Carolina: Cruising Past 70: TRAVEL AWAITS: The Living Ice-Age Discovery You Can Experience In The Heart Of Los Angeles

Monday, September 26, 2022

TRAVEL AWAITS: The Living Ice-Age Discovery You Can Experience In The Heart Of Los Angeles

The full article first appeared in Travel Awaits on Jan. 17, 2022.

My interest was first piqued by photos of replica mammoths rising from a black lake. I could not believe how an urban location like Los Angeles could be host to La Brea Tar Pits, where huge extinct mammoths to tiny remnants of plants and animals had been fossilized and are still being actively excavated today. I had to see it to believe it.

Oil was formed from marine plankton deposited in an ocean basin 5-25 million years ago where Los Angeles is now. It has been seeping to the surface throughout the grounds.  The gooey, heavy, and viscous substance is called asphalt or more commonly tar, the lowest grade of crude oil. When warm, it becomes very sticky, trapping animals that came into contact with it like flies on flypaper

The Lake Pit

I looked for those mastodons coming out of the dark lake first. Indeed, three life-sized mammoths are cavorting in what is called the Lake Pit. But, there’s no need to worry: they are just concrete recreations of the scene, depicting how creatures got trapped, became fossilized, and preserved in the asphalt.

Lake Pit was formed from what was left of asphalt mining operations in the late 1800s when rain and groundwater collected above the sticky substance over the deep underground Salt Lake Oil Field. Bubbling and exuding a distinctive odor, the Lake Pit sits right in front of the Museum, wire-fenced for the safety of visitors. A hike around the perimeter gave me great pictures of the mastodons with various backdrops: the amphitheater on one side, an LA skyscraper on another, or the Museum in the middle.

The Museum

When you step inside the Museum, you will see some of the most spectacular and yet most common fossils like huge ground sloths, towering mammoths, and saber-toothed cats. There is a Fossil Lab where you may see scientists preparing specimens to be put on display in the many galleries. The collection is the world’s most complete record of what life was like at the end of the Ice Age. At last count, there were over 3.5 million specimens among 60 plus species of mammals. The collection of fossil birds is also one of the largest in the world.

Project 23

Beside La Brea Tar Pits is the
Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). In 2006 work was begun on its new underground parking garage. During construction, 16 new fossil deposits were uncovered. Twenty-three large wooden boxes were built around each deposit, and they were moved to their present location at La Brea Tar Pits which came to be called "Project 23." This project will keep the scientists busy for years; when completed, it may double the size of the present collection. One of the biggest discoveries is an 80% complete skeleton of a Columbian mammoth nicknamed “Zed” whose 10-foot-long tusks are now at the Museum.

The Pits

All the excavations made between July 1913 and September 1915 began to be called “pits.” They started with over 100 but more than 50 proved to be totally unproductive. However, more than ten yielded many outstanding specimens. We visited Pit 91, 
considered Number 1 among all the pits, where thousands of bones are jumbled together in pools of sticky asphalt from which paleontologists carefully extract the true fossils. Excavations started in 1915 and are still going on actively. 

There is also an Observation Pit, designed and built over Pit 101 to give visitors the actual feel of entering a fossil pit.  First opened to the public in 1952, it was closed in the mid1990s and served as the first museum on the grounds. It was reopened to the public in 2014.

The Amphitheater

At the Amphitheater, the documentary called “Titans of the Ice Age” plays for only $6 per person (or free for members of La Brea). Narrated by Christopher Plummer, the3D feature film
takes you to a world, 10,000 years before modern civilization, hidden in ice and dominated by giants; a frozen world that was already on the brink of extinction when majestic creatures lived on the same tundra as humans. 

The Pleistocene Garden

Los Angeles was not yet lined with palm trees during that period; rather, it was an oasis of pine, sage, and buckwheat.  This vegetation, based on the research gathered from Pit 91 for 35 years, is recreated in La Brea’s pretty Pleistocene Garden divided into four ecological systems: Coastal Sage, Riparian, Mixed Evergreen/Redwood Forest, and Chaparral.

Hancock Park

La Brea Tar Pits is a favorite place to visit for families and schools so the park has also been converted into a fun community resource for any type of boot camp training, for kids to play next to super-sized Ice Age mammals, and for residents and tourists to stroll among the many paths around the pits, and picnic under the trees.

Pro Tip: We did not know that the two sites we wanted to visit, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and La Brea Tar Pits, are sitting next to each other. If you would like to do this, we suggest that you use either parking lot and simply walk to the other on a great two-site, one-day visit. You'll save one of the parking fees. And, since both are on Wilshire Boulevard, the area has many nearby restaurants and food trucks offering outdoor dining or take-out food. Consider grabbing your favorite dish(es) and having a picnic in Hancock Park or at LACMA during this sight-seeing day.


  1. It was a real surprise! Glad we got a chance to see it.

  2. We have visited the LA area several times and have not yet made it to the La Brea Tar Pits. We are watching the new series on tv and that has sparked an interest in the history of this spot. How fascinating to see concrete replicas of mastodons coming out of the lake. A great family stop for sure.

  3. I remember learning about the La Brea tar pits as a kid, but I actually forgot about them until I read this. You have renewed my interest. I am going to have to check this out next time I am in that area.

  4. I can see why you would have been interested, as you've piqued my interest too! Who knew that LA could be home to La Brea Tar Pits - the extinct remnants of plants and animals that had been fossilized and are still being actively excavated today. This has to be one of the unique things to see and do when in LA!

  5. Despite several visits to Los Angeles, I miss the Living Ice-Age Discovery because I had not heard of her before! I must visit this museum and see the project on my next visit to LA. I add the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and La Brea Tar Pits to my bucket list. It's so informative and exiting place.


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