When I heard that bison roamed Big Bone Lick State Historic Site in Kentucky, I had visions of petting one of these majestic animals and maybe getting a selfie. Well, that didn’t happen but I did get to see them from a distance and get a cool T-shirt to remember our visit.
Big Bone Lick State Historic Site is located in Union, Kentucky, about 30 miles south of Cincinnati. I love to see animals–most from afar–and seeing the bison was one of my top priorities when we visited Northern Kentucky. But I had no idea this area of the United States was so important to paleontology.
From the Ice Age to the founding of a nation
Native Americans were the first to discover the Big Bone Lick area. The “lick” portion of the name is based on the salt lick located there. The discovery of huge bones in the 18th century revealed the area’s history went back thousands of years. Charles Le Mayne, a French-Canadian soldier, first discovered large bones there, according to information from Kentucky State Parks. He first thought they could be from an elephant. He was right–and wrong.
Benjamin Franklin received a set of large bones taken from the area by explorer Colonel George Groghan. Franklin was dismissive of them because he didn’t believe elephants had roamed the area. He later acknowledged that the area was likely different in ancient times.
It wasn’t until the late 18th century the bones discovered at Big Bone Lick drew the attention of President Thomas Jefferson. He sent explorer William Clark on mission to gather bones and bring them back to the White House. This is known as the U.S’s first paleontological expedition, according to Kentucky State Parks.
Those bones found by Clark showed that it was not just elephants roaming the park. Mastodons, who have flatter heads and were not as tall as elephants, also lived in Northern Kentucky more than 20,000 years ago. Harlan’s ground sloth also called Big Bone Lick home. This is not a sloth as we think about them in the modern day. This sloth could be as large as 10 feet tall and weighed more than 2,000 pounds. You can see the skeleton of one in the Big Bone Lick Museum. It’s named after explorer Richard Harlan, who is credited with finding the the remains of one in 1831.
What to do at Big Bone Lick
This is of the smallest state parks we have visited but one of the most unusual. I always begin and end my state park visits in the museums or visitor centers. Big Bone Lick’s museum has the aforementioned Harlan’s giant sloth and other animals. After you have seen the rest of the park, go back and visit the gift shop for a cool T-shirt or souvenir. I don’t wear T-shirts much but I knew this one would be a conversation starter. I get asked about it every time I wear it.
The diorama pit
You get a glimpse of what life was like for the animals and people that occupied the area during the Ice Age at the Megafauna diorama pit. I incorrectly identified some of the mastodons as elephants until I learned more about the area’s history. Along the pit are plaques that give detailed information about each scene. It’s not a long walk and well-worth your time.
The bison are what drew me to Big Bone Lick. It’s about a half-mile hike to the field where they are. It’s not a terrible hike but if you have trouble with slight elevations, plan accordingly.
They will tell you at the visitor’s center that bison may not be close to the fence or the may not come out at all. We were lucky enough to see some on our visit, but a distance. If you have a camera with a great lens, you can get some good shots. We did not have our cameras with us on this day so we relied on our phones. That was not one of our best days.
Other things to do at Big Bone Lick State Historic Site
We were there for the bison and we received a history lesson as a bonus. The park has several miles of hiking trails. The Big Bone Creek Trail takes you to the salt spring. It’s an easy hike that’s less than a mile, according to information from the park.
The park also has a campground with a pool and a miniature golf course. You will also find two playgrounds and picnic tables throughout the park.
Tips for visiting Big Bone Lick State Historic Site
The park is located just a littler over 30 minutes south of Cincinnati depending on which route you take. The park is in a rural setting in the small town of Union, Kentucky. We had no trouble finding it by using the map feature on our phone.
Entrance to the park is free–who doesn’t love free. We visited on a Saturday in October and found plenty of parking near the museum. If you are thirsty, you can purchase a cold drink there and a snack if you need one of those. I am a stickler about restrooms and I was happy to find them clean and well-stocked.
Northern Kentucky is a great place for a weekend getaway or a longer trip. This was our second time visiting the area and we still haven’t done everything we want to do. Nearby Covington, Kentucky is one of our favorite places. You can visit some beautiful churches and see an cute German village.
We stayed at the Radisson Hotel Cincinnati Riverfront in Covington on our first visit. You can’t miss it–it’s the round hotel with with the gorgeous lights at night. There’s also a great restaurant on the top floor that rotates, given you awesome views of the city. Some rooms also have a great view of the Cincinnati skyline, like ours did.
If you are there during baseball season, The Great American Ballpark is just five minutes away. You will find several other lodging options in Northern Kentucky from hotels to vacation rentals. More on where to stay and what to do can be found here.