A visit to Big Bone Lick State Historic Site in Union, Ky., is a treat in any season. From bison to bones, this park is significant for many reasons. One of only 598 National Natural Landmarks, the site is a geological treasure trove for its combination of late Pleistocene bone beds and salt springs. As you explore, you can just imagine the ancient beasts that roamed these hills including mastodons, ground sloth, bison and mammoths. Bison have been returned to the park as part of an effort to reintroduce the species to its natural habitat. Even in the winter, you can follow the trail to the viewing area.
The only site in Northern Kentucky to have the Natural Landmark status on the National Register of Historic Places, visitors today have the opportunity to learn about the ancient history of the site and surrounding area. In winter, you can view a bison herd, and scout the network of hiking and nature study trails. In all, the site encompasses more than 500 acres.
From American Indians to east coast settlers, many have gazed and wondered at the “big bones” that once lay scattered about. Word of this area spread, and in 1739 a French Canadian explorer and soldier, Charles LeMoyne, “discovered” the site. Others soon followed, and by the early 1800s, bones were sent to collections in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and even England.
Impressed with the description of these finds, in 1807 Pres. Thomas Jefferson sent Gen. William Clark with a party of men to collect more fossils. Today, interest in these fossils remains high and many have studied the area in great detail.
Park Manager Dean Henson says, “[The site] receives about 70,000-80,000 visitors annually. About two thirds of our visitors are from Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana, the majority from Kentucky with Ohio close behind. Records bear out that we’ve had visitors from all 50 states, Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico.
“We’ve had visitors from 36 countries, and at least one person from each of the inhabited continents. The majority of international visitors are from Canada and Europe.”
For a taste of what it must have been like for these early researchers, step into the newly renovated museum where the history of the park unfolds in displays of fossilized bones and artifacts covering 18,000 years. You’ll see a bison diorama and an ancient mastodon complete with an intact molar!
Henson says, “There have been many upgrades, renovations and improvements to exhibits and facilities, as well as park grounds in the last three years. In the spring, we are hopeful that the restoration and repainting of the museum’s outdoor diorama animals will have been completed.” Also for 2017, “the installation of a fully articulated Harlan’s Ground Sloth skeletal replica within the museum.”
While many have traveled thousands of miles to view the wonders of the site, we need to only travel minutes to learn about the history in our own backyard.
During winter months, the site is open daily until dark and many trails are open. The museum will operate Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-3 p.m., from Nov. 1-March 31. Admission is free. For more information visit parks.ky.gov.