Welcome Waco Mammoth National Monument as the 408th National Park

A mural of what the Columbian Mammoth herd may have looked like at Waco.  Photo from nps.gov
A mural of what the Columbian Mammoth herd may have looked like at Waco. Photo from nps.gov

Its amazing to think that less than one year ago, there were not any  national parks specifically dedicated to mammoth fossils – and now there are two!  The first is the Tule Springs Fossil Beds near Las Vegas, Nevada, which was established by Congress in December 2014.  The second is the newest unit of the National Park System, the Waco Mammoth National Monument, which was established by Presidential Proclamation under the Antiquities Act on July 10, 2015.  Prior to 2014 there were six national parks specifically dedicated to fossils in the name of the park, but all of them from eras predating the age of the mammoths:

By contrast,  mammoths lived  in North America during the Pleistocene time period, from about 2 million years ago to around 10,000 years ago.  Specifically, the mammoths at Tule Springs died approximately 250,000 years ago and the mammoths at Waco died approximately 68,000 years ago.   The mammoths at both sites are considered to be Columbian Mammoths, a species of mammoth that is related to the smaller, but more-famous, Wooly Mammoths that lived in Siberia and northern North America.  Likewise, both sites would predate the arrival of the first humans to the Americas, which different theories date as occuring anywhere between 12,000 years ago to as much as 40,000 years ago.

In addition to the age of their respective mammoth fossils being hundreds of thousands of years apart, two other things distinguish Waco Mammoth National Monument from Tule Springs National Monument and make them each unique in their own way.  First, Tule Springs is currently almost completely undeveloped.  It has no visitor center, and no displays of exposed fossils, whether in situ (still in the ground) or anywhere else.  Visiting it requires some hiking and some imagination. The second is that the Waco site preserves a nursery herd of mammoths – the only known such fossils of its kind in the United States.  This makes the fossils here especially valuable, as they tell us a great deal about how mammoths reproduced, raised their young, and how they lived with others.

The Waco Mammoth Site features displays of mammoth fossils still located in the ground.  Photo Credit: E. Wilson
The Waco Mammoth Site features displays of mammoth fossils still located in the ground. Photo Credit: E. Wilson

 

Although these are the first two national parks specifically dedicated to mammoth fossils, it turns out that mammoth fossils can be found as a secondary feature at a few other national parks.  Among the most notable is Channel Islands National Park.  Although most visitors to Channel Islands National Park, located off the cost of Los Angeles, California, either go for the scenery, or perhaps for activities like sea kayaking, hiking, or whale watching, 40,000 years ago the Channel Islands were home to the Pygmy Mammoth, a species found nowhere else in the world.

There are also two other national parks that are dedicated to the archeology of the peoples who hunted mammoths.   Bering Land Bridge National Preserve is in one of the remotest corners of western Alaska, and preserves the archeological legacy of the first American settlers who likely followed herds of wooly mammoths across the Bering Land Bridge at the end of the last ice age.   The second is Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument in the panhandle of north Texas, where some of the earliest Americans obtained flint for their spearheads with which to hunt the Columbian Mammoths found at Waco and at Tule Springs.  Naturally, the presence of humans at both sites indicates that they are much more recent than the two new national monuments dedicated to mammoths.

Likewise, it should be mentioned that perhaps the most-famous mammoth fossil site in the United States is not part of the U.S. National Park System.  Mammoth fossils have been found at the La Brea tar pits near Los Angeles, California which is now part of the Page Museum.  The fossils there also date from relatively recent history, from between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago.

Mammoths were also featured by the National Park Service as part of the 2012 National Fossil Day artwork.  According to their info, mammoth fossils have also been found at Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve in Colorado,  Glen Canyon National Recreation Area on the Utah-Arizona border, and of all places, Valley Forge National Historical Park in Pennsylvania.

Nevertheless, very few visitors to these Parks would have come away with any deeper appreciation for the way in which mammoth fossils are found, or for the ways in which mammoths lived and thrived in this country, literally for millions of years.   Waco Mammoth National Monument in particular will provide an outstanding opportunity for education about these wonderful creatures.

Its fascintating to think about how sites like Waco Mammoth connect to our present-day world.   Although these were not the Wooly Mammoths of Siberia, its still amazing to think of these giant beasts living in places like central Texas, Las Vegas, and southern California.  In fact, these giant beasts roamed here “only” a few tens of thousands of years, which really puts into context the tens of millions of years that separate us from the other fossil-focused national parks in the National Park System.

Another example of the outstanding mammoth fossils at the Waco Mammoth National Monument.  Photo credit: E. Wilson
Another example of the outstanding mammoth fossils at the Waco Mammoth National Monument. Photo credit: E. Wilson

 

(*) – It should be noted that a single fossil mammoth was found at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument in 2002, but mammoths are not the primary focus of interpretation and education there.

