Big Bone Lick State Park - Salt and MastodonsJust south of the Kentucky/Ohio border, in the North River Region of Kentucky, is a fascinating stretch of land known as the Big Bone Lick State Park.
This funny sounding name has a couple of origins. First, a “lick” is a place with salt in the ground where animals converge to literally lick the ground for the salt necessary for their diets.
But what about “Big Bone”?
Well, Big Bone Lick has been being frequented by animals since at least the Pleistocene era - so mastodons and other prehistoric beasts came here to get salt and found, instead, their end. The soil of the lick is not just salty but swampy and, as these ill-fated beasts lapped up the salt, they became mired in the muck and so died - not at all unlike the famed La Brea Tar Pits of Southern California, except with mud instead of tar.
European explorers stumbling upon the area in the mid 1700’s were stunned by the huge bones they found protruding from the ground. Their primary interest in the area was not the fossils but the salt, however, and it was the salt that they extracted and the salted waters that people paid to lounge in when the area was a spa.
But still - there were all those massive bones lying about ...
The first fossils were removed from the swamp in 1744 and, by the 1800’s, scientists and collectors from around the world had heard of the finds in the lick and wanted a piece of it. Literal tons were unearthed and dispersed to the north and the east and overseas to Europe. Thomas Jefferson added a few Big Bone Lick fossils to his collection.
It wasn’t until the 1950’s that there was talk of dedicating and preserving what was left at the site. Continued digs showed that there were more bones to be had and the good people of Boone County responded to calls that the area be made a state park, raising money to help purchase the land around the lick.
Officially opening in 1960, Big Bone Lick State Park has forty acres of picnic grounds, facilities for different types of sports, a herd of bison, and an indoor-outdoor museum with collections of bones and life-size replicas of mastodons and bison. Big Bone Lick’s short-lived, salt-trade history is celebrated every October at the Salt Festival, with salt-making demonstrations and other attractions.
All in all, a fascinating place to learn about the past or just have a picnic.