Fossil Reef Park and Laguna Hills Community Center

A WHALE FOSSIL PLAYGROUND!?!? Never did I ever think I would stumble across a place like this, but there it is! As I mentioned in my previous review, I had recently decided to take an extended Californian vacation, and figured I should take the opportunity to visit as many SoCal (Southern California) museums as possible in my time out there. Much to my surprise, a place called Fossil Reef Park in Laguna Hills showed up on Google Maps when I randomly typed in “dinosaur” while planning out my visits. I had never heard of it before, but as soon as I saw it pop up in my search results, I knew I had to visit! Where else can you see an entire playground themed after the marine ecosystem of Miocene Southern California?

Overlook of the playground at Fossil Reef Park .

My mother in law actually took the trouble of scouting it out a couple days before the kids and I made it over there, and am I glad she did, because she discovered an extra aspect to the experience that completely escaped my notice when browsing online! Next door to the park proper stands the Laguna Hills Community Center, which houses several cases of fossils discovered during the construction of the facilities. (I decided to look inside here first, as I knew I probably wouldn’t be able to drag the kids away from the playground if I tried to do it afterwards!) Recovered specimens include both Miocene and Pleistocene fossils, the latter of which includes a fragmentary American Mastodon. The bulk of the exhibit, however, focuses on the 17 million year old “pectin”, or scallop, reef discovered from Miocene deposits on the property, including primitive sea lions, basal walruses, megalodon teeth, and even a desmostylian skull! (Don’t worry, most people haven’t heard of desmostylians either. Think a cross between a manatee and a hippo.)

Mastodon remains on the left, various marine mammals, shark teeth, and other fossils on the right.
Underside of a desmostylian skull, with the bizarre teeth the family gets its name from clearly visible. Several works of paleoart decorate the community center lobby as well, including this scene of the pecten reef, with a desmostylian grazing in the middle ground, and a small pod of whales swimming in the background.

Walking across the driveway and up a short concrete path, guests find themselves at a recreation of a portion of the aforementioned pectin reef (with both sculpted and actual fossil scallops imbedded for full effect), around which the rest of the playground centers. My eye was immediately drawn to the whale skeleton nearby, which kids can climb over and under, and makes a fantastic addition to the theme. Signage indicates it was modeled after a Right Whale, though I suspect the designers (or any advising paleontologists) meant it as a stand-in for a cetothere. Cetotheres were one of the more common whale groups during the Miocene, and are now largely believed to have gone extinct, though in a twist of fate that makes the playground equipment slightly more appropriate, a controversial study (published long after the park’s completion) suggested that the living Pygmy Right Whale may in fact be the last surviving species in the cetothere family!

This playground is a fantastic bit of public outreach! The signage clearly identifies the various fossils that guests can find around the playground, and explains their inclusion in the layout.

Several small pedestals display various other small marine fossils common to the area, while a tunnel through the reef features some “special guest stars” in the form of a pair of hadrosaur fossils in the rock walls. While no dinosaurs have been found in the immediate area, fragmentary hadrosaurs have been found in other, more remote parts of Orange County, a fact park signage uses to justify their inclusion. (Incidentally, a hadrosaur named Augustynolophus was recently declared California’s state dinosaur, which you can read about in The 50 State Fossils!)

The hadrosaur “guest star” hiding in the tunnel/bridge area, and one of several fossil pedestals.

While the pectin reef has a slide, an interactive tortoise water feature, and a sand pit, a more traditional platformed playground structure sits just behind the reef. This section still manages to stick to the theme, however, as its side panels have images of various Pleistocene animals, along with a couple Miocene creatures as well, including a Desmostylus!!! Too bad this place isn’t more well known. I’m sure Kirk Johnson and especially Ray Troll (what with his love of desmostylans) would’ve loved to take a brief rest stop here while driving down the 5 Freeway (that’s Interstate 5 to you non-Californians) for Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline!

The more traditional playground structure at Fossil Reef Park. Visible from this angle, one can see panels depicting a mastodon, dire wolf, the long-horned bison, and fossil shells. I’ve also zoomed in on the Desmostylus on the right.

Fossil Reef Park is a true hidden gem for a committed paleo nerd such as myself. I would have gone nuts over this place as a kid. While the fossil theme didn’t register to my own kids quite like it would have for myself, the general layout of the place is strong enough from a playground design perspective that it still probably ranks among their favorite parks they’ve visited. I would highly recommend this to any young families in the SoCal area, or even just fellow adult fossil enthusiasts like myself, simply to appreciate from a design and public outreach perspective. If you don’t happen to live near Laguna Hills yourself, it’s not too out of the way to make use of it as a supplement to a field trip to any of the local museums. For more fossil themed attractions in Southern California, check out my review of the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum, the Western Science Center, and those road trip icons, the Cabazon Dinosaurs.

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