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Summer Stamps from the Golden Gate NRA to Badlands National Park

A stamp for the Golden Gate Bridge highlights the new additions this month.   Photo from  2009.
A stamp for the Golden Gate Bridge highlights the new additions this month. Photo from 2009.

 

Due to some extensive travels, I never made a post on the new June stamps, so here in one big post are all the new stamps from Eastern National for June and July – a grand total of 18 over the two months!

June Stamps:

Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument | 50th Anniversary 1965-2015

Dinosaur National Monument | 100th Anniversary 1915-2015

Oregon Caves National Monument & Preserve | Cave Junction, OR

Golden Gate National Recreation Area:

  • Golden Gate Bridge
  • Land’s End
  • Fort Point
  • Presidio
  • Nike MIssile Site
  • Point Bonita Lighthouse
  • Muir Woods
  • Juan Bautista de Anza NHT

Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail | Falmouth, VA

Trail of Tears National Historic Trail | Cherokee Removal MEM Park, TN

Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area

  • Highway 61 Blues Museum
  • Birthplace of the Frog

July Stamps

Badlands National Park | White River VC

North Country National Scenic Trail | Lowell, MI

Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail |

  • Fort Monroe, VA
  • Wrightsville, PA

The “year of the anniversary stamps” continued through June with two new additions.  Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument preserves a place where the first Americans dug for flint 13,000 years ago in North Texas.  The history of Dinosaur National Monument is of course much older than that, and I previously wrote about its 100th anniversary here.

The new stamp for Oregon Caves National Monument & Preserve reflects its new name and expanded boundaries.   In December 2014, Congress expanded the boundaries to include some of the unspoiled scenery and pristine waterways surrounding the Oregon Caves as a “Preserve.”  Somewhat confusingly, however, Congress did not make this yet another national park that “counts twice,” unlike most of the other “& Preserve” parks in the National Park System.

The Golden Gate National Recreation Area includes numerous parklands and historic sites within the city of San Francisco and its immediate suburbs.   Indeed, this park has Passport stamps scattered across 21 different locations, and all 8 of this month’s locations previously had stamps.  The Golden Gate Bridge Pavillion received its first stamp for the Golden Gate Bridge’s 75th Anniversary in 2012, and so now appears to have a permanent stamp of its own.  Additionally, Fort Point National Historic Site, located below the Golden Gate Bridge, and Muir Woods National Monument, located in nearby Mill Valley, are actually separate units of the National Park System.  They previously had stamps for Golden Gate NRA that read “San Francisco, CA” on the bottom, but now have place-specific stamps of their own for their dual status under the management of Golden Gate NRA.

American painter Gari Melchers' estate, Belmont, is the latest addition to Passport Program for the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail.
American painter Gari Melchers’ estate, Belmont, is the latest addition to Passport Program for the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail.

 

The Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail is one of three national scenic trails that count as national parks.   This new stamp is located at the home and studios of American impressionist painter Gari Melchers, located on the campus of Mary Washington University, outside of Fredericksburg, Virginia.

The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail previously had a stamp at the Cherokee Removal Memorial Park in Meigs County, Tennessee.  This park was essentially a concentration camp where the Cherokee were rounded up rounded up 1838 before crossing the Tennessee River and being deported on the Trail of Tears to present-day Oklahoma.

In November 2014, the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area received its first 18 Passport Stamps, located at the County Visitor Centers for each of the counties in the designated national heritage area.  These two stamps are its first for actual destination locations.   The Highway 61 Blues Museum is located in Leland, Mississippi, as is the Jim Henson birthplace.  Jim Henson, of course, is the famed created of Kermit the Frog and the rest of the muppets.

Badlands National Park includes spectacular scenery and awe-inspiring rock formations.  Photo from 1998.
Badlands National Park includes spectacular scenery and awe-inspiring rock formations. Photo from 1998.

Badlands National Park preserves spectacular scenary in South Dakota.  The White River Visitor Center services the less-visited Stronghold Unit in the southern portion of the national park, and is located with the Oglala Sioux Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.  Previously, this visitor center had a non-standard stamp courtesy of the Oglala Sioux Parks and Recreation Authority, which operates the visitor center, but this is the location’s first official stamp.

The North Country National Scenic Trail does not count as its own national park, but will run an impressive 4,600 miles (once completed) across the northern United States from Lake Champlain on the New York-Vermont border to Lake Sakakawea in central North Dakota.   Lowell, Michigan is the site of the headquarters offices of the North Country Trail Assocation, which is helping to make this route a reality.

