WACO — When deciding where to go for this Traveling Soldier feature, I always try to keep in mind the military family, and now the travel restrictions that Soldiers have here at Fort Hood. My five-year-old grandson just recently watched the movie “Ice Age,” and I happened upon an announcement that the guided tours of the dig sites at the Waco Mammoth National Monument had recently restarted and opened to the public. With visions of seeing the bones of Manfred and hearing the voice of Ray Romano bouncing around in my head, we set off for our weekly adventure.
This national park is one of the newest parks in the National Park Service. It was established by former President Barack Obama via executive order in 2015. And the history of finding mammoth bones there only goes back to 1978. That’s when Paul Barron and Eddie Bufkin embarked on a search for arrowheads and fossils near the Bosque River. To their surprise, the men stumbled upon a large bone eroding out of a ravine. They took it to the local museum at Baylor, and that started the chain of events that led to the site being what it is today.
Much of the site had been shut down due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, but the site reopened Aug. 12. Masks are required, and the park rangers ensure that groups of families travel through the site in pods that are distanced from each other. The park wasn’t crowded on the weekday I went there, but the park rangers told me there will be 200-300 people who go through the site on the weekend.
Immediately next to the parking lot is the welcome center, gift shop, restrooms and ticket counter. They also had a display of some replica bones of ice age animals in a tent for the curious to look at. The classic saber-toothed tiger, and others were on display. All of the park staff were very friendly and excited to discuss all aspects of the park and the items on display there. They were happy to interact with the two 6-year-olds, one 5-year-old, and toddler that my wife and I had with us.
Once we had all used the restrooms and purchased our tickets, we headed down the shaded path to the dig site. On the way, we discovered that there are indeed also hiking trails on this 100-acre park. They were established by a local Boy Scout troop. They looked well maintained and easy to walk on, but this wasn’t the purpose of our visit that day.
The walk to the dig site only took about 20 minutes to make, and that would have been shorter, but I stopped to read all the information displays along the way.
Mercifully, the current dig site proper is in an air conditioned building, so we could take our time to look at everything without worrying about having a heat stroke.
The dig site is cool both literally and figuratively. It’s hard to imagine how large the Columbian mammoth actually was until you see the skeleton in the ground and the life sized painting of one on the facility walls. They were known to be as tall as 14 feet and as heavy as 20,000 pounds. Basically, that’s as big as a big, yellow school bus, according to one of the park rangers.
There are the remains of several other animals in the site as well. We saw the skull of a prehistoric camel, and armadillo, in addition to those of the mammoth.
I’m not sure the young ones with me were as interested in this park as I was. Afterward, we bought some chicken nuggets and had a picnic at one of the numerous parks in Waco. There are several nice ones along the banks of the Brazos River – Cameron Park, Pecan Bottom Park, and Proctor Springs to name a few.
If you are taking the family, my suggestion is to take the fixings for a picnic and plan on visiting both the Waco Mammoth National Monument and Cameron Park Zoo, since they are both very close to each other.
The park is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The guided tour fees, which I recommend for the best experience, are: adults $5, seniors (over 60) $4, military (with ID) $4, educators (with ID) $4, students (7th grade through college) $4, children (pre-K through 6th grade) $3, infants (ages 3 and under) enter for free.
For more information about the national park or for any ticket price changes or current events, visit https://www.nps.gov/waco/index.htm.