My, What a Big Tusk You Have
He’s 14 feet tall, weighs 10 tons, eats 700 pounds a day—and he’s staring you in the face. Fortunately for you, he eats only vegetation, and he’s been dead for about 30 thousand years. Still, there’s a rush of excitement because you’re the first person to uncover this animal since he was trapped in a prehistoric sinkhole and buried under sediment. Amateur archaeologist Dan Hanson had just such a thrill when in 1974 he literally stubbed his toe on an exposed mammoth tooth. Archaeological digs to the Mammoth Site at Hot Springs in South Dakota have yielded a treasure trove of Ice Age finds, including the fossilized remains of two kinds of mammoths (Columbian and wooly), as well as camels, llamas, giant short-faced bears, and wolves.
The site where the 60-foot-deep (18m) sinkhole once formed a prehistoric graveyard is now a world-class research facility and museum dedicated to the investigation of Ice Age ecology. Located in a remote corner of southwestern South Dakota, the Mammoth Site hosts amateur archaeologists through two organizations, the Earthwatch Institute and Elderhostel. Both programs include accommodations in nearby motels and fresh-cooked, family-style meals. Unusual for an archaeological dig, the site is inside a climate-controlled building; visitors to the museum can view ongoing excavations first-hand. And for young visitors during the summer, the museum provides an area where children can practice their digging technique in a simulated excavation; replicas of mammoth fossils are buried beneath the sand.
The Hot Springs area is also a hotbed of historic and natural attractions. Mount Rushmore National Monument (www.nps.gov/moru), Crazy Horse Memorial (www.crazyhorsememorial.org), Jewel Cave National Park (www.nps.gov/jeca), and other wonders are located nearby. And if you’ve tired of fossilized animals, you can see thousands of free-roaming bison in Wind Cave National Park (www.nps.gov/wica), which has the largest herd of these once-endangered animals in the United States. —ML
The Mammoth Site, 1800 Hwy. 18 Truck Rte. ( 605/745-6017; www.mammothsite.com). Earthwatch Institute ( 800/776-0188 or 978/461-0081; www.earthwatch.org). Elderhostel ( 877/426-8056; www.elderhostel.org).
When to Go: Year-round.
Rapid City, SD (57 miles/92km).