More than 150,000 years ago, 13-foot-tall woolly mammoths and 6-ton mastodons roamed the wetlands surrounding a glacial lake in what is now an international ski destination: Snowmass.
When a construction crew unearthed a tusk of a young, female mammoth at Ziegler Reservoir in 2010 and experts continued to dig up about 5,000 bones of 10 mammals and over 26,000 bones from small vertebrate animals, the site became the richest Ice Age ecosystem ever uncovered at high elevation.
“It’s considered the world’s finest Ice Age fossil find,” says Virginia McNellis, marketing director of Snowmass Tourism. “It has a high level of scientific significance because they found plant and animal fossils from two different eras. Part of what also makes it significant is the sheer quantity of bones that not only were unearthed, but that also remain in the ground.”
Teams from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science discovered 42 species total, from lizards, snakes, muskrats, and beavers, to bison, American camels, and a giant ground sloth — the first found in Colorado.
For several years, the Ice Age Discovery Center in Snowmass Village displayed fossil casts of mastodon and mammoth teeth, a half-sized wooden mammoth skeleton and other educational information, but the lease expired on that space, and town council called for a refreshed plan to pay tribute to the discovery.
After considering the costs and effort of maintaining, and constantly updating, an indoor museum, staff members decided that a dedicated museum wouldn’t do the story justice.
“Given that Snowmass is such a nature-driven destination, we felt like an outdoor experience — where people didn’t have to spend a day in a museum and they could explore at their own pace and dive into the story as deeply as they wanted to — was more exciting and engaging,” McNellis said. “You could take a short stroll through the village or visit 12 installation sites and trails, depending on how deep you want to dive into the Ice Age story. Either way, it’s a robust experience.”
The Snowmass Ice Age discovery is set to debut over the course of summer and fall 2023. A community event hosted by Snowmass Tourism will be held on Aug. 11 at 6 p.m. at the Limelight Hotel Snowmass. Dr. Ian Miller of National Geographic, lead paleontologist on the 2010 dig, and David Heil, president of Aspen Science Center, will give a free, scientific lecture.
On Saturday, Aug. 12, visitors can join Snowmass Village Town Council at The Rink in Snowmass Base Village from 5- 8 p.m. for activities such as the Ice Age Passport Walk.
The new mural at Base Village’s Welcome Center will give viewers a perspective on just how large these Ice Age mammals were. A cast of the actual bison skull and horns excavated in Snowmass will accompany a full-size painting of an Ice Age bison’s head — 6 feet, 4 inches wide, from tip to tip of the horns.
A second mural on the tower of the mall will feature flora and fauna discovered during the dig, while the third mural will literally let visitors delve into history in the pedestrian tunnel by Gene Taylor’s as it depicts the dig.
“It will be an artful representation of different elements of the story,” McNellis said. “Throughout this whole process, we’ve found a balance of scientific and artful and playful depictions of the story.”
Window coverings on the Sky Cab (Skittles) Gondola, which transports visitors for free between the Base Village and mall areas, will also illustrate the Ice Age Discovery story. Each of the four colors will convey a different message, including: geology and how bones were deposited throughout two different glacial periods; past and present plant species; Ice Age animals; and the excavation process. QR codes allow explorers to go even more into depth.
If you want to really jump into history, augmented reality allows you to take a photo with a mastodon in the form of a stuffed animal, answer all of the questions on the analog passport, and turn it into guest services.
If you prefer to stroll through time, three trails offer various experiences. Large, updated signs on the Discovery Trail enrich your hike, which offers a great view of Ziegler Reservoir, where scientists unearthed the bones. A panel at the bottom of Rim Trail talks about the dig, and atop, at Spiral Point, viewfinders allow you to peer into three different time periods, from when mammoths and sloths thrived upon the land to the 2012 dig.
The third trail option is perfect for kids, as it features a storybook walk with large pages from Amiee White Beazley’s “Snowmastodon! Snow Day Adventure,” a charming story of a young mastodon and her best friend, Sloth, challenging themselves to hike to the summit on a snowy day. (Spoiler alert: In this fictional account, they’re the first mammals to craft skis and snowboards to zip down the pow).
“It’s an engaging, fun experience — something you wouldn’t expect to see in a mountain resort,” McNellis says.
Aspen Science Center helped transform the Ice Age Discovery message into an educational and entertaining experience.
“They taught us how to appreciate the message but not take it so seriously that we turned it into an outdoor textbook,” McheNellis says. “They were crucial in creating a fun, outdoor experience.”
A team of designers, web developers, educators and Snowmass Parks, Recreation, and Trails Department also contributed.
“It’s really been a community effort to bring this back to life,” says Rose Abello, Snowmass Tourism director. “The discovery was such an incredible experience. It is ingrained as part of Snowmass Village’s history.”
Kimberly Nicoletti | The Aspen Times I August 9, 2023