Mammoth Site: Hot Springs, South Dakota, U.S.A.

Mammoth Site: Hot Springs, South Dakota, U.S.A.

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 (, Crazy Horse Memorial (, Jewel Cave National Park (, 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 (, 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; Earthwatch Institute ( 800/776-0188 or 978/461-0081; Elderhostel ( 877/426-8056;

When to Go: Year-round.

Rapid City, SD (57 miles/92km).

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