Big Bone Lick State Historic Site Hike Route Map

Big Bone Lick State Historic Site (KY)

Big Bone Lick State Historic Site...when you see the sign off Interstate 75 south of Cincinnati you're bound to get a chuckle and wonder how the heck someone came up with that for a place name.  Many, many times I had passed those signs but never made a point of pulling off to check it out...until now.  What I found was a park every bit as unique as it name implies.  

The name of the park is derived in two parts.  'Lick' is simply another name for a small stream much like 'creek' or 'run' in other parts of the it is in reference to Big Bone Creek.  The 'Big Bone' part?  Well, that's where things get interesting.  Way back in 1739 early French explorers visited the site and discovered a treasure-trove of massive bones littering the landscape.  Over the intervening decades others passed through and also marveled at the ancient graveyard but it was another local commodity which promised greater wealth...salt.  Salt springs were dotted all over the landscape and, between 1780 and 1810, a bustling salt trade centered on Big Bone Lick.  By 1803, however, focus was also shifting back towards the study of the areas bones and scientists began regularly visiting Big Bone Lick, sending specimens back east to be studied more closely.  Eventually word of the extraordinary place reached President Thomas Jefferson who, in 1807, sent General William Clark (of Lewis & Clark fame) to collect specimens, 300 of which were sent back to the White House.  Over the following years thousands of bones of numerous prehistoric animals including Mammoths, Mastodons, Stag-moose, Bison, and Giant Ground Sloths were identified.   Dating back to the end of the last Ice Age, these were the remains of creatures who perished in the salt marshes surrounding Big Bone Creek.  Drawn by the same salt that drew the first settlers, these giant creatures would either be mired in the marshes and perish or be picked off as easy prey while they fed by prehistoric natives.  Sediments deposited over the millenia then covered and preserved the bones.

Billed as the "Birthplace of American Vertebrate Paleontology," Big Bone Lick State Historic Site was established in 1960 to preserve the integrity of the site and to provide a place to display the ancient artifacts for a curious public.  Since the establishment of the park a small herd of bison has also been reintroduced, returning a majestic creature missing from the local landscape since the end of the 18th Century.  On our brief afternoon visit we tried to hit the highlights of the park.  A fascinating collection of ancient bones can be seen (including an almost intact mastodon skull!), life-size statuettes of the ancient creatures stand in a replicated salt marsh, and trails pass by numerous bubbling salt springs and Big Bone Creek itself.  Like I said a very unique place.  Come along and see what we discovered...

Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  38.883997, -84.752438

Route Type:  Out-and-back + Loop

Difficulty:  EASY  (Petzoldt Rating:  2.30 )

Hike Length: ~2.0 miles                  Hike Duration: 1:30

Trailhead Temp: 65'F                     Trail Traffic:  10-25 people

Min. Elevation: 450'                         Max. Elevation: 580'

Total Vertical Gain: 150'                  Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 75'

Trails Used (blaze color):  Big Bone Creek (unblazed), Bison Trace (unblazed)