Something about fossil hunting makes you feel like a kid again. Maybe it's the childlike excitement you feel over finding a really cool rock, or it's just the sheer joy of remembering that dinosaurs are really freaking awesome. Either way, fossil hunting is a simple, kind of addicting activity that's perfect for all ages. Whether you're digging up trilobites in shale out West, or you're searching for megalodon teeth on the East Coast, fossils are buried treasure that you can find pretty much all over the country... if you know where to look and have the right tools. Here are some hot spots for prehistoric fossils, and hints on how to find them!
Hidden in the sand on the edges of the Potomac's riverbanks in Westmoreland State Park are gems: Megalodon teeth. The area was once a shallow ocean where these dino-sharks swam. Like most sharks, they had lots of teeth (each had about 250 teeth spanning 5 rows in their mouths). The megalodons died out, and their teeth and bones were fossilized under more rock. The ocean where they lived disappeared... but they layers of rock containing their fossils were exposed as the Potomac River eroded away the layers rock above. There are loads of other Miocene fossils to be found on the riverbanks, including those from early gators, dolphins, whales, fish, and assorted mammals. These are all about 23-25 million years old! Take the park's Beach Trail from the visitor center to the river for the best fossil hunting. Other features of Westmoreland State Park include hiking trails, fishing, swimming, and camping.
Purse State Park (or the Purse Area of the Nanjemoy Wildlife Management Area) is a remote little spot that's loaded with fossils. In addition to shark teeth found on the beaches of the Potomac River's Wades Bay, you can also find Cibicides shells. The Cibicides, according to Wikipedia, "is a genus of cosmopolitan benthic foraminifera". You can identify the shell by its "multichambered, plano-convex trochospiral, with a flat or dished-out evolute spiral side and a strongly arched, involute umbilical side". Translation: it looks real cool. The day-use park has no facilities, so come prepared; a picnic lunch makes a great break from fossil-hunting. Plus, the free admission and lack of crowds mean you get access to primo fossil-searching.
New Jersey is also a hotbed for fossil finds. The teeth and vertebrae of goblin sharks, mackerel sharks, crow sharks, angel sharks, sawfish, rays, drumfish, and, my favorite, saber-tooth salmon can be found at Marlboro's Big Brook Park. Remains of Mososaurs (which are late Cretaceous marine lizards), mollusks and Belemnites (which were squid-like cephalopods) can also be found. If you didn't already know, the continent's very first (nearly) complete dinosaur skeleton was discovered not in the West, but right here in New Jersey. It helps to look up the different kinds of fossils from some of these creatures, or to see what kinds of fossils can be found at these sites, so you have a good idea of what to look for when you start hunting.
Fossil parks are surefire bets for those who reeeally want to leave with treasure. Penn Dixie Fossils in New York state is open from late April until late October, and for less than $10 a person, you get the chance to find one of the most prized of all fossils: trilobites. They're also home to prehistoric crabs, sea lilies, starfish, mollusks, coral, snails, and more, along with petrified wood and paleozoic fish. They have an annual "Dig with the Experts" event as well, which features extra digging equipment and scientific experts onsite to help you identify your finds. Everything is from the Middle Devonian period, meaning the fossils are more than 300 million years old.
375 million years ago, Northwest Ohio was also underwater. Now, it's not. Fossil Park in Sylvania is a rock quarry where you can dig up the remains of the area's watery past, including brachiopods, coral. There are 5 acres of Devonian-era booty to dig up, and the best part is that it's all free. There's also a nice walking path, and interpretive signs to help you figure out what fossils you've found.
Mineral Wells Fossil Park is an old 1990s borrow pit that's been found to be filled with fossils after 20 years of erosion. Keep your eyes peeled for crinoids (sea lilies), echinoids (urchins), brachiopods, pelecypods (bivalves), bryozoans, corals, trilobites (arthropods), plants and even primitive sharks. This is another site that's primitive, but free to visit, so come prepared to load up on fossilized finds.
Colorado is another spot famous for dino bones and fossilized remains. The shale at the Florissant Fossil Quarry hides preserved remains of bugs and plants. They provide all the tools and instruction you need to split the shale and reveal fossils. Or, if you'd rather hunt for fossils in the comfort of your own backyard, they sell bags of their shale to-go and will tell you everything you need to know to find the fossils inside. While you're in the area, you can stop by the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. You can't remove fossils from the National Monument, but you can see some amazing specimens and great examples of what you might find at the quarry.
This might come as a surprise to you, but Wyoming was also once covered by water. That's why there are so many fish fossils at the Fossil Safari at Warfield Fossil Quarries. You'll split shale in search of Eocene-age fish species of all sizes, like Knightia, Diplomystus, Phareodus, Mioplosus, Amphiplaga, and Priscacara. They guarantee that within two hours, you'll have found a satisfactory amount of 40-60 million-year-old fossils, which means more reward for less digging. They also offer guided night digs at another of their quarries, for those who want to avoid the heat. That experience doesn't come cheap, but it will be unforgettable!
Another prime spot for trilobites, U-dig Fossils in Utah has a 40-acre quarry with loads of gems to find. They claim that the average visitor can find ten to twenty trilobites in a four-hour period, along with brachiopods, sponges, worm tracks, phyllocarids and other mid-Cambrian fossils. They can be pretty small, but they're pretty well preserved. They'll provide the tools and info you need on splitting shale to get to the fossils.
If you're serious about leaving with fossils, there are a few tools you can bring along to help. If you're in a fossil pit, a toothbrush and a bucket of water or a spray bottle can help you wash dirt off potential fossils. If you're splitting shale, you might even want gloves and safety glasses. If you're in a river, a bucket and a sifting pan are awesome tools. Knee pads or a cushion can make crouching or kneeling in rock pits less painful, and aprons or vests with pockets are a great way to keep tools and finds organized and close at hand. Sunscreen and then a hat or even an umbrella for sun protection can also help a lot. And, of course, pack some snacks and drinks in case the site doesn't have concessions.