Finally, the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trali is the National Park Service’s main program on the Chesapeake Bay.  Officially, it’s a set of water routes that commemorate the explorations of  the Bay and its tributaries by John Smith between 1607 and 1609.  Fort Monroe National Monument is now its own unit of the National Park System near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay.  Meanwhile, Wrightsville, PA is at the far northern end of John Smith’s explorations, on the banks of the Susquehanna River near present-day York, Pennsyvlania.

With these new additions there are now 1,915 active Passport cancelations out there, or 1,827 if you exclude the various anniversary and special program stamps.

A parting shot from Fort Point National Historic Site, located underneath the Golden Gate Bridge.  Photo from 2011.
A parting shot from Fort Point National Historic Site, located underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Photo from 2011.

 

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Valley of the Hohokam Part II – Hohokam Pima National Monument

The Huhugam Heritage Center is operated by the Gila River Indian Community.
The Huhugam Heritage Center is operated by the Gila River Indian Community.

In Part I of my Valley of the Hohokam Trip Report, I described how the National Park Service is responsible for two national monuments in southern Arizona.   The first visit was to Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, which is famous for its Great House.   The Great House has been a landmark for visitors to central Arizona since the earliest Spanish contacts.  The Juan Bautista de Anza expedition to San Francisco passed through this area in 1775, and de Anza himself took a side trip to visit the Casa Grande.  His trip was a follow-up to the reports of Jesuit missionary Father Eusebio Francisco Kindo, who noted the Casa Grande in an expedition to the area all the way back in 1694.

(As an interesting side note, six years after visiting Casa Grande, Father Kino would found the mission Church of San Jose de Tumacacori south of present-day Tucson, Arizona, and which today is preserved by the National Park Service as Tumacacori National Historical Park. )

If we imagine taking a virtual time machine backwards from the days of Father Kino in 1694, we know that the Great House at Casa Grande Ruins was built in the early 1300’s, and was used for a period of 50-75 years.  By the year 1450, the distinctive cultural identifiers of the people who lived at Casa Grande Ruins, such as pottery patterns and the settlement pattern around irrigation canals, no longer appear in the archeological record.   Thus, archeologists date the end of the “Hohokam culture” to that date.

Going back even earlier, we know that sometime in the 900’s, the structure referred to as a ball court  was built at Casa Grande Ruins.   There is some debate as to whether this ball court was used for the ball game that was played a thousand miles to the south, in southern Mexico, or was actually used for ceremonial dances.    The first permanent settlement at what we now call Casa Grande Ruins probably dates from around this time, or a little before.

Our time machine would have to go back much further to reach the origins of Hohokam Pima National Monument, however, which is located about 25 miles to the north and west of Casa Grande Ruins.   This national monument preserves a site that archeologists call Snaketown.  That site dates back as far as 300 B.C., and it is likely that it was inhabitated continuously through the year 1200.   That would have been long enough for many of the inhabitants of Snaketown to have been contemporaries with the first permanent settlements at Casa Grande Ruins.   Although the people who lived at Snaketown would not have seen the construction of the Great House, maybe its possible that they would have attended games or dances at the ball court there.

Fast forward to the present-day, however, and almost everything about Hohokam Pima National Monument is an anomaly – starting with its name.  As mention in my last post, the word Hohokam comes from a mistransliteration of the word Huhugam from the language of the O’odhom people; Huhugam can probably best be translated as “our ancestors who have perished.”  The word Pima, ironcially appears to be an even worse linguistic crime by the first Spanish-speakers to encounter the O’odhom people, as it appears to have originated from the O’odhom phrase for “I don’t know.”  As we might imagine, the phrase “I don’t know” was surely used a lot during the first contact between two peoples from opposite sides of the world. Nevertheless, when this national monument was established by Congres in 1972, this is the name that was chosen.  I would imagine that if this site were being designated for protection today, its likely that another name would have been selected instead – perhaps something along the lines of Huhugam O’odham National Monument.

An example of how the Great House is being held together.
Exposure to the elements can damage archeological ruins, this picture shows some of the efforts that the National Park Service has taken to protect and stabilize the Great House at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument.

This monument is also unique because the decision has been made to rebury the excavated ruins of Snaketown.   By itself, this decision is not that unusual.  Exposure to the elements is typically not going for archeological resources, which is why a protective shelter was built for the Great House at nearby Casa Grande Ruins National Monument.   Thus, archeologists frequently make the decision to rebury resources in order to preserve them for a future generation of archeologists, who may have investigative techniques that we can’t even imagine yet.   Additionally, this site is located entirely on land owned by the Gila River Indian Community of the O’odham people, who consider the site to be the sacred land of the ancestors.  I would imagine there is also some resentment of the Federal government asserting some control over this site as well.

