Berlin-Ichthyosaur park offers a stunning look at history

It takes some time to drive to Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park, a couple of hours north of Tonopah, but the road trip is worth it — especially in summer, when the temperatures there are at their most pleasant. Located on the western edge of the Shoshone Mountains, the 1,540-acre park has elevations ranging from 6,840 to 7,880 feet.

This park boasts a well-preserved historic mining town and the remains of the ancient ichthyosaur (pronounced ick-thee-o-saur), our state fossil.

When you enter the park, the first place you will come to is the Berlin Townsite Area. Prospectors in 1863 discovered the Union Ledge, the initial big ore find in the area. When other valuable discoveries were made in the area, this became the Union Mining District, and Berlin was added to it in 1896. The place didn’t last long because of low yields and labor disputes; it pretty much was a ghost town by 1911.

Nevada’s abandoned mining towns were themselves mined for building materials and even entire buildings, moved to places where they could be more immediately useful. Thankfully, because it was off the beaten track, Berlin remained in good shape compared with most ghost towns. The best way to enjoy it is to hike the paths to the more than 70 historic sites, most marked by interpretive plaques. Be sure to see the Berlin Mill, the largest structure in the townsite. Here you will find remains of a bank of stamps — the simple but huge and heavy devices used to pulverize ore for processing — separating tables and other historic relics. At one time this building housed 30 stamps, a crusher, steam engines and boilers.

Once you tour this townsite, drive up the gravel road about 1.7 miles. There you will arrive at the signed covered quarry site on your right, home to the ichthyosaur fossils. The fossils were discovered by a Stanford University professor in 1928. The place wasn’t excavated until 1954.

The ichthyosaur was a marine reptile that swam the ocean that was here more than 200 million years ago. It is thought to have descended from reptiles that formerly lived on land, an evolutionary path surprisingly similar to the one believed to have produced whales and dolphins. Like those animals, ichthyosaurs probably breathed air and bore live young. At this site you will find the remains of nine ichthyosaurs. You will see skulls, jawbones, backbones, flipper and tail bones and a rib cage. Ichthyosaurs have been found on every continent except Antarctica, and the ones here are some of the largest, reaching 50 feet long.

Tours run at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily in summer through Labor Day. There is an additional tour at noon Saturdays and Sundays. If you can’t make one of the tours, there are viewing windows, but using the windows doesn’t offer the thrill of being up close.

The closest lodging is hours away, so camping is usually the way to go. There is a fine campground with 14 sites that are good for car, tent or RV (up to 25 feet in length) camping. The sites have fire pits and barbecues and covered picnic tables. Water is available in season, usually through October. Always call ahead for fire restrictions. Camping fees are $17 per night. Entrance fees to the park are $7 per vehicle. For more information, contact the park at 775-964-2440 or visit parks.nv.gov/parks/bi.

Deborah Wall’s book “Base Camp Las Vegas: 101 hikes in the Southwest” ($24.95, Imbrifex) is available for preorder on Amazon and will be released Aug. 8. She can be reached at deborabus@aol.com.

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