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Post Register: Hagerman Fossil Beds show Idaho’s past

Post Register 02/16/24

Idaho is richly blessed with natural resources and outdoor recreational opportunities. However, what Idaho doesn’t have is an abundance of national parks and monuments. In fact, Idaho shares only a tiny sliver of Yellowstone as its only national park. Only two national monuments grace our maps. You have almost certainly heard of Craters of the Moon National Monument, but can you name the second one?

It is Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument in the Magic Valley, along the west shore of the Snake River. It is the home to our state fossil, the Hagerman Horse, and encompasses over 4,000 acres, but most people have never heard of it.

I went to Hagerman to see what a monument dedicated to the Pliocene Epoch of four million years ago could possibly have to offer.

The Hagerman Fossil Bed National Monument visitor center is on Main Street in Hagerman across from the high school, about two and a half hours from Idaho Falls and two hours from Boise. We picked up a brochure and then headed south out of town and crossed the Snake River. We stopped at the Snake River Overlook and with map in hand, identified the monument property; grass-covered steep bluffs rising 600 feet above the river sliced by deep gulches that ran to river’s edge.

Five hundred thousand years of history was exposed when Lake Bonneville’s natural dam at Red Rock Pass near Downy failed 14,500 years ago. The raging flood cut through ancient Lake Idaho sediment beds to the river’s current level revealing the sediment layers like pages of a prehistoric book.

At the top of the grade I visited the Oregon Trail kiosk and the beginning of the Emigrant Trail hiking path and at the end of 5600 North I found the Rim to River trailhead. Signs warned to stay on the trails as the remainder of the monument is closed to cross-country travel. Without hiking the trails this took less than an hour.

We were soon back at the visitor center asking staff why anyone would want to visit this look-but-don’t-touch National Monument. Park Ranger Wesley Gant quickly agreed that making the Monument the primary focus of a visit to Hagerman wasn’t realistic.

But it is a must-do for anyone already visiting the area,” he said.

If you want to understand the impacts of a changing climate and what species made it and what didn’t, this is the place to go,” she said. “It is a great place to really ponder and understand paleontological research.”

  • Until the monument completes its interpretive management plan which hopefully will initiate a new interactive visitor center, Geniac recommends seeing the monument three ways:
  • Hike the Rim to River trail to get a sense of where fossils might be found in the exposed sediment layers.
  • Rent a kayak in town and paddling along the base of the bluffs to get another perspective.
  • Spend several hours in the visitor center where expert staff like intern Jennifer Hamilton can walk you through the Pliocene Epoch and some of the over 200 specimens of plants and animals found there. If you can stay long enough, there are scheduled night sky tours, junior ranger programs and a monthly lecture series. Geniac stressed checking the website for updates on activities.

So, should you go to Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument? Absolutely. This national monument should be part of any visit to the awesome Hagerman area. It is one of the richest fossil records of the Pliocene Epoch known and even recently identified a new species.