The visitor center and museum features two exhibit galleries, a theater with a 12-minute orientation movie, a ranger station and information desk, and a bookstore/gift shop. Additional amenities for visitors include restrooms with baby-changing stations, a coin-operated soda machine, an adjacent outdoor picnic area, and water fountains/bottle-filling stations. All are found in a location that offers breathtaking views of the Fossil Hills and Niobrara River, the Bone Cabin, and the region's distinctive High Plains geology and grasslands.
Photograph by Jonathan S. Garcia
A feeling of "then and now" radiates from the life-size diorama showcasing mounted skeletons--they're replicas--of the surprising Miocene Epoch mammals discovered in the historic Agate Springs quarries: the meat-eating Dinohyus (or "terrible pig"); the long-necked, claw-toed Moropus; and the snarling beardog. Where did paleontologists in the early 1900s find the fossils used to make the skeletons' plaster casts? In the Fossil Hills visible through the three large windows behind the diorama.
Other, smaller displays in the visitor center's south half feature real and replica fossils, trace fossils, and mounted skeletons of additional 20-million-year-old mammals discovered in the area. Many invite interaction on the part of the viewer, especially kids, challenging him or her to puzzle and speculate like a scientist. It's a handy skill kids need for completing the park's challenging Junior Ranger program.
In addition to the exhibits, visitors can watch "The Fossil Hills," the monument's twelve-minute orientation video. It's shown on request in the theater adjacent to the diorama.
Photograph by Jonathan S. Garcia
Displayed in the visitor center and museum as well is one of America's most unique collections of Lakota cultural artifacts from the late 1800s and early 1900s. The friendship that developed and flourished between James H. Cook, owner of the Agate Springs Ranch, and Red Cloud, chief of the Oglala Lakota, is as rare as the fossils discovered on land once home to the herds of bison Euroamericans hunted nearly to extinction.
After Cook purchased the 04 Ranch, later called the Agate Springs Ranch, from his father-in-law in 1887, Red Cloud and his family, band, and friends from allied tribes often traveled overland by wagon from the Pine Ridge Reservation to visited James and his family, including wife Kate and sons Harold and John. At the ranch, James provided his visitors with one or more cows; they in turn presented him with gifts such as horses; beautifully beaded or quilled moccasins; Catlinite pipes; parfleches; decorated war and ceremonial clubs; painted hides, including one of the Battle of Greasy Grass (Little Big Horn); a dog travois; leather clothing; and much, much more. Black and white photographs of the Cooks' visitors; a sound track performed by traditional Lakota singer William Horncloud; and a colorful, contemporary Winter Count, the historical native calendars Lakota call waniyetu wowapi, add to this rare and treasured collection.
If the weather's unsuitable for hiking, your time's insufficient for exploring the trails, or you want to know what you'll see while walking, check out our interactive hiker. The touch-screen monitor offers the opportunity for your fingers to do the hiking as you learn about the geology and fossil exhibits to be discovered along the trails.