My first apo (grandchild) got married in Santa Monica, California last October, and, as usual, I looked for places to visit after the ceremony. My interest was first piqued by photos of replica mammoths rising from a black lake. Evidently, since the 1900s, the area had trapped and preserved Ice Age animals, plants, and insects in sticky asphalt pits for more than 50,000 years. I could not believe how an urban location like Los Angeles could be host to La Brea Tar Pits, an Ice Age fossil site still being actively excavated today. I had to see it to believe it.
From huge extinct mammoths to tiny remnants of plants and animals, these fossils are housed in the Museum of La Brea Tar Pits. But still, more are being processed in what is called Project 23; in fact, hundreds of other pits are still being excavated. The Lake Pit, the Amphitheater, a Pleistocene Garden, and Hancock Park complete the fascinating, sprawling grounds.
The Lake Pit
I looked for those mastodons coming out of the dark lake first. As expected, the three life-sized mammoths are cavorting in what is called the Lake Pit. But, there’s no need to worry; they are just concrete recreations of the scene, a great representation of how creatures got trapped, became fossilized, and preserved in the asphalt.
Lake Pit was formed from what was left of asphalt mining operations in the late 1800s when rain and groundwater collected above the bubbling, sticky substance over the deep underground Salt Lake Oil Field. Under pressure over time, oil was formed from marine plankton deposited in an ocean basin 5-25 million years ago. This petroleum has been seeping to the surface, through faults or porous layers, throughout La Brea Tar Pits.
The gooey, heavy, and viscous substance is asphalt, commonly called tar, the lowest grade of crude oil. When warm, it becomes very sticky. Animals that came into contact with it got trapped like flies on flypaper. Stronger, heavier animals might have managed to escape, but eventually, most would have been held fast until they died of exhaustion. Predators must have come after the carcasses but then they also would get trapped.
Black with bubbles and exuding a distinctive odor, the Lake Pit sits right in front of the Museum. For the safety of visitors, especially the little ones, the whole lake is wire-fenced. To get good photos I had to insert my camera lens between the wires. A short hike around the perimeter gave me great pictures of the mastodons at different angles and with different backdrops: the amphitheater on one side, an LA skyscraper on another, or the museum in the middle.
Before the animals got trapped, Los Angeles was under the Pacific Ocean. When you step inside the museum, you will see some of the most spectacular and yet most common fossils like huge ground sloths, towering mammoths, and saber-toothed cats. You may be able to see scientists preparing specimens to be put on display at the many galleries at a fossil lab.
After over a hundred years of excavating, the collection of fossils is the world’s most complete record of what life was like at the end of the Ice Age. At the last count, there were over 3.5 million specimens among 60 plus species of mammals. The collection of fossil birds is also one of the largest in the world. There are no dinosaurs, however, since they had been extinct for 66 million years before life began to be trapped in these pits.
Beside La Brea Tar Pits is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). In 2006 work was begun on its new underground parking garage. During construction, 16 new fossil deposits were uncovered. 23 large wooden boxes were built around each deposit, and they were moved to their present location at La Brea Tar Pits which came to be called “Project 23.” In addition to the boxes, there were 327 buckets of fossil material recovered from the LACMA salvage site. This project will keep the scientists busy for years; when completed, it may double the size of the present collection.
Some of the excavation sites may be closed or have limited access to prioritize safety and ensure current requirements for social distancing. Unfortunately, Project 23 was closed when we visited, but work on the 23 boxes continues every day. One of the biggest discoveries is an 80% complete skeleton of a Columbian mammoth nicknamed “Zed.” He is a well-preserved male adult, including the skull and both 10-foot-long tusks that are now on display at the museum.
All the excavations made between July 1913 and September 1915 began to be called “pits.” They started with over 100 fossil quarries, but more than 50 proved to be totally unproductive. However, more than ten yielded many outstanding specimens. There are now five fenced areas like Lake Pit and the Academy Pit.
We visited Pit 91 near the amphitheater, where we could look down and see the work being done from the viewing station. Thousands of bones of extinct animals were jumbled together in pools of sticky asphalt from which paleontologists carefully extract the true fossils.
Thousands of years ago, during the Ice Age, Pit 91 like the other pits was a shallow pool that trapped and preserved all kinds of plants and animals that got too close. Over a long period of time, dirt and sand washed over the pool, burying it; the fossils got stuck there, underground. Paleontologists discovered and started excavating Pit 91 over a hundred years ago, in 1915. The deposit is so rich in fossils that this is still very much an active excavation site; in fact, it’s considered number 1 among all the pits.
There is also the Observation Pit, designed and built over Pit 101 to give visitors the actual feel of entering a fossil pit. It was first opened to the public in 1952, but was closed in the mid-1990s. It served as the first museum on the grounds until the current Museum was built. You will see a mix of real fossils and casts of fossils that have been staged to show how excavators find specimens. The Observation Pit was reopened to the public in 2014.
At the Amphitheater, the documentary called Titans of the Ice Age plays for only $6 per person (or free for members of La Brea). Expertly narrated by Christopher Plummer, it takes you to a world vastly different from today: a world hidden in ice and dominated by giants. In this exciting 3D feature film, you will discover a frozen world that was already on the brink of extinction. It is a recreation of the period when majestic creatures lived on the same frozen tundra as with humans, 10,000 years before modern civilization.
The Pleistocene Garden
Los Angeles was not yet lined with palm trees during that period; rather, it was an oasis of pine, sage, and buckwheat. This vegetation of the Los Angeles Basin was based on the research gathered from Pit 91 for 35 years. It is recreated in La Brea’s pretty Pleistocene Garden and is divided into four ecological systems: Coastal Sage, Riparian, Mixed Evergreen/Redwood Forest, and Chaparral.
Since La Brea Tar Pits is a favorite place to visit for families and schools, the park has also been converted into a fun community resource. It is where any type of boot camp participants can meet and train, where kids can play next to super-sized Ice Age mammals, and Los Angeles residents and tourists can stroll and picnic. Many paths wind around active excavation sites, the impressive Lake Pit, the playground, and the Pleistocene Garden. And the Store at the Museum is a place to shop and buy lots of interesting mementos from a unique experience.
Pro Tip: We did not know that the two sites we wanted to visit, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and La Brea Tar Pits, are sitting next to each other. We went to the latter first and paid $15 for a parking slot. Since we also wanted to see one of the most popular LA landmarks located in LACMA called the Urban Light — a sculpture composed of 202 vintage street light lamp posts from the 1920s and 1930s LA neighborhoods assembled in an array of varying heights from 20 to 30 feet and fitted with dusk-to-dawn solar-powered lighting — we exited the La Brea parking grounds.
Soon, we regretted having done so because we found LACMA just next door and had to pay $18 for another parking slot. We suggest that you use either parking lot and simply walk to the other on a great two-site, one-day visit. Since both are on Wilshire Boulevard, the area has many nearby restaurants and food trucks offering outdoor dining or take-out food. Consider grabbing your favorite dish(es) and having a picnic in Hancock Park for lunch during this sight-seeing day!