Public can return to ice-age dig site in Snowmass |

Public can return to ice-age dig site in Snowmass

Jill Beathard
The Aspen Times
The nonprofit Snowmass Discovery can now lead tours to Ziegler Reservoir, the site of the 2010-11 ice-age fossil dig in Snowmass Village. It is the first time the public has been allowed to access the site since then.
Aspen Times file |

Guided tours are now available on the same grounds that mammoths and mastodons trod tens of thousands of years ago.

The Ziegler family has given Snowmass Discovery permission to lead guided hikes to the reservoir on their property, where thousands of ice-age fossils were uncovered three years ago.

Tom Cardamone, executive director of Snowmass Discovery, has lots of ideas as to the educational amenities the nonprofit could create around the dig. Consultants are currently conducting a feasibility study to make recommendations regarding those amenities, the results of which are expected later this summer.

Whatever he learns from that study, Cardamone said he and the consultants agree that a visit to the dig site is at the heart of the experience. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Ziegler family signed an agreement allowing Cardamone and a few named individuals the right to lead groups to the dig site. So, in the meantime, while the nonprofit continues to create its vision for programming, it can take individuals to what Cardamone calls the Sistine Chapel of Snowmass’ ice-age history.

Participants have the option of first heading up the ski hill on the Campground side that overlooks the reservoir, which Cardamone says helps them appreciate the unique location of the pond.

From the lakeside, “you can’t appreciate that it’s a glacial pond on a ridge,” Cardamone said. “From here, you can see that.”

It also helps viewers understand how the pond was formed. A large glacier formed the Snowmass Creek Valley, and at the point where the valley curves just below the reservoir, it went off track, spilling over onto the ridge and leaving material behind.

The moraine, material that gets scattered by a glacier as it melts, formed into a bowl that captured water. That was in the second-most recent glaciation, which — according to “Digging Snowmastodon,” a book by paleontologists Kirk Johnson and Ian Miller about the big dig — was about 140,000 years ago. Another more recent glaciation, about 21,000 years ago, wasn’t as big and didn’t crest the ridge, leaving Ziegler Reservoir intact.

That fact is one reason why so much evidence of that period remains in the dig site.

“This is a treasure chest that got spared the disruption of a subsequent glaciation,” Cardamone said.

Today, Ziegler Reservoir is a serene, high-mountain lake, hidden by aspen groves and closed to the public, except for the guided tours. The Snowmass Water and Sanitation District uses it to store water drawn from Snowmass Creek during runoff. Even the tours have to stick to a specific part of the property, and Snowmass Discovery isn’t intending to build a trail or make any significant impact to the landscape.

For many members of the public, this is their first opportunity to visit the site since volunteering to dig for fossils in 2010 or 2011.

In addition to the Ziegler Reservoir tours, Colorado Mountain College is presenting a lecture series in the Ice Age Discovery Center every Wednesday through Aug. 13. Cardamone will make the final presentation on the possibility of cloning extinct mammals.

And paleontologist Tom Temme is prepping fossils from the dig Wednesdays through Sundays inside the Ice Age Discovery Center on the Snowmass Village Mall. Admission is free.

To take a tour of Ziegler Reservoir, contact Cardamone at 970-379-0185 or