Big Bone Lick: The World’s Best Paleo Pun

BBL Sign

OK. Go on. Get it out of the way. Let the giggles and tee-hees commence. State park names don’t come much funnier than this, and if there’s a better example of a double entendre out there I can’t imagine it.

The park’s somewhat risqué name even inspired a serious high road/low road conversation with myself when I was working on the title. But despite the funny name, this little-known state park in northeastern Kentucky played an interesting role in the early history of the American frontier.



Place names on the frontier were practical, like Beaver Creek or Oak Grove, and Big Bone Lick was no exception. The name’s semantic origins are: “lick” as in an enticing natural salt lick where animals came to supplement their diets; “big bone” as in very large skeletons from pre-historic times. The fossilized remains of Pleistocene mammoths, mastodons, sloths, and bison have all been unearthed at BBL.


These mysterious fossils were important because, thanks to excavations by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, and the sponsorship of President Thomas Jefferson, this isolated location in northeastern Kentucky is the birthplace of American Vertebrate Paleontology. That should taper the tee-hees.

Visitor's Center

1,000 Pound Mastodon Skull
1,000 Pound Mastodon Skull

As a display in the small, onsite museum explains:

“Equally as significant as the Big Bone Lick bones themselves, is the role they played in hundreds of years of scientific inquiry and debate. Thousands of bones from numerous small and large-scale expeditions conducted at the lick during the mid-18th through the late 19th centuries were deposited in museums and private collections around the world. Thomas Jefferson dispatched William Clark to collect specimens in one such expedition in 1807, which became the first organized vertebrate paleontology expedition in the United States. Specimens from Big Bone Lick fueled scientific debates in halls of the American Philosophical Society and the Royal Society of London, among others.”

Bison Calf

We didn’t stumble upon this little gem of a park by happenstance, but searched it out for a few days of camping. The break was great fun, and as frequently happens while traveling, we discovered another example of intriguing things showing up in surprising places. It’s located about 25 miles south of Cincinnati, Ohio, and the 10 mile detour off the interstate is well worth the effort. Entry to the state park and small museum is free, and as an added bonus, the park has a small herd of bison (including a couple of cute newborns) grazing at the end of a short hiking trail. Just don’t mention the paleontology part to the kids.

Happy Trails
James & Terri

Bison Herd


We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at

34 thoughts

  1. Nice to know “they” licked tasty bones way back then, too 😀 I reckon the name’s great it certain has the potential of stirring curiosity 😀

  2. What a cool place and not too far from you. Hard to imagine mammoths and other big bone creatures roaming around Ohio and Kentucky. The baby bison are so cute.

    1. This is a cool park Laura. We camped there for 5 days, and it was the perfect basecamp to explore the area. You might want to keep it in mind for your ramble. BTW, as the glaciers receded north, I’m sure there were wooly mammoths in your part of the world. Do you know if there have ever been any fossils found? ~James

      1. I’m not aware of any mammoth fossils found in the region. It’s great to find a place that is interesting and can serve as a basecamp.

  3. Growing up on a ranch I know al about salt licks so I figured it out right away. I love places like this. Alberta has the Royal Tyrrell Museum which displays many of the big boned animals that used to roam the area. I love the bison pictures, especially the baby.

    1. Darlene, as I said, the bison herd was a bonus. Even though they had a very large field to graze in, for some reason while we were there, the entire herd was very close to the trailside fence. There was a pregnant female who is due any day, and it was very interesting to watch her distancing herself from the herd. I’m sure you know more about this than I do, but I’m told that cattle do the same thing. ~James

      1. I suspect this is also an evolutionary tactic to increase the newborn’s chance of survival. In a small herd it’s probably no big deal, but if the herd is large, it would be much more dangerous for young ones. ~James

    1. I really enjoyed the small museum Jeff. It was well done, and just enough info. Also, I now know the difference between a wooly mammoth and mastodon. Mastodon = flat-topped skull, mammoth = high knob skull. ~James

  4. Great post! We’ve always loved fossils, and to top it off you had bison too. We used to collect some really nice fossils near Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Maybe you’ll find some too! (lots of trilobites, shells, and cycads)

  5. James I think you showed extreme restraint with this title. Good boy that you are. Last week I was at Drumheller’s Tyrell Museum. In the midst of the Alberta badlands it is chock full of dinosaur discoveries and now hoe to a world class museum. I don’t remember menton of any salt licks though…

    1. Darlene, one of your compatriots and an Alberta ranch gal mentioned the Tyrell Museum. I checked it out online and it looks very cool. I’m not sure about Jurassic herbivores going to salt licks, but I am sure if they did, the carnivores followed close behind for a tasty meal. ~James

      1. No, it was meant for you Sue. This is just a good example of a poorly written sentence. What it should have said was something like: Darlene, who happens to be a compatriot of yours Sue, also mentioned the Tyrell Museum.” 🙂 ~James

  6. I wish we would have known about this park when we were in KY. Surprisingly I did not have my mind in the gutter when I read your title and was thinking about a salt lick. Terry would probably never believe this as he thinks I always gravitate towards the risqué. 😉

    1. Sorry you missed this park LuAnn. The small museum had just enough detail to be beneficial, but not so much that it was a major time commitment. As to the name: Terri found that Big Bone Lick appeared on a Top Ten List of unfortunately named places. We even found one blogger who took the name to a new level of double entendre. The post was entitled “Get Your Kicks at Big Bone Lick.” 🙂 ~James

  7. I do like a funny place name but then I come from the country that seems to have invented calling places rude or funny things. Here we have so many I wouldn’t even know where to begin but one of my personal favourites is the river piddle and all the associated place names around it.

    1. Marie, the UK has to be the king when it comes to comical city names. I read about one of my favorite city names in a Bill Bryson book. It was called Thornton LeBeans! Classic. I can’t imagine the origin, but no way could I live there. ~James

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