Monday, October 6, 2014

La Brea Tar Pits

La Brea Tar Pits are a really unique natural wonder in the middle of urban Los Angeles.  The name "tar pits" is a bit of a misnomer.  Rather than tar, this area is actually filled with natural asphalt which has seeped up through the ground for tens of thousands of years.

What's so cool about natural asphalt?  It's preserved the fossils of extinct animals and is the locate ion of the world's only ongoing urban Ice Age excavations.

I visited the Page Museum at La Brea Tar Pits to learn more.  I purchased my admission online in advance, opting for the Tar Pits Passport which included museum admission, the Excavator Tour, and Ice Age Encounters ($15 adult, $12 senior and student, $8 child).  I was most annoyed that parking was a $9 flat rate.  However, after considering nearby parking garages and street parking, I decided that $9 all day was actually a pretty good deal for the area.

Page Museum

In typical Victoria fashion, I had a difficult time finding the place.  I kept circling the LACMA and could not for the life of me locate the Page Museum.  Tar pits in the middle of L.A. - how difficult could that be to find?  I considered parking at the LACMA and walking over to the Page Museum, but LACMA parking is $12 and I was already bitter enough about $9.  So if you plan on doing both museums in one day, definitely park at the Page Museum and do that first, then walk over to LACMA for the better parking deal.


Page Museum

By the time I arrived at the museum, I had half an hour to explore before my scheduled 11:30 AM Ice Age Encounters show.

Page Museum

The Page Museum at La Brea Tar Pits is incredibly nice. In addition to fossils, there are animatronics of Ice Age animals throughout. And the graphics are nice and bold... good design always catches my attention.

Page Museum

A fully constructed Columbian Mammoth... look at the size of that thing!

Page Museum

Look how many Dire Wolf fossils are on display!  And this is only part of the collection.

Page Museum

Page Museum

You can also get a peek at the Paleontology Laboratory. I was a little nervous to get too close to the glass because I thought it was weird to get so close to them while they worked... didn't want to be a distraction. Others had no problem getting right up to the glass, though.

Research Center

Research Center

Research Center

Research Center

Page Museum

Page Museum

It turns out that 30 minutes was the perfect amount of time to explore the museum before Ice Age Encounters.  I made it all the way through the museum, then I sat in the Behind-the-Scenes theater to learn a bit more about the tar pits and how the research is conducted.

Ice Age Encounters

Ice Age Encounters currently only happen on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, and the show is an additional $3 to regular admission (included with the passport and free for members). The duration is approximately 15 minutes.

We were seated in a small theater with bleacher-style seating.  The mother beside me kept reminding her kids, "Remember, it's just a person in a costume."  She also gave her kids the escape plan... if they needed to leave, they were going to go out the exit on the right.

The show was narrated by an energetic young lady who did a fantastic job.  She explained the history of the tar pits.  The tar, or asphalt, would ooze up through the ground.  It would then get camouflaged by dirt and leaves.  An unsuspecting animal would get caught in the tar and be unable to move.  Its predator would then come for the prey and get caught, as well.  Eventually, an entire food chain would end up stuck in the tar pits.  Their bones would absorb the asphalt which helped preserve them.

She took us back in time, and we were greeted by the Saber-Toothed Cat (which they referred to as a "puppet")...

Ice Age Encounters

As soon as it came out, the little boy beside me grabbed onto my arm. Normally I don't appreciate stranger children touching me, but this was pretty cute.

Ice Age Encounters

I was really shocked at how realistic it looked! It was actually a little frightening. I didn't blame the kids for screaming and crying and running for the exit.

Ice Age Encounters

In case you were wondering, I learned after the show that the Saber-Toothed Cat is not a person in a costume, but an animatronic that they control. How cool is that?

Ice Age Encounters

After the Saber-Toothed Cat left, the kids relaxed a little. I was actually really impressed with this little performance, especially the animatronic Saber-Toothed Cat, and think that it was $3 well spent.

Excavator Tour

The Excavator Tour is included in the cost of general admission, but you have to schedule a time in advance. I had arranged to take the first tour of the day at 12 PM which worked perfectly with the 11:30 AM Ice Age Encounters show.

