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La Brea Tar Pits

Visiting the La Brea Tar Pits

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La Brea Tar Pits

Visitors look through the fence at sculptures of a mama mamoth being sucked into the La Brea Tar Pits

Photo © 2004 Kayte Deioma, courtesy of www.KayteDeioma.com
The La Brea Tar Pits in Hancock Park on the Miracle Mile are one of LA's most unusual attractions. The bubbling pools of asphalt in the middle of the city's Museum Row, partially behind the LA County Museum of Art, are the richest source of Ice Age fossils on the planet, and their treasures can be seen in natural history collections around the world.

Also known as Rancho La Brea, the site provided tar for waterproofing ships and roofs for early Spanish settlers. The name La Brea Tar Pits is redundant, since "la brea" means "tar" in Spanish. The sticky, petroleum-based deposits, often covered by pools of water, have been trapping and preserving animals, plants and bacteria for at least 38,000 years.

Mammoths, mastodons, dire wolves, saber-tooth cats, sloths, horses and bears are a few of the creatures whose bones have been extracted from the site. In recent years, microfossils like pollen and bacteria have been isolated and studied.

The Tar Pits are spread across Hancock Park. The pools are fenced to prevent curious tourists from joining the legions of dire wolves under the muck. Orange signs identify the pits and tell you what was found there.

The largest is the Lake Pit, which has a viewing bridge on the Wilshire Blvd side. Life-size models of a Columbian Mammoth family at the east end show the mother stuck in the tar. A model of an American mastodon is at the west end, near the Japanese Pavilion at LACMA. Escaping methane gas makes the tar appear to boil.

Smaller pits are scattered across the park and are marked with fencing and signs. Be sure to visit the Observation Pit, a round brick building at the west end of the park, behind LACMA. Here, a massive block of bones has been partially uncovered, but left in place, so you can see how the deposits all mass together. Interpretive panels help you sort out what kind of bones you can see.

Pit 91 is still being actively excavated. A viewing station has been built so people can watch the excavators at work, and tours are given at prescribed times.

Excavation of Pit 91 was temporarily halted in 2008, so that the team could work on materials removed from the site of the new parking garage at LACMA. Project 23, named after the 23 huge crates of fossils collected, is now open to the public for several hours a day and visitors can watch excavators at work there. You'll recognize it by the giant crates next to Pit 91.

Once the excavators have extracted fossils from the tar, they are sent into the lab at the Page Museum at the northeast corner of the park. The Page Museum is a part of the LA County Natural History Museum dedicated exclusively to the history and finds from the La Brea Tar Pits.

It is FREE to visit Hancock Park and the La Brea Tar Pits. There is a fee for the museum. Metered parking is available on 6th Street or on Wilshire (9 am to 4 pm only, read signs carefully). Paid parking is available behind the Page Museum off Curson, or in the LACMA garage off 6th Street.

More on the George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries
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