An odorous swamp of gooey asphalt oozes to the earth's surface in the middle of Los Angeles. No, it's not a low-budget horror-movie set -- it's the La Brea Tar Pits, a bizarre primal pool on Museum Row where hot tar has been seeping to the surface from a subterranean oil field for more than 40,000 years. It's an incongruous sight in the middle of built-up Los Angeles; in this grassy patch of Hancock Park, you can walk right up to the abandoned asphalt quarry's slick black pool of oily water, inhaling its acrid scent and watching bubbles of methane gas bloop to the steamy surface. Suddenly the high-rise office towers of Wilshire and Fairfax boulevards seem to recede, and you can imagine a distant past when mammoths and saber-tooth cats prowled this fern-shaded landscape.
The bubbling pools have tempted thirsty animals throughout history -- with fatal consequences. Nearly 400 species of mammals, birds, amphibians, and fish, many of them now extinct, walked, crawled, landed, swam, or slithered into the sticky sludge, got stuck in the worst way, and stayed forever. For many years, their fossilized bones were pried out of hardened asphalt by the pit's owners, who were too busy extracting commercial tar to care about them. But, because paleontology came of age in the early 20th century, in 1906, scientists began to study this prehistoric trove. Some 100 tons of fossils were eventually removed -- ground sloths, giant vultures, mastodons, camels, bears, native lions, dire wolves, lizards, and relatives of today's super-rats -- the world's largest collection of Ice Age remains.
Today those entombed specimens are displayed at the adjacent Page Museum. Some 30 complete skeletons, along with assorted skulls and other bones, are handsomely mounted with in-depth explanations; there are also a few animatronic figures flailing about, though nothing that would terrify young children. Advise them not to expect dinosaurs -- these fossils are all from the Ice Age, but in fact those are even rarer than dinosaur fossils. Until we came here, I never knew that there were native horses in prehistoric North America (they became extinct long before the conquistadors arrived with their European horses). Archaeological work is ongoing; you can watch as scientists clean, identify, and catalog new finds in the Paleontology Laboratory.
This quarry has always been open to the public, and thankfully it hasn't been walled off and overcommercialized (the kitschy figures of struggling mastodons set outdoor in the pits are time-warp quaint). Poking around the park, I felt as much connected to the 1950s, when I first visited California, as I did to the Ice Age. Somehow in all my trips to L.A., I had never before made time for the La Brea Tar Pits. And now, at last, I was here, and it was so much cooler than the glitzy theme parks and Hollywood Boulevard attractions. I was thankful to be able to introduce it to my kids.
Nearest Airport: Los Angeles International.
Where to Stay: $$$ The Beverly Garland Holiday Inn, 4222 Vineland Ave., North Hollywood (tel. 800/BEVERLY [238-3759] or 818/980-8000; www.beverlygarland.com). $$ Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, 7000 Hollywood Blvd. (tel. 800/950-7667 or 323/466-7000; www.hollywoodroosevelt.com).