We met our tour guide inside by the Paleontology Laboratory, and he led us outside to the Lake Pit.  The Lake Pit is what is typically seen on brochures of La Brea Tar Pits, but the irony of it is that it is actually man-made.  It was a former quarry from the 1800s, so it wasn't made for advertisement of the museum, but they use it to their advantage to get people's attention.  Asphalt and methane still bubble up from underground vents, and that is completely natural.

Check out the bubbles in the water by the life-size mammoth family...

La Brea Tar Pits

And this extinct animal is an American mastodon.

La Brea Tar Pits

We then headed to the Observation Pit which can only be accessed during the Excavation Tour.  It was the first museum built in the park and opened in 1952.  However, it was closed to the public 20 years ago and recently opened in June 2014 (so I have good timing).

La Brea Tar Pits

This is what it looks like when excavators find fossils. Our guide was able to point out the different animals' fossils using a laser pointer.

La Brea Tar Pits

That's him in the orange...

La Brea Tar Pits

La Brea Tar Pits

He told us that you can tell the Observation Pit was built in the 1950s because the exit was incredibly narrow.

La Brea Tar Pits

So we exited the pit, and half of us went towards the old exit, and half went back out of the entrance. If I had known how long it would take for people to get out of the original exit, I might have chosen to backtrack.

That is when I met Annoying Lady. Well, I met her earlier when she was completely in my bubble looking into the pit and kept touching me (remember... I don't like touching strangers). She was with two rambunctious boys, and she was jerking them around as if they were half their size. Anyway, her sons are in front of her and I am behind her. It's a revolving gate exit. It's my turn in the revolving gate, and maybe I was a little too impatient, and I pushed the gate forward with a little more force than necessary. Well, one of the boys yells, "Oww!" And as I instinctively say, "I'm sorry!" His mother exclaims, "It wasn't me! It was her! She pushed it..." What? Your boy yells out in pain, and the first thing you say is, "It wasn't me!"??? Are you even an adult????

She turned around and looked at me like, 'It's all your fault,' and I really had to restrain from flipping her a naughty finger. So instead, I creeped a photo of her and decided to write about how she really rubbed me the wrong way on my blog. Because I can be a little immature, too.

Attention, everyone! The woman in the purple is not an adult!

Rude Lady

We continued the tour to Pit 13 where they started excavating in 1914.  A lot of the fossils from this pit are in display in the page museum.

Animals today sometimes get stuck in the tar, and they do the best they can to rescue them. There is also tar found randomly throughout the park, and people will get it on their hands during a picnic. The Page Museum has a special solution to help remove it because otherwise, it's really difficult to rub off.

There was only one human ever found in the tar pits, and that is the La Brea woman. Our tour guide told us how the research on the La Brea woman really needs to be redone because they know a lot of things today that they didn't when she was found, and there are several inaccuracies with the information originally reported on her.

La Brea Tar Pits

Our tour concluded at Project 23 which is the newest excavation. When the LACMA started construction on a new parking garage, a bulldozer ran into a Columbian Mammoth skull. It turned out that there were lots of fossils on the size of LACMA's planned parking garage. They couldn't excavate on site (because LACMA wanted their garage), so they removed all of the fossils from the site in large crates. 23 crates = Project 23. Excavators are currently working on Project 23 seven days a week.

Project 23

Project 23

Project 23

Project 23

I returned after lunch for an action shot...

Project 23

Independent Exploration

After the tour, I went on my own to check out Pit 91 which is also an active fossil dig. More than half of the species from the museum's collection come from this pit.

Pit 91

Ahhhh those graphics!

Pit 91

Pit 91

As they excavate, they lay out 1 meter by 1 meter grids on top of the deposit so that they can record where each of the bones come from.

Pit 91

I learned that all of the fossils excavated at La Brea Tar Pits is stored onsite. Only a small percentage of the collection is on display in the Page Museum. The rest is stored in the basement under this giant hill...

La Brea Tar Pits

Finally, you can actually climb the hill (or the stairs on either side of the building) and check out the atrium from above.

La Brea Tar Pits

Page Museum Atrium

Page Museum

Page Museum

I really enjoyed my visit to La Brea Tar Pits... and I made sure that it was worth my $9 parking.

The Page Museum is open daily from 9:30 AM to 5 PM (closed New Year's Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas). For more information, visit the official website, TarPits.org.

Join me for my October series, 31 Days of Los Angeles for more Southern California fun!