I step out of my rental car and the smell hits me. I can recognize that smell anywhere. I can smell the freshly laid asphalt. Despite the smell, the parking lot isn’t freshly paved. It’s the smell of the nearby tar pits of Hancock Park or more famously known as the La Brea Tar Pits. La Brea is world-renowned for its collections of ice age fossils. The site is located in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, California.
I can’t help but laugh at the name “the La Brea Tar Pits.” Anyone with a little Spanish knows a la is Spanish for the. Brea, I learned is Spanish for tar. So the English translation of this name is “The the tar tar pits.” Got to love when someone mixes languages in naming things.
What are the La Brea Tar Pits?
La Brea Tar Pits’ aren’t actually tar pits. The black tar like substance is actually asphalt. Asphalt is a thick black sticky form of petroleum. It forms in natural deposits or can be refined from petroleum. The asphalt in La Brea is a natural deposit that formed when petroleum seeps up from the ground and then the lighter parts of petroleum evaporate or biodegrade. Once this evaporation occurs, the asphalt is left behind.
Over thousands of years, the asphalt starts to form a puddle large enough to trap an animal. The leaves and dirt would hid the pit and then an animal would walk over the hidden pit and get stuck. With the animal stuck, as it try to free itself, it would attract a predator. The predator would then get stuck trying to eat the prey.
As more time pass, the animals would decompose and their bones would sink further into the asphalt. More of the petroleum would evaporate and the sold asphalt would protect the animal bones and a verity of microfossils such as wood, plants, rodent bones, insects, and seeds.
How where La Brea Tar Pits discovered?
The pits have been a known feature of the Los Angeles area since the arrival for the first Native Americans. The asphalt has long been used to fill cracks in canoes.
It wasn’t until the 1800’s, when the early settlers started mining the area died the fossils start showing up. The early fossils were assumed to be the bones of lost cattle, horse and pronghorn antelope. It wasn’t until a few carnivore skulls were discovered that the geological significance was realized. This led the reexamination of the earlier bones and the discovery of extinct species of bison and horses.
What does it cost to visit La Brea Tar Pits?
**Prices valid as of January 5, 2018**
Exploring the grounds of La Brea is free but to enter the George C. Page Museum has a small admission fee.
There are three options for tickets to George C. Page Museum (La Brea Tar Pits Museum and Fossil Lab).
The first option is admission to the museum, Excavator Tour and Explore the La Brea Tar Pits Tour. The tour costs $15.00 per adult and $7.00 per child. Students and Seniors is $12.00.
The second option includes either the Titans of the Ice Age (a 3D movie) or Ice Age Encounters (a multi-media performance). This option costs $20.00 per adult and $12.00 per child. Students and Seniors is $12.00.
The third option includes both Titans of the Ice Age or Ice Age Encounters. This option costs $25.00 per adult and $22.00 per child. Students and Seniors is $17.00.
Parking at La Brea Tar Pits
La Brea Tar Pits Museum offers onsite parking. Their lot offers all day parking at the corner of Curson Ave. and 6th street. The lot cost $15.00.
There is limited street parking nearby but the availabilities varies as does the time limit and cost. Read the signs very carefully or you will get ticketed and towed.
I decided that I would rather pay $12.00 then risk the ticket with street parking (plus I suck at parallel parking).
Visiting La Brea Tar Pit and Museums
I wanted to see the 3D movie but the projector was broken. I am told it is very informative and really adds to the La Brea experience. I bought my wristband and headed into the Museum. I have about an hour before my first tour starts. I walk into the first museum exhibit and can see the similarities between the first fossil and one I saw while in the Museo Paleontologico in Villavieja, Colombia.
Both creatures are fossils of ancient Ground Sloths. It was interesting to see a similar fossil discover almost 3000 miles apart. I stopped to look at this amazing fossil. One preserved in dirt and the other in asphalt. The next exhibit is on how the animals because trapped in the La Brea. The first thing that surprised me is that the pits aren’t full of tar. They are full of asphalt. The name is a misnomer and causes a lot of confusion. The exhibit explains how the animals would get trapped in the asphalt and would be unable to escape. I tested my strength by trying to pull a metal rod out of the asphalt. It is a lot more difficult than I thought.
I walked further into the museum and found this cool looking herbivore with a sail on its back. It is actually an ancient bison. The bison is significantly larger than the modern American Bison I had seen in Yellowstone National Park.
The next exhibit was along the wall of the museum and showcased various skulls and teeth found in the pits. As I walked down the exhibit, I started noticing a trend. Most of the animals featured were carnivores such as the California Saber-Toothed Cats and Dire Wolfs.
