La Brea Tar Pits | LA’s ancient history time capsule

by W. Andrew Powell
La Brea Tar Pits

La Brea Tar Pits

Address: 5801 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90036

What was Los Angeles like thousands of years ago? Before people first set foot in LA, creatures big and small lived and died in the area, and the La Brea Tar Pits have helped preserve many of those creatures, plants, and history.

Inside the museum, visitors can explore a wide range of fossils, see a film about the Ice Age in the 3D theatre, try interactive displays, and learn from scientists in the Fossil Lab.

Outside, the large space features a park space to explore with active fossil dig sites, places to sit and relax, and of course, the iconic lake tar pits along Wilshire Boulevard.

The historic site is a fascinating place to explore for families, or anyone who loves science and history, and you can easily spend a few hours around the museum and the grounds, or discover the highlights in about two hours. There are also guided tours available if you want to learn everything.

La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles

The La Brea tar pits formed around 40,000 years ago, during an ice age, and ever since then creatures wandering too close would get stuck in the tar that oozes up to the surface. The tar has preserved a wide range of fossils over all those years, including plants, small mammals, saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, and of course, mammoths.

Originally called Rancho La Brea, which was part of the Mexican Land Grant in present-day Los Angeles, the Tar Pits were first excavated in 1886, but it wasn’t until 1901 that an oil geologist by the name of W. W. Orcutt recognized that what they were finding in the tar were fossils from prehistoric animals.

Since then, numerous scientists and researchers have worked with teams to uncover more than 3 million items from the tar pits, and a small portion of those are on display in the museum today.

Walking through the space, you’ll get a sense for the scale of the creatures that lived here, from small mammals, to dire wolves, a giant bear, and an incredible mammoth that towers over everyone.

Kids and adults can try to escape the pits thanks to a demonstration with plungers that are stuck inside tar from the pitts. It’s really going to surprise you just how sticky and tough it would have been to escape the force of this viscous, thick tar.

Thousands of dire wolves have been recovered from the Tar Pits as well, and you can see a number of them on display, including dozens of their skulls, and a bit of their story. You’ll also spot saber-toothed cats, an incredible Harlan’s ground sloth that would have been over 20 feet long, and there’s a giant short-faced bear that is seriously intimidating.

Inside the Fossil Lab, visitors can watch scientists working on current specimens, and they often come out to talk about their work and research into the thousands of items that were recovered from Project 23, when the construction on the LACMA parking lot uncovered what they have called a “treasure trove of fossils.”

The museum also has a 15-minute live show, Ice Age Encounters, that features a life-size saber-toothed cat. Don’t worry though, it’s a puppet, and it’s fun for the whole family.

When you arrive, be sure to scan one of the bar codes to download a map of the park to your phone. Hancock Park offers a lot to see if you have the time to explore more of it.

After exploring the museum and Hancock Park with all of the excavation sites, I had a much better sense of what the La Brea Tar Pits were really like over their long history. It’s an iconic spot in LA, and it’s well worth a visit to understand a deeper part of the history that’s fascinating and fun, especially for the science, history, and fossil lovers.

The whole park space and museum is well laid out, and I love how much it lets visitors understand the process of excavating the massive range of tar pits in the area as well.

Giant short-faced bear at the La Brea Tar Pits

The La Brea Tar Pits are open Monday to Sunday from 9:30 AM to 5:00 PM, and they are closed on Independence Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day, as well as the first Tuesday of every month.

Tickets are $15 for adults, $12 for seniors and students, and $7 for children. The Titans of the Ice Age 3D film, and Ice Age Encounters Show are $6 each.

Parking is available for a flat rate of $15.

L.A. County residents can visit the museum for free Monday to Friday from 3-5 PM with a valid ID.

Be sure to check out the gift shop before you leave for fun t-shirts and toys, and some special items like art pieces and even recreations of Saber-toothed cat teeth.

Nearby attractions

The La Brea Tar Pits are very close to a number of other excellent LA attractions. From the museum, it’s about a 10 minute walk through the park or along Wilshire Blvd. to the movie lovers’ dream stop, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. And beside the Academy Museum is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Whether you visit those museums or not, be sure to find the “Urban Light” public art space along Wilshire Blvd, to the west of La Brea; it’s a beautiful installation of dozens and dozens of street lights that’s well worth seeing.

About a 22 minute drive away, in Exposition Park, you can also find LA’s Natural History Museum with a wide range of fossils, art, and history.

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