In any event, what is unusual is that these ruins were reburied in a National Park site that is dedicated to preserving them.  A major reason for that is surely the simple fact that in 1972, when Congress established this national monument, all national monuments were turned over to the National Park Service for management.   It wasn’t until 1978 when Admiralty Island National Monument and Misty Fjords National Monument in Alaska were established on US Forest Service Lands, and left under the US Forest Service for management, that national monuments would be managed by an agency other than the National Park Service.   Were this site to be established today, I would also imagine that it would possibly be given to another Federal agency to manage, or else would simply be designated as an extension of Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, and so not given status as its own national park.

Although Hohokam Pima National Monument is closed to the public - you can see the landscape of the national monument from the observation deck of the Huhugam Heritage Center.
Although Hohokam Pima National Monument is closed to the public – you can see the landscape of the national monument from the observation deck of the Huhugam Heritage Center.  As you can see there’s not a lot to visit.

Nevertheless, Hohokam Pima National Monument poses a dilmma for anyone trying to visit all of the national parks in the U.S. National Park System, as it remains the only national park site that is closed the public – with no plans to ever open it to visitation.   So not only is there nothing to see there, as the archeological ruins have been completely and thoroughly reburied, but attempting to visit Hohokam Pima National Monument directly is also trespassing.   Yes, as it turns out, Interstate 10 technically takes you through the boundaries of this national monument right around mile 170 (and where Goodyear Road crosses the Interstate) – but most people would hardly consider that to be a meaningful visit (and stopping on the side of the road of the Interstate would not only also be illegal, but also not safe).

Nevertheless, to the extent that anyone would want to “count a visit” to a national park that is closed to the public, a visit the Gila River Indian Community’s Huhugam Heritage Center arguably checks all the boxes.  The Huhugam Heritage Center has no affiliation with the National Park Service, so there’s no passport stamp or any of the other usual accountrements of a national park visitor center, but it actually fulfills most everything else that anyone would want out of a visit.

The highlight of the Huhugam Heritage Center is that the University of Arizona returned much of it Snaketown collection to the Gila River Indian Community a few years ago, and some of the most-spectactular artifiacts from that collection are now on display in the Huhugam Heritage Center.  Included in the display are a number of very-large and perfectly-intact pots and jars that were excavataed at Snaketown.  Seeing these artifacts in-person really gives a sense for the impressive accomplishments of these people.  Unfortunately, the Center does not permit photography of the exhibit, and the Center does not have photographs online.  The best photo I could find online of the pottery is included in this nice interactive multimedia program on Snaketown that was produced by the East Valley Tribune.  Click on the link for “Crafts and Trade” in the presentaiton to see an example of the type of pottery on display.  You can also find five photos of pottery excavated at Snaketown at this site from the Arizona State Museum.

The Huhugam Heritage Center also includes a central plaza modeled after the "ball courts" found at Snaketown and Casa Grande Ruins. Tribal tradition, however, holds that these plazas were used for ceremonial dances rather than athletic competitions.
The Huhugam Heritage Center also includes a central plaza modeled after a “ball court.”

Additionally, on the roof of the Huhugam Heritage Center is an observation deck.  From this deck, it is quite possible to view and appreciate the desert landscape where the ruins of Snaketown are now reburied, and where the people who built Snaketown once had a thriving community more tha 700 years ago.   The Center also includes a central plaza modeled after the ball courts found at Snaketown and Casa Grande Ruins.

Overall, a visit the Huhugam Heritage Center is fairly satifying for anyone interested in visiting the national parks.  The artifacts on display in the Center have plenty of “wow” factor to illustrate why Snaketown is so archeologically significant.  Moreover, the exhibits also connect the people who first made the desert bloom with their crops to the people of Gila River Indian Community who are still living there today.   And you can get a good view of what the landscape looks like today.

If you do plan to visit, be sure to call ahead for the latest hours.  As of this writing,their hours are Wednesday through Friday, 10am to 4pm.  they currently have special extended hours on the first Friday of the month when they have a special heritage market.   Our schedule did not align with the heritage market on our visit, but that would surely make for an interesting enhancement to any visit.

Taken together, both Hohokam Pima National Monument and Casa Grande Ruins National Monument remind us that we are not the first people to settle in the valleys of the Gila and Salt Rivers in Central Arizona.

Check out Part I of my trip report on “Valley of the Hohokam” from Casa Grande Ruins National Monument here.

IMG_1560
An example of an interpretive display at the Huhugam Heritage Center on the rooftop observation deck.  The picture at lower left is of the original shelter at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument; the illustration at upper right also depicts Casa Grande Ruins National Monument (with the modern shelter).

Update: This post originally stated that Hohokam Pima National Monument was located along Interstate 5.  It is, of course, located, along Interstate 10 and has been corrected.

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