The next exhibit was on the larger herbivores found in the pits such as Imperial Mammoths, Extinct Camel, and Shasta Ground Sloth. These are complete skeletons (at least they think they are complete, even if they are made of multiple animals). Along the back wall, near the Imperial Mammoths is a small poster that I found really interesting. They chart the ages of the Ancient Bison found in the pits. It is clear that they migrated through the Rancho La Brea on a yearly basis. They find large numbers of bison that are between 2-4 month and then 14-16 months. They find very few young in the intermediate ages.
The next exhibit is on the birds of Rancho La Brea. The museum has one of the finest collections of fossilized birds in the work. I will later learn that this is due to the asphalt and the entrapment scenario that occurred here.
The next exhibit is a wall of Dire Wolf skulls. They have found more than 1600 wolves in the pits. That’s a lot of wolves that died in this area. Each skull is unique and researchers learn more about the species with every find.
I have spent years trying to see and photograph a wild Mountain Lion in the National Parks of the USA. I often get asked if I would be scared to see one. A little, looking at the fossils of some of the large cats found in La Brea, is scary. They are big, powerful and scary. I couldn’t imagine being stalked by one of those.
The La Brea Tar Pits’ fossil lab is a glass room designed to allow the two staff members and over 25 weekly volunteers to work in peace while allowing the public to see the current fossil preparation. Most of the time they are sorting out the microfossils from Project 23 boxes. They occasionally have large fossils like the new juvenile Colombian mammoth and a saber tooth-cat skull that was recently found.
I stopped to a look in the fossil collection room of La Brea. They have millions of ice age fossils and one of the largest collection in the world.
I ended my tour by looking at the largest fossil every found in the pits. It’s not an animal, it is a fossilized tree.
The Excavator Tour starts at the Fossil Lab and is very informative about the pits and the fossils found there. A big part of the tour is the visit to the Observation Pit. The Observation Pit an exposed pit that was one of the first excavated pits. The pit is no longer an active excavation but it remains as a reminder as the original digs and early era of tourism in La Brea.
On the tour, I learned that they discover 9 carnivores for every 1 herbivore found. This unbalanced ratio has led to the belief that the pits provided what is called an entrapment scenario. What that means in that the asphalt pits would pop-up in the Rancho La Brea area. They would become covered with water and leaves. An herbivore would step on the pit and become entrapped. Its distress calls would attract predators such as the dire wolves and saber tooth-cats. Some of the carnivores would become trapped as well. The scavenger birds would feed on the now dead carnivores and herbivore. Some of the birds would become stuck as well. As the bodies decomposed, their bones would become covered in the asphalt and this has led to the filled matrix of fossils found in the pits. Bird fragile bones are often destroyed under normal fossilization but the asphalt helps preserve the birds.
Exploring Hancock Park, the Grounds of La Brea
The entire outside of the park is free to visit and explore. All of the pits are open to view. Watch where you step and avoid any areas marked by traffic cones. The petroleum is still seeping to the surface and can pop-up anywhere.
The main feature of the outdoor park is Lake Pit. The name is deceiving as Lake Pit isn’t a lake. It is what remains of the La Brea asphalt mine. The methane bubbles are created by a bacteria that feeds at the bottom of the lake. The Lake also features model mammoths becoming trapped in the lake and his family on the shore trying to rescue him.
Pits 3, 4, 61, and 67 have been excavated and are now just left to their own devices. These pits are often covered with leaves and water. Looking at the pits it is easy to see how an animal would walk right out on to the pit and get trapped. It is not unheard of by staff to have reports of squirrels caught in the pits.
Pit 9 is where most of the mammoth bones have been recovered from. Pit 13 had some of the best-preserved carnivores.
If you are visiting during the summer, be sure to check out Pit 91. It is still an active dig site and is the oldest archeological dig in the area. It is one of the longest-running excavation anywhere in the world. The excavation started in 1917.
Project 23 is the newest dig. Project 23 is the excavation of 23 large boxes of solid asphalt that was discovered during the excavation of the underground parking structure for the Los Angles Museum of Modern Art. The 23 boxes were found in 16 deposits during 2006 excavation. The 16 deposits presented a major problem. They were archeologically valuable but the Modern Art Museum needed its parking structure.
La Brea got creative and hired a tree moving firm. The company built and move the 23 boxes over 100,000 tons of material so the parking structure could be built. The excavation is on-going. It takes place 7 days a week with full-time staff and volunteers who carefully measure and collect every fossil from the large animal bones to small microfossil (small plants and bugs). The work is done with small hand tools removing cm by cm. Everything is collected and will be examined at a later date. They have completed 7 boxes so far and have recovered thousands of fossils that wait to be examined.
If you were starving and knew you risked getting stuck and dying in the La Brea Tar Pits would you still try and get the animal stuck in the asphalt?
Disclaimer: I visited La Brea Tar Pits on my own and my visit was in no way compensated.