Northern Nebraska Trip – Ashfall Fossil Beds and Long Pine

May 2018

Having a young science nerd (and frankly – we’re science nerds too!) in our family, we decided to plan a trip to see Ashfall fossil beds. It did not disappoint! Even though it was not a passport stop, we just wanted to see it. Our adventure began meeting up with some friends who were also doing the Nebraska Passport program to head north. We determined a path that would earn us 5 passport stops, and some extra fun stuff along the way. We first drove near St. Paul Nebraska to a previously visited locale – Milleta Vista Winery (also a passport stop) to learn with disappoint that they weren’t open for the day. We continued on our journey to Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historic Park.

Ashfall Entrance Sign
Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park

This park and center is well designed. First, you are directed to the visitor center where you can view the “standard museum” type stuff – specimens under glass, pictures, interesting things to read. It was interesting and educational. However, the next part is what makes this place truly unique. You walk down the path to the fossil barn. Along the way you can see marked the dig cites and where the first fossils were dug up. You can see bits of broken bone and partial creatures along the way. The barn actually encloses a live fossil excavation! You can get closer than you would ever imagine to real prehistoric fossils.

Plesiosaur Fossil
In the visitor center -displays

The story of Ashfall fossil beds (explained tastefully along your path) is that a body of water was prehistorically present in the spot where the barn now stands. Animals would gather to drink at this watering area. The theory is that a volcano that erupted as far away as Idaho covered areas for miles away with ash. Nebraska was actually on the outer edge but was still covered with 12 inches of ash. The animals died nearly instantly as ash fell from the sky. Because there were so many animals in that area drinking water and died so suddenly, it is a perfect preservation of many species, including mother/baby pairs. You can see where the fossils have been excavated and where paleontologists continue to work. Talk about seeing history up close!

The kids explore in their own dig area while the adults relax!

As recommended, we finished our day at the interactive kids area. This was good advice, as although they enjoyed it, the kids were ready to unwind and have some fun. There were still many interesting things for the adults to look at in terms of geological history; or they could just rest while the kids dug in the play area, discovering “fossils” of their own – or enjoyed covering each other with tiny bits of dirt-like looking rubber.

We would highly recommend this place to anyone loving history and science, especially natural or prehistoric history. The view was lovely too and it is very well set up and great for kids!

Top right: main visitor center, top left: original dig site (marked in flags), middle left: in the fossil barn – showing the depths of discovery, bottom and middle right – fossil remains, uncovered
Shamrock Nursery in O’Neill, Nebraska

We then wandered further up north to the Irish capitol of Nebraska – O’Neill. He, we ticked off a passport stop with Shamrock Nursery. It is humongous! They have 5 other locations with the original in O’Neill supplying the others. Talk about massive numbers of greenhouses! They have all the plants and garden supplies including many decorative items that you could ever want. My favorite was a popcorn plant. It smelled just like buttered popcorn! I also got a fun decorative rooster garden pinwheel for my mother for mother’s day.

Popcorn Plant at Shamrock Nursery

Next, driving west now was a passport stop in Atkinson. There was an old fashioned variety store with a soda fountain in the back (R.F. Goeke Variety & Soda Fountain). The real old fashioned malts were delicious! Then it was on to Bassett where a historic hotel and restaurant (Bassett Lodge and Range Café) made the list. Unfortunately, the restaurant was closed, but we were allowed to see the hotel lobby in it’s grandeur, including an old fashioned phoning system to each of the rooms. We ventured just a little way from Bassett to our stop for the night in Long Pine, Nebraska.

Long Pine doesn’t seem like it belongs in Nebraska. It’s canyons, cliffs, river views and abundance of pine trees make you feel like you are in Colorado. This was also not a passport stop, but a place found online that looked like it would make for a fun cabin trip with our friends. We stayed at “The Pines” resort. You really wondered where you were going when you turned when the sign directed – you drove down, down into a heavily wooded area and finally found a group of cabins. We got unpacked in our cabin. Although our cabin had it’s own firepit, we spent most of our time in the commons area which was right across from our friends’ cabin. We had wanted to stay next to them, but we were alerted close to our trip that a larger cabin that would likely suit our family of 5 better had opened up. The cabins were all fairly close though, so we easily walked the extra 50 yards to get supplies from our cabin as needed. We enjoyed lots of typical outdoor food complete with smore’s and roasted hot dogs. We enjoyed breakfast over an open fire in the morning.

Long Pine Creek from the Cowboy Trail retired railroad trestle.
Creek in the valley of the Pines Resort

The next morning we wandered down further into the wooded valley to discover a rushing stream along a scenic path. Our friends enjoy fishing but decided not to bring their gear this trip. The water was a bit fast and cold, so that was probably a wise decision. Wandering back up the steep hills definitely provided an (exhausting!) work out. After packing up we drove through the small town of just over 300 population to discover a gorgeous site! There is a walking trail, just south of the town, in which an old railroad bridge was incorporated. Talk about an amazing view! We noticed some new cabin settlement’s going in in the area that we might want to try if we come again. Apparently the cabins we stayed in are a very popular destination for hunters. The river below gleamed in the light as it wound it’s way under the foot bridge FAR below us. Again, we weren’t sure we were in Nebraska anymore! Apparently, Long Pine used to be a vacation destination in the 1920’s.

Cowboy Trail footbridge over Long Pine Creek canyon.

The trip home incorporated a couple more passport stops. We were bummed to find that the Pizza Palace in Burwell was closed, so we had to find another place for the late lunch we wanted. Then it was on to the Taylor Community Arboretum in the small town of Taylor, Nebraska. The trees were lovely, but we had to go to a bar across the street to get our passports stamped. Don’t forget to keep an eye out for the villagers! Then it was on home to rest and clean off some very dirty boys from our semi-camping experience.

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