You will not find dinosaurs at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument. And you may not find agate. What you will find is an assortment of fossils of weird and bizarre creatures such as a menaceras, a moropus, and a dinohyus. All these mammals lived during the Miocene era, about 20 million years ago according to paleontologists. Agate Fossil Beds preserves a rare collection of fossils discovered in 1889 by rancher James Cook. My favorite were the Daemonelix or Devil’s Corkscrew. The Daemonelix is a fossilized home of the paleocastor. The paleocaster is similar to present-day prairie dogs and lived in colonies in curious, spiral-shaped burrows. These preserved homes can be viewed on the one-mile Daemonelix Trail.
The paved, 2.7 mile Fossil Hills Trail crosses over the Niobrara River then climbs gently to the “beds” or discovery area. I visited Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in very late May; the time of year in Northwestern Nebraska when rattlesnakes seek warmth from the concrete of the trail. As I walk to the top of the hill, I happen to look down and yes, there it is, a rattlesnake stretched lengthwise along the edge of the pavement just waiting for me to take one sideways step. I cautiously continue my trek and what to my wondering eyes should appear? A ranger in green – I have nothing to fear! I report my sighting and back down the hill we trudge to confirm that, indeed, a venomous rattler is prohibiting visitors from viewing the fossil beds. Wouldn’t you know it, with both of us looking right and left neither of us spy the sneaky rascal. The ranger pauses to radio headquarters that a visitor CLAIMS to have seen a rattlesnake near the trail. What?! I DID see a rattler! Just to prove my point, I look down to see the coiled creature RIGHT NEXT TO THE RANGER’S FOOT!! I point and say, “This Texas girl knows what a rattlesnake looks like. And it looks like that!” The brave and daring ranger steps calmly aside and radios to headquarters that indeed, the guest did spy a rattlesnake and now it is on the trail. We are instructed to back away and watch until the rattler gives up and writhes back into the brush. Feeling triumphant (and a little smug), I am rewarded for my act of courage with a private, guided tour of Agate Fossil Beds National Monument.