Having grown up in Southern California, my husband has very fond memories of visiting the La Brea Tar Pits as a child. He couldn’t wait to take our twin boys there, but we’ve held off for fear that they were too young. Well, we finally decided to visit last week (the boys turn 3 in June)—and we all had a blast! So if you’re thinking of visiting the tar pits with young kids, read on.
If you’ve never heard of the La Brea Tar Pits, a registered National Natural Landmark, it is a group of nine pits that comprise one of the world’s richest fossil excavation sites. The cool thing about them is that they are located smack in the heart of a huge city, in Los Angeles’s Hancock Park. Natural asphalt has been seeping up through the ground in this area for tens of thousands of years. Ice Age animals would get trapped in the asphalt, and their bones would be preserved.
Since 1906, scientists have recovered more than one million bones—representing 650 species—from the La Brea Tar Pits. Species include everything from mice, camels, and horses to mastodons, Columbian mammoths, and giant ground sloths. While some of the fossils date to more than 50,000 years ago, the majority are between 10,000 and 40,000 years old. Most of these fossils are on display at the Page Museum, where many are arranged into life-size replicas of the animals (much like the dinosaurs you see at natural history museums). And scientists are still actively excavating the pits and finding new things daily.
The tar pits themselves are scattered around Hancock Park, which is large and very fun to explore and hang out in on beautiful days (which are plentiful in Los Angeles). We started our visit at the the largest pit, the Lake Pit, which was still bubbling with natural gas. The boys really enjoyed seeing the life-size fiberglass statues of mammoths and an American mastodon.
We then visited the Page Museum, which is quite small despite the amount of fossils it displays. Luckily, its smaller size made it quite manageable with two preschoolers! It took us about 45 minutes to walk through, and the boys were surprisingly well-behaved! They held our hands the whole time and were very eager to walk through each exhibit to see the various animals on display. They enjoyed looking into the glass-walled Fishbowl Lab, where we got an up-close look at paleontologists working on fossils. They also had fun exploring the Atrium—an outdoor courtyard with bridges to cross and a fish-filled koi pond—and looking at paleontology-themed picture books in the small children’s play area.
During our visit, there were many people lined up for the Ice Age Encounters stage show, for which you can purchase tickets along with your museum admission. We skipped the show because the girl at the ticket counter had warned us that many small children get scared. After reading more about it later, we’re glad we did! The 15-minute show, which digs into the past to uncover the mysteries of some of the extinct creatures who roamed Ice Age Los Angeles over 10,000 years ago, features a life-size adult saber-toothed cat puppet that would have frighted the Bejeezus out of the twins!
After we left the museum, we pushed the boys around Hancock Park in their double stroller to see the rest of the tar pits. We also saw excavators at work at Project 23 and Ice Age plants at the Pleistocene Garden. Then we let the boys run free throughout Hancock Park. They had a blast climbing in low trees, seeing the giant statues of sloths and bears, and discovering bridges to cross. We also saw many families picnicking in the park, so you can really make a day of your visit!
Needless to say, I’d definitely recommend a visit to the La Brea Tar Pits if you’re planning to be in Southern California. It is certainly a place everyone needs to see at least once in their lifetime. Smaller children, like my twins, will enjoy it even though they might not fully understand it—just don’t expect to stay too long and read every single sign at the Page Museum exhibits. Older children with an interest in paleontology would simply be in heaven.
You can visit Hancock Park at the La Brea Tar Pits for free, though parking is $10. The Page Museum is open 9:30 am to 5 pm daily except New Year’s Day, July 4th, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Tickets cost $12 for adults, $9 for seniors 62+, $9 for youths ages 13-17 and college students with ID, and $5 for kids ages 3-12. (Kids 2 and under are free.) Admission to the museum plus Ice Age Encounters costs $3 more. The museum offers free general admission on the first Tuesday of every month except July and August. You can also visit the Page Museum and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles within two weeks and save up to 15 percent off your admission to both museums.
The Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits is located at 5801 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90036. Click here for directions!