Back to Glacier

My second day in Glacier was by far the best. I heard Lake McDonald was beautiful so I drove up Going to the Sun Road and stopped to take pictures near the lake.

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As I drove, I parked at every trailhead and parking spot searching for the perfect hike and taking pictures of the massive peaks that surrounded me. The mountains were snowcapped, the trees had changed, and the silence was serene. Except near the river of course.

As stated above, the road was blocked at the Avalanche Creek Picnic Area. A bus full of schoolchildren was in the area and they were planning a hike on the only trail around.

I came for solitude and silence and unfortunately it was the only trailhead I saw in the area. The others I passed were far too long for the amount of time I had to hike and so I made the executive decision to just walk past the road block until I decided it was time to turn back.

Best idea I had that day.

I want to say I did a total of 10 miles but my phone didn’t have service and I didn’t bother to keep track. I just walked one way until my feet started to blister then turned around.

The silence was perfect. The cumulonimbi held fast. The isolation was unnerving at times.

I kept waiting for a bear to jump out from the underbrush and tell me only I could prevent forest fires. Every twist and turn in the road brought a new sight to my eyes that forced me to look up and gawk.

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If I had been driving, I would have missed countless small details (like unmarked trails) along the road, only had glimpses of peaks before they rushed by, and would have heard tunes I’d listened to a thousand times before instead of the occasional slight breeze, the rushing river to my left, and every so often, the sounds of solitude that I’ll never forget.

I saw some flora I’d never seen, a few birds, the occasional service vehicle (always sharing a wave with the drivers), and two cyclists, one of whom stopped to chat with me after his second passing. At first introductions, he was simply a cold cyclist with condensation hanging from his nose. He asked me how I was enjoying the park and mentioned he cruised the road nearly every day. I was surprised and asked him if he lived in the park to which he replied that yes, he did (living the life).

The next thing he said blew my mind. He used to be the park’s superintendent.

After I got home I looked him up and sure enough. his name was Chas Cartwright and he was the superintendent of Glacier National Park from 2008 to 2013. I’d never met a celebrity before.

When I returned to my car, my feet felt ready to fall off, I was hungry, and the parking lot was filled with vehicles. I drove on to my next adventure, happy that I had my own unique experience in Glacier and didn’t have to deal with the traffic that plagues the area during the Summer months.

It was a good day.