Looking down into the valley, you watch the Snake River flowing through the Lower Salmon Falls Reservoir. To the west, you find incredible cliffs that are layer upon layer of ancient sediments. This is evidence of a different time, when now extinct animals owned this land. The cliffs tell a story, one of rivers, lakes, and floods, and the ever changing landscape of Idaho and time. In those cliffs, you can look back into time, and see the past one million years of history, right before you.
The sedimentary cliffs, and the overlook you are on, are all a part of the Hagerman Fossil Beds. It became a national monument after the discovery of fossils. There have been a lot of incredible discoveries here, and the Hagerman Fossil Beds are among the richest and most diverse in the world. Over two hundred different species of plant and animal fossils have been recovered here, and the Hagerman Fossil Beds are working paleontology dig sites. Over three thousand fossilized fragments are excavated from this site every year.
An Important Discovery
While this site shows that camels, mastodons, and sabertooth cats used to call this part of Idaho home, it is most known for the discovery of the Hagerman Horse. The Hagerman Horse is the first true horse, and the evolutionary predecessor to the modern day horse. It was more like the zebras of Africa than the horses we know, however. Over two hundred partial skeletons, and almost thirty complete skeletons have been recovered, which makes this an incredible find, and makes the Hagerman Fossil Beds the richest site in regard to a single species.
North America horses went extinct almost 10,000 years ago, although no one knows why. It’s commonly theorized that climate changes contributed greatly to the extinction of the horses. While horses had once been native here, they were gone. However, almost four hundred years ago, the Spanish reintroduced them when they began exploring North America.
What to Do in Hagerman
The Hagerman Fossil Beds are small. They only stretch about six miles along the Snake River. That does not mean that you are short on things to do or enjoy here, though. While much of the area is closed off to the public, in order to both preserve the integrity of any fossils and protect visitors from rattlesnakes and scorpions, there are two overlooks and some hiking trails.
The first overlook is the Snake River Overlook. This site provides you with incredible views of the cliffs across the Salmon Falls Reservoir. The land here is wide open, without any trees, so your view will be unobstructed. If you follow the road, you’ll reach the second overlook. The Oregon Trail Overlook provides an elevated viewing area. You’ll find the Oregon Trail below, and there’s a three-mile section that you can hike if you would like.
You’ll also want to explore the visitor’s center, which is located in the nearby town of Hagerman. The visitor’s center is full of information about the fossil beds. Plus, there are great informational videos about the area. You’ll also be able to see a complete skeleton of the Hagerman Horse, as well as other fossils. If you’d like, you can even enjoy a little dig, and practice being a paleontologist.
Of course, if you’d prefer a bit more of a hands-on approach, you can enjoy any of the ranger led programs that they have, and learn even more about the fossils. If you want to get up close and personal, while learning about the history, there are seasonal ranger programs that take you right into the field.
A Different Idaho
If you needed proof of the diversity of Idaho, this is it. Idaho is a beautiful state, full of natural wonder and plenty of outdoor recreational activities. But Idaho isn’t just a pretty face. It’s also full of an incredible history that you might never have known existed. Take advantage of the little known Hagerman Fossil Beds, and explore an Idaho vastly different from the one that we know.
You’ll step back in time, when the giant Idaho Lake still existed, and mastodons grazed along the river in lush grasslands. Camels and horses lived alongside the mastodons, and were stalked by a common predator: the sabertooth cat. It’s incredible knowing the kind of history, and the kind of animals that used to live here, and the Hagerman Fossil Beds are a peek into that time. Get ready to dive into history, and visit Hagerman today.