Big Bone Lick State Historic Site is one of the most scientifically important sites in American history, that most people have never even heard of. These wetlands, nestled in a bend just a few miles from the shores of the Ohio River, in Boone County, Kentucky is the birthplace of modern vertebrate paleontology on the North American continent. Vertebrate paleontology is the subfield of paleontology that seeks to discover, through the study of fossilized remains, the behavior, reproduction, and appearance of extinct animals with vertebrae.
Early bone specimens found in Big Bone Lick, when compared to similar European specimens, helped to revolutionize the theory that there was a history of animals roaming the Earth long before humans ever existed. If that doesn’t spark your interest in this park, then the hiking trails to see a herd of bison living here will!
Compared to most state parks, this one is on the small side at only 524 acres, so an afternoon is really all you need to explore the area. Big Bone Lick features several hiking trails, crossing wetlands, grasslands, and a cedar forest which leads to a small herd of bison kept here. If you’re just driving through, but need somewhere to stay for the night, theres a 62-site campground and picnicking areas to accommodate any length of stay.
We started our afternoon here by venturing into the newly remodeled visitors center. The museum quality exhibits, showcase some of the artifacts uncovered here as well as a life-size recreation of an eight foot tall Harlans Ground Sloth, the enormous skull of a wholly mammoth, and saber tooth tiger.
The first organized paleontology expedition in the United States was conducted here, when Thomas Jefferson dispatched William Clark to collect bone specimens from this area, putting this place on the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. Several places we visited in Montana were also stopping points on their trail.
Discovery Trail | 0.1 miles
Directly behind the visitors center is the Discovery Trail that includes a boardwalk around a marsh bog diorama recreating long extinct animals such as woolly mammoths, a ground sloth, a mastodon, and bison. So you may be asking, “Why were all of these animals, all gathered in this particular area?”. The answer is SALT. The natural occurring mineral springs found within these marshes have been attracting animals since the last Ice Age.
Big Bone Creek | 0.9 miles
The Big Bone Creek Trail is a paved trail giving hikers close up views of several of these salt springs. The first spring is located just behind a wood railing keeping would be guests from inadvertently walking into it. Most people today would look at this bog and not give it a second thought, but animals such as the American Mastodon would have traveled from dozens of miles away just to get a chance to drink this mineral rich water.
It was long thought that the reason so many animal bones were found here was because they at some point became trapped in the muddy bogs, leading them to drown. In reality, due to the saturation of large game gathering here, this area become a large hunting ground for Paleo-Indians. Among the many artifacts found here are flint spearpoints from as far back as 1500 B.C. to more recent flint arrow points from 1650 A.D. Many of the bones that have been dug up from Big Bone Creek have cut marks made from the butchering of fresh kills.
Further along the trail is a much larger and more active salt spring. The sulfuric aroma emanating from the spring has the same pungent smell most often remarked as that of rotten eggs. It reminds me of the few years I spent living on a rural farm, a city kids first experience with well water. A boardwalk with interpretive signs shares some of the history of Big Bone Lick, starting from when humans began to commoditize the mineral rich water by turning it into salt for trade.
During the 1800’s the area became famous for its bathhouses. The sulfur saltwater of the springs was thought to have medical properties during a time when epidemics were prevalent and medical science was still in its infancy. A large hotel, the Clay House, once occupied a small hill overlooking the creek, welcoming wealthy guests from all over the country, just to get a chance to bathe in this creek.
Bison Trace | 0.5 miles
Just as the Big Bone Creek Trail ends, we spot the trailhead for Bison Trace Trail across the parking lot. This short, heavily trafficked trail leads to the ranch where the bison herd is kept, as a tangible link to the parks prehistoric past.
Stepping out of the forest, you emerge onto an expansive grassland, hidden away in the middle of a forest. Wild daisies bloom all along the fence separating us from the bison. Its a beautiful sight, bringing back images of our last trip to Yellowstone National Park, where these incredible creatures are allowed to roam freely.
The bison are so accustomed to visitors that they barely even notice our presence. Among some of the larger animals we spot a small baby calf laying beside its mother in the tall grass, having been born just 2 months prior.
Great bison herds once roamed Kentucky, providing the Shawnee Indians food, clothing and shelter. Hunted to near extinction, the last of the wild bison were seen in Kentucky near the end of the 1700’s.
Bison continue to be a link to our prehistoric past, here in the Ohio river valley. To some, seeing these animals here might be the very first, if only time they might ever encounter such creatures in their native environment, roaming freely. Near the end of this meadow lies the trailhead to Cedar Run.
Cedar Run | 0.9 miles
Cedar Run trail is a moderate hike through the karst topography the our region is famous for. Small dry creek crossings along the path downhill are met by steep climbs on the return to the juniper covered ridge across from the visitors center.
In patches where downed trees have let sunlight penetrate the densely shaded forest floor, we found wild mint blooming. Its pastel colored, purple stamens were welcoming bumble bees to feed on its pollen. Turkey mushrooms were prevalent along many of the decaying trees, that would soon become mulch for next seasons saplings.
Gobblers Trace | 0.5 miles
Cedar Run trail ends as it intersects Gobblers Trace trail.Its mainly used as a connection point between the visitors center and the campgrounds at Big Bone Lake and Coralberry Trail. Due to restrictions on mass gatherings, the campgrounds, along with access to the lake is closed off until mid summer, so we followed the trail heading east back towards the visitors center.
Walking through these woods I try to imagine how I would react if upon exiting these woods, I encounter a herd of wholly mammoth gathered around of one the salt springs. I honestly wouldn’t know what to do besides coward behind a tree, while watching in amazement, probably the same as most of the early inhabitants of Big Bone Lick. As humans, we have a knack for attaching stories to things bigger than ourselves, in order to make sense of them.
One such story that lives on, is the Native American tale surrounding the existence of all these mammoth sized bones. It explains how the Great Spirit had destroyed a fearsome giant bison in order to protect humans, by descending down from the sky, and while sitting on a hill, threw lightning bolts i to the Lick to destroy the beasts.
Stories like this, have been passed down from generation to generation as a practical explanation for what may have occurred here before the innovation of scientific research, able to date and identify bones, could give us a clearer picture of our prehistoric past.
For many of the people that come here, the historical importance of this place is secondary to a chance to spend an afternoon enjoy its beauty. So come here, watch the bison roam, laugh amongst yourselves as you try to avoid smelling the sulfuric springs, and leave with a clearer insight into some of our nations history! See y'all on the trails!