We’ve all been there – driving across the United States to your next duty station with the kids in the backseat. There are only so many malls, roadside attractions and museums you can visit before everyone starts going a little car crazy. Fortunately, there is something else you can do along the way that’s entertaining, educational and a great experience for the whole family – fossil collecting.
Kids love dinosaurs, and holding a piece of one in your hand is epic. I know what you’re thinking – there’s no way you’re going to grab picks and shovels then head into the wilderness. However, it’s easier than you might expect. There are plenty of parks and sites across the United States where you can collect fossils without too much difficulty.
The variety of what you can find is truly amazing. Perhaps you will visit U-Dig Fossils in Utah to search for trilobites that lived hundreds of millions of years ago in what used to be a vast inland sea. These creatures once scurried their way across the seafloor and existed in a variety of shapes and sizes.
Or maybe you want to look for beautifully preserved leaves and insects in Florissant, Colorado. Nearby prehistoric volcanic activity would periodically blanket the area causing them to get trapped in layers of mud and ash. Nearly 1,700 species have been identified, which makes it one of the most biodiverse sites on the planet. You can find them at Florissant Fossil Quarry.
If you’re interested in something more individualized, there’s Low Country Fossil Hunting in South Carolina. Ancient shark teeth are the main attraction, and some, like the carcharocles megalodon, were as big as a bus. Needless to say, they are amazing to find. You might also come upon the occasional whale vertebrae or dolphin tooth.
If you’re out west visiting national parks in Wyoming, Colorado or Utah, you can visit Fossil Safari near the town of Kemmerer. Well-preserved fish fossils are world renown from this area of Wyoming in what is called the Green River Formation. The region once had a moist subtropical climate that allowed palm trees, stingrays and even crocodiles to thrive.
In Iowa, you can collect shells, corals and other marine creatures at the Floyd County Fossil & Prairie Park Preserve. The Montour Preserve Fossil Pit in Pennsylvania is also a great place to find similar items, especially crinoids, which look like plants but were actually animals that are related to modern-day starfish.
Fossils on the beach
Instead of visiting a quarry or park you might be more inclined to simply look for shark teeth with the family while visiting the beach. The sandy soils of the southeast have rivers that constantly deposit teeth from inland to the coast. South Carolina (Edisto Island Beach), Georgia (Jekyll Island & Savannah) and Florida (Venice Beach) offer great opportunities at your own pace.
There are also locations where they bring the fossils to you. The Aurora Museum in North Carolina has piles of earth delivered to their property from local phosphate mines so you can sift through to find all kinds of treasures. Other locations can literally be found along the road. The Naco Paleo site is right off Highway 260 near Payson, Arizona, slightly past mile marker 267. There’s even a small, paved parking lot allowing access to it.
Guided fossil searches
If you’re more adventurous and would prefer a guide take you to the best places to look for fossils, there are numerous options. In Florida, Paleo Discoveries offers canoe and wading trips along the Peace River, which is strewn with large mammal bones (including those of sabre tooth tigers, tapirs, giant sloths and mammoths).
In South Carolina, Charleston Fossil Adventures will take you to local barrier islands that are packed with a variety of items to find.
Another great source for excursions are local and regional clubs. Besides providing trips, clubs are often a trove of information. Many offer annual conventions, guest speakers and newsletters to their members. Networking with others can be a great way to learn more about fossils and have group fun. A nationwide list of clubs/organizations can be found on the myFossil website.
Natural history museums are also a good source for trips and education in your particular area. The Missouri Institute of Natural Science allows visitors to search for fossils on its own property.
Make sure you check local regulations before you go searching because most states make a distinction between digging and surface collecting. Additionally, make sure you are not on private property and that you take proper precautions regarding weather, wildlife and broken terrain.
For more information, consider reading these three books:
- “Fossiling in Florida: A Guide for Diggers and Divers” by Mark Renz
- “Shark Tooth Hunting on the Carolina Coast” by Ashley Oliphant
- “101 American Fossil Sites You’ve Gotta See” by Albert Dickas.