Looking for Vermont’s ancient sea life and hiking among million-year-old fossils at the Goodsell Ridge Preserve

Visitors can walk along a 1,000-mile stretch of preserved marine life from an ancient ocean that once extended from Newfoundland to Tennessee

Photo: Pamela Hunt

The sun is shining brightly as I pull into the parking lot at the Goodsell Ridge Preserve on Isle La Motte, Vermont. Yellow flowers dot the meadows, and birds chirp overhead in the canopy of green leaves. Like many other Vermonters on this warm late-spring day, I’m heading out on a hike, but instead of seeking out a mountain vista or a cascading waterfall, I’m searching for sea life. 

The Green Mountain State may not make most lists of top seashell-hunting sites, but maybe it should. In the southern end of this island in Lake Champlain, visitors can walk among the fossilized remains of the Chazy Reef, a 1,000-mile stretch of preserved marine life from the ancient Iapetus Ocean that extends from Newfoundland to Tennessee.

Thanks to the Champlain Islands’ accessible geography, this site and the nearby Fisk Quarry Preserve provide some of the best opportunities to find these fossils and imagine today’s verdant mountains as a seabed teeming with life 480 million years ago.

The Goodsell Ridge Preserve is in Isle La Motte, Vermont.
The Goodsell Ridge Preserve is on Isle La Motte, Vermont. | Photo: Pamela Hunt

History of preservation

This treasured preserve almost didn’t exist today. Though geologists had long known that the Chazy Reef crossed through this land, starting in 1995, the Isle La Motte Preservation Trust (ILMPT) and the Lake Champlain Land Trust joined forces to fight against the resumption of quarrying. In 2009, this plot and the Fisk Quarry were finally set aside as National Natural Landmarks by the U.S. Department of the Interior. 

Today, most visitors partake in a self-guided tour of the preserve, helped along by the ILMPT’s signage and well-maintained trails. Guided tours are given throughout the summer months, and occasional concerts bring in music lovers from around the region. In the winter, though the fossils are hidden below a blanket of snow, the trails are open for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.  

Trail through the trees.
Trail through the trees. | Photo: Pamela Hunt
Trilobite fossil.
Trilobite fossil. | Photo: Pamela Hunt

I begin my journey in the visitor center, which is housed in a restored barn. The volunteer docent points out large chunks of rock that contain the types of fossils I might find along the trails, neatly arrayed on a table. 

I also learn that the bedrock on this end of the island is made up of various layers of different ages, laid out on a tilted horizontal plane. This clear delineation of the rock strata has allowed scientists to more easily determine which creatures lived during which eras in the reef, from the earliest times with just one or two species, to the later period when the reef was home to numerous species. The portion of the Chazy Reef at Goodsell Ridge, known as the Upper Crown Point Formation, represents the first community comprising diverse inhabitants, including bryozoan, stromatolites, sponges, and algae. 

Hitting the trail

The 83-acre site’s walking paths range from shorter trails, at a third of a mile each, to a longer trail that runs for approximately a mile through meadows and into the pine forests. A kiosk displays photos of the fossils you can expect to encounter along the way: the spiral shell of a gastropod, the ridged segments of a cephalopod, the amorphous circles left by sponges. 

I start down the wide, mowed path of the longer trail, which meanders through the meadows and forests. Small hand-drawn signs, some with whimsical illustrations of gastropod shells, indicate places of interest and possible fossil sites. The trails themselves are relaxing to walk through, and they are family- and dog-friendly. 

At each rocky outcropping, I stop to search for the swirls and ridges of ancient creatures. Some are easy to spot, while others are up for debate.

Gastropod fossil.
Gastropod fossil. | Photo: Pamela Hunt
Walking on history. | Photo: Pamela Hunt
Walking on history. | Photo: Pamela Hunt

The trail loops back to the parking area, where I decide to explore the Walk Through Time exhibit, a 4,600-foot path where each foot equals a million years. Large illustrated signs depict the history of the Earth and the Chazy Reef, from the geologically tumultuous beginnings of our planet to the emergence of early lifeforms to the gradual evolution of today’s flora and fauna. 

The signs are spaced further apart at the start of the exhibit, then get closer and closer together. When I reach those representing the modern day, I can clearly sense the speed—or, more accurately, the slowness—at which life on our planet has developed. Reaching the final sign, I can feel just how brief our time on Earth has been. 

The excitement at finding these traces of long-ago life‚ in an environment far removed from modern-day Vermont, lends the afternoon a bit of a treasure-hunt feel. But instead of emerging from a dig with bags of jewels, I leave the park with memory cards full of impressions of ancient creatures preserved forever in granite. 

If you go

The Isle La Motte Preservation Trust owns and manages the Goodsell Ridge Preserve. For a guided tour, or to inquire about the visitor center’s hours of operation, contact the Isle La Motte Preservation Trust directly at info@ilmpt.org or 802.238.7040.

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