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Ice Age wonder: Nevada’s newest state park celebrates opening

Updated January 17, 2024 - 4:16 pm

After seven years, three governors and much anticipation from community members and paleontology lovers, Ice Age Fossils State Park is finally opening to the public.

The park celebrated its long-awaited opening with a ribbon-cutting ceremony Tuesday, though the park won’t officially open to the public until Saturday.

With 3 miles of trails and an interactive visitors center for kids of all ages, the 315-acre park tells the story of Las Vegas 25,000 years ago, when dire wolves and prehistoric camels roamed the valley’s lush marshlands, which have since dried up.

Originally announced under Gov. Brian Sandoval’s “Explore Your Nevada Initiative” in 2017, the park was set to open in 2019. But supply chain issues and a global pandemic threw a wrench in the park’s plans, Park Supervisor Garrett Fehner said.

“We were really optimistic about our timeline starting out, and then, of course, COVID happened,” Fehner said. “That was a challenging time to be a state employee because the state didn’t have money all of a sudden — we had money that had been allotted to this project that got taken back by the state.”

Support from local nonprofits Protectors of Tule Springs and the Ice Age Park Foundation, with the Helmsley Charitable Trust, which gave $3.5 million to the project, helped bring the park to fruition, Fehner said.

“That was a challenging time, but we worked through it and it makes it even more meaningful on a day like today when you can see the end result of that work,” he said.

‘We have got to save this’

Ice Age Park Foundation President Helen Mortenson was lauded during the ribbon-cutting ceremony for being instrumental in getting land protected as a state park.

Mortenson said that when she first moved to Las Vegas in 1962, she quickly became enamored with the “Big Dig” project at Tule Springs — a massive archaeological excavation that began that year where scientists moved more than 200,000 tons of dirt to uncover fossils thousands of years old.

The project’s remnants are protected by the state park today.

“It opened a whole new world for me, and I said, ‘We have got to save this,” Mortenson said.

Soon, scientists, the Nevada State Museum and politicians, including Mortenson’s husband, Harry Mortenson, who served as a state legislator, were working together to tell people about the area and find a way to protect the ice age fossils, she said.

“(Sen.) Harry Reid said, ‘I had no idea that was out there,’” she recalled. “We just kept growing and growing — and look at what we’ve accomplished today.”

Sandy Croteau, vice president of Protectors of Tule Springs, said that when she learned in 2006 that the area was going to be sold off by the Bureau of Land Management for development, she worked with other members of her community to form a coalition to protect the area.

“We contacted our senators, congressmen — anybody that would listen to us about how this land needs to be saved.” Croteau said. “With all the fossils out here, they were going to build houses, but this land needed to be saved for future generations.”

Croteau said people in Las Vegas who have supported the area’s protection for years are waiting eagerly for the park to finally open.

“They are so excited. … This has been high up on people’s list of things to do,” she said.

Future plans

Though the park hasn’t even opened to the public yet, Jonathan Brunjes, deputy administrator for Nevada State Parks, said the park hopes to facilitate research opportunities for UNLV students at the park’s archaeological sites.

“We’d love to have a repository here where people can come and actually see them working on the fossils in real time,” Brunjes said. “Hopefully, we find more out here. That’s a neat thing about a state park is there’s always something new to discover.”

The park also plans to host guided hikes to show people where fossils are located along the trails and field trips for students to learn more about Las Vegas’ history, Brunjes said.

Fehner said the park will start out being open only on Saturdays and Sundays, with hopes of expanding to more days of the week in the future.

“This park is just gonna get better and better.”

Ice Age Fossils State Park is located at 8660 N. Decatur Blvd, near the intersection of Decatur Boulevard and Horse Drive. The park’s hours of operation on weekends are 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. each day.

A previous version of this story misstated when the park was originally set to open. It was originally set to open in 2019.

Contact Taylor Lane at tlane@reviewjournal.com

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