Museum Monday: La Brea Tar Pits, Los Angeles

An up close view of the face, trunk and tusks of a replica mammoth at the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum in Los Angeles, California

“Visit the only Ice Age fossil site in the world that’s being actively excavated in the middle of a city!” This very niche, very cool claim to uniqueness could only be an invitation to the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum in Los Angeles. 

Part of the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County, La Brea Tar Pits has a collection of more than 1 million Ice Age fossils excavated from the asphalt abyss. A natural feature of what is now urban Los Angeles, the tar pits were a literal death trap for animals starting around 50,000 years ago. They’re still bubbling away today, enticing visitors as one of the top tourist attractions in L.A. as well as a working paleontological research site. 

From huge mammoth bones to grains of preserved pollen, collected specimens from the tar pits reveal a valuable and complete record of the Los Angeles Basin ecosystem during the last Ice Age. It’s almost unfathomable that such extraordinary beasts as saber-tooth cats, mastodons and giant ground sloths once roamed the future Miracle Mile. 

The on-site museum, where the preserved remains and replicas of so many extinct creatures are on display, does an excellent job of bringing the Ice Age to life. It also presents the wealth of knowledge gleaned from those specimens in great detail. Still, the thought that these extinct creatures once roamed alongside humans before meeting an unfortunately gloopy end in L.A. remains just as remarkable. 

Replica mammoths trapped in a tar pit on view at the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum in Los Angeles, California

See the Tar Pits in Hancock Park

You don’t have to enter the museum to visit the La Brea Tar pits (although you definitely should visit the museum – it’s excellent). The famous tar pits themselves are dotted across Hancock Park and open to the public free of charge. So are models of giant Ice Age mammals, a playground, large lawns, picnic areas, and the Pleistocene Garden which recreates native vegetation from 10,000 to 40,000 years ago. 

Five fenced-in areas within the park conceal bubbling tar pits, which are probably not as dramatic-looking as the words “bubbling tar pits” suggest. The asphalt sits under the surface, releasing bubbles of methane that arise slowly with a sulphuric odor. You’ll also notice the occasional orange hazard cone plonked down on the park’s grassy lawns, indicating a spontaneous oozing of asphalt that could ruin a shoe.

The Lake Pit features a trio of replica mammoths in distress, with the enormous bull sinking tragically in the asphalt while a baby and its mother remain on the edge. A small lake covers the pit, which was an asphalt mine in the 19th century, and it’s easy to understand how animals could mistake it as a benign watering hole. The high fences around the pits are understandable too, given the ability of modern humans to make very bad decisions. (You just know someone would go in there.)

The entrance to the La Brea Tar Pits Museum in Los Angeles, California, with a relief mural of an Ice Age scene above the building

Highlights of the La Brea Tar Pits Museum

The museum displays the most impressive specimens among the million-plus excavated from the tar pits. Exhibits feature a variety of genuine fossils, full-size replica animals and informative displays, all evoking the flora and fauna of a Pleistocene-era Los Angeles. The region was cooler and wetter then, but there’s still a sense of familiarity in the mountain backdrop of recreated scenes. 

The mammoths and mastodons exhibit is extensive and boasts the biggest, most eye-catching skeletons due to their sheer size. You’ll learn about the 55-million-year evolution of the Proboscidean Order from rabbit-sized early mammals to today’s elephants. Models show how evolution changed trunk shapes from wide and bulbous to longer and more agile, as with the American mastodon and Columbian mammoths that died in the tar pits. One of the more kid-friendly interactive elements in the museum is a mammoth-tusk version of the Rock’em Sock’em Robots game. There are also touchable exhibits throughout the museum – it’s not all hands-off displays. 

A saber-tooth cat skeleton on view at the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum in Los Angeles, California

Dire wolves are the most common large mammal excavated from the tar pits, with around 4,000 individuals counted among the remains. You can’t miss the Dire Wolf Wall, a strikingly illuminated display of 404 dire wolf skulls. Minor differences from skull to skull help the museum’s paleontologists study evolution. Also found in large numbers were saber-toothed cats, over 2,000 of them, and those namesake fangs are a sight to see. Coyotes, a familiar species that has outlived many of its Ice Age contemporaries, were also common victims of the tar pits.

The museum’s most fascinating displays include the remains of creatures that were terrifyingly large, like the giant short-faced bear that stood up to 12 feet tall. Less scary, yet bafflingly large, is Harlan’s ground sloth, a lumbering vegetarian over 9 feet in length (but much smaller than some of its cousins). Then there are species we struggle to associate with North America, like the extinct camel, the tapir and American lion, a close relative of the modern lion. 

What is Project 23?

In 2006, the construction of an underground parking lot next to the La Brea Tar Pits led to the discovery of a huge cache of fossil deposits (who’d have thought?!). Sixteen deposits were packed up and moved off-site, and their ongoing study has been dubbed “Project 23.” Most remarkable so far is the excavation of “Zed,” an adult male Columbian mammoth with 10-foot tusks and 80% of his skeleton intact. This rare find is a major discovery, and all in all the project is expected to double the museum’s existing collections.

The Fossil Lab

Visitors to the La Brea Tar Pits sometimes see paleontologists and volunteers in action at outdoor dig sites. Inside the museum, the Fossil Lab puts the more detail-oriented work of cleaning and conserving fossils on display. It’s a real working lab inside transparent walls, where scientists and volunteers are currently processing Project 23 specimens. For every large fossil or piece of bone, the washed-off asphalt also yields a wealth of microfossils – teeth, plant fragments, insects, shells e.t.c. These also have great scientific value. It seems likely that the Fossil Lab has inspired many a budding scientist or paleontologist visiting with their parents. 

La Brea Tar Pits Movies, Shows and Tours

Don’t miss the chance to see a 3D movie or live stage show when you visit the La Brea Tar Pits. Currently showing in the 3D theater is Titans of the Ice Age, which brings to life the humans and beasts that shared the frozen tundra, and shows how so many animals became trapped in tar. The Ice Age Encounters stage show features a life-sized saber-toothed cat puppet plus film projection, and is suitable for all ages. The La Brea Tar Pits also offers the guided, in-depth Excavator Tour, which is included with the price of admission. 

The skeleton of an Ice Age bison on view at the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum in Los Angeles, California

Facts about the La Brea Tar Pits

  • The La Brea Tar Pits contain asphalt, a.k.a. bitumen (“Brea” in Spanish), and not actually tar, which is technically a different substance.
  • La Brea Tar Pit experts estimate that there are around 3 million bones and items contained in the tar pits in total. More than 1 million have been recovered since 1906, and the future completion of Project 23 could double that. 
  • The La Brea Tar Pits are a National Natural Landmark and all of Hancock Park is a California Historical Landmark.
  • The remains of just one human, named the La Brea Woman, have been found in the tar pits. The oldest human specimen ever recovered in Southern California, she died around 9,000 years ago. The circumstances of her death are somewhat mysterious, according to this 1992 story in the Los Angeles Times. 
  • Chumash and Tongva peoples used asphalt from tar pits to seal the cracks between wooden boards of plank canoes, which enabled them to travel up and down the coast and to and from the Channel Islands. 
  • Experts attribute the high proportion of carnivores meeting their demise in the tar pits to the “carnivore trap” hypothesis. Herbivores stuck in the tar attracted waves of predators and scavengers, which would in turn get trapped. 


La Brea Tar Pits & Museum

5801 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90036

(213) 763-3499

Looking for more Los Angeles attractions? Read all about the Griffith Observatory!

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