Dig Your Own Fossils

The first annual National Fossil Day will be celebrated tomorrow, October 13, by the National Park Service and at fossil sites throughout the country. Jamie Pearson has the scoop on some of the best dig sites for kids.

As a kid, I was obsessed with fossils. What kid isn’t? Which is why I took my own children digging for fossils at the Warfeild Fossil Quarries in Wyoming last summer. To get to the quarry, we flew into Salt Lake City, drove north three hours across an increasingly barren landscape, and bumped eight miles up a dirt road. We passed four cattle guards and a solitary gravestone before arriving at what was essentially a big hole in the ground. Frankly I was a little surprised we found it at all.

Southwest Wyoming is a semi-arid desert now, but 50 million years ago it was a lush freshwater lake. For about 4,000 years the water’s unusual chemistry caused dead fish to sink instead of float. The result? Fish fossils. Billions of them.

Since the quarry charges by the hour, the manager George lost no time outfitting us with chisels and hammers and giving us a quick lesson on how to split the pale yellow limestone slabs. The trick, he told us, is to split the stones as wafer-thin as possible.

We all gasped with delight when my daughter found a promising brown squiggle on her very first try.

“That’s a coprolite,” laughed George. “You just found the fish’s bathroom.”

In the dusty hours that followed, we found lots more fish poop. We also found dozens of fossilized fish–more than we could possibly carry home. Rare species such as stingrays, turtles, reptiles, birds, and mammals all belong to the quarry no matter who finds them, but visitors are allowed to keep all of the common fish they find, regardless of size.  We found plenty.

Even if you can’t dig your own fossils on public or private land, celebrate National Fossil Day this October 13th with a visit to one of the 230 National Park System areas with documented paleontological resources. Check out their full list of official state fossils (bet you didn’t know that you had one) and other private dig sites around the country.
More Places to Dig Fossils

Warfield Fossil Quarries (fish fossils), Kemmerer, Wyoming
U-DIG Fossils (trilobites), Delta, Utah
PaleoJoes (marine invertebrates), Northern Lower Peninsula, Michigan
Penn Dixie Paleontological and Outdoor Education Center  (trilobites), Hamburg, New York
Lilydale Regional Park (seashells), St. Paul, Minnesota
Fossil Expeditions (bones and teeth of ancient mammals and sharks), Lee County, Florida

Jamie Pearson is a freelance writer, a mother of two, and the publisher of the award-winning independent family travel website Travel Savvy Mom.