Here are six ways and places to learn about the prehistoric past as you tour the West this summer.
REPUBLIC, Ferry County — I’m on the hunt for prehistoric treasure.
With my hammer and chisel, I’m skirting an eroded hillside in Eastern Washington. The riches I’m after are the plants and animals that once lived here 50 million years ago.
With a chink and a crack, my chisel splits another rock in two, spewing small fragments in all directions.
What’s legal, what’s not
A majority of fossils are on private land and you cannot collect fossils without the landowner’s permission. Private quarries such as Warfield and Stonerose charge fees to collect on their sites.
Public lands such as Bureau of Land Management sites and state parks do not allow fossil digging without a valid scientific permit. An exception is on the Pacific Coast of Oregon where fossilized shells and other sea life can be found and kept as long as it’s loose, in the tidal zone and not for commercial sale.
Source: North America Research Group
It’s tiring work smashing stones by hand. But in the end, I know it will be worth it because fossilized plants hide within and the next stroke of my hammer might be the one that hits the jackpot.
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Finding a fossil at the Stonerose Interpretive Center just takes a bit of patience and maybe a few blisters, yet for years this rocky hillside has yielded a tremendous cache of fossilized remains, making the odds of finding one ever in my favor.
There’s a euphoric moment when you hit on your first fossil. Suddenly a nondescript rock becomes a tangible link to the age of dinosaurs.
That spine-tingling moment doesn’t even have to come from a T-Rex or raptor claw — just ask the kids around me who squeal with delight at the first signs of a leaf. For some, it may be the beginning of an addicting hunt that will last a lifetime.
Western states are littered with fossil sites if you know where and how to look for them. Some amateur Northwest fossil hounds are even uncovering exciting new species of dinosaurs that the world has never seen before.
Finding fossils can put an educational spin on your summer vacation, creating moments that are sure to be remembered for years. Here are six ways and places your family can find fossils this summer.
Stonerose Interpretive Center, Washington
Set amid ranchland in the rolling mountains of northeast Washington, Stonerose’s dig site is open to the public, so anyone can spend some time searching.
“You never know if the next rock will be the next big find or just another rock,” says Stonerose director Katherine Meade. “The excitement of being the first to see 50-million-year-old remains is infectious.”
The tools of the trade are quite simple, she says. A rock hammer and cold chisel are available to rent ($5), or you can bring your own from home.
Stonerose primarily yields leaves, insects and conifer sprigs, though fish scales and bones are also plentiful. By far, the most common fossils found are sprigs of the extinct Metasequoia occidentalis, commonly known as dawn redwood, says Meade.
“We recommend that one spend at least an hour searching diligently for fossils. Most diggers find well over the daily limit of three to take home in just a few hours.” And there are always fragmented pieces lying about, she says.
Stonerose is located in downtown Republic, off Highway 20. Dig site open daily 8 a.m.-4 p.m. (latest time to start digging is 3 p.m.) through Sept. 4. Offseason hours vary. Adults $10/kids $5; www.stonerosefossil.org.
Warfield Fossil Quarries, Wyoming
Fifty million years ago, Wyoming’s Fossil Lake was a thriving place. Millions of fish lived in its waters and all kinds of animals thrived around it. When the animals died, many were covered with sediment, eventually turning them to stone.
That ancient lake bed is now a wall of rock, home to Warfield Quarries. It’s one of the richest fossil sites on the planet, especially for fossilized fish. And because it’s on private land, diggers can keep all the museum-quality fish they find.
Big slabs are sheared off by the staff and made ready for the work of rock hammers and chisels.
“We make it easy for everyone to find the fossils,” says owner Rick Hebdon. “It’s as close to a guarantee as it can be. If you put in the effort you’re going to find some.”
Splitting open rocks is fairly simple. Gently tap the edge of a slab with your chisel until a layer breaks free. The bigger the rock, the greater your chances of finding an intact fossil, or even multiple fish.
“It’s really fun to see someone make a great find, and all the people rush to check it out, then rush back to increase their own efforts in hopes of finding something as good or better,” says Hebdon.
Warfield Fossil Quarries are located northwest of Kemmerer, Wyo. Open daily 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Half-day digs: adults $75/kids half-price; FossilSafari.com.
John Day Fossil Beds, Oregon
The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument (nps.gov/joda) in north-central Oregon includes some of the richest sites for fossils in the Northwest.
Also known for its brilliantly colorful “Painted Hills” rock formations, the monument is a trove of fossils originating over a span of 40 million years.
A working lab at the monument’s Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, near Dayville, Ore., is the best place to see the monument’s fossils. You can watch staff clean fossils for display, and it’s also a good place to brush up on paleontology.
The monument offers scenic drives to locations where important fossils were discovered. Replicas show what the bones looked like before they were excavated, showcasing examples of the conditions in which scientists perform their work.
While collecting in the monument’s three land units is prohibited, in the nearby town of Fossil, Ore., there is a public collection site behind Wheeler High School, 600 B St. Fossilized leaves and branches are set in thinly bedded rocks, once the site of a shallow lake that existed here about 33 million years ago, during a time period known as the Oligocene.
Entry to the site for fossil collection is $5, or $15 for a family of four (bit.ly/fossilbeds).
Join a fossil club
Getting permission to dig on private land can be tricky business. Most fossil sites are in rural areas where landowners aren’t excited about strangers digging on their property.
One way to access the best sites is by joining a club such as the Hillsboro, Ore.-based North America Research Group (NARG, narg-online.com) or the Seattle-based Northwest Paleontological Association (nwpaleo.org).
“We are able to get permission from landowners to search for fossils,” says Aaron Currier, president of NARG. “If you’re just a general collector you’re very limited to what you can do, because you’re either on private property, or you’re on public land, and there are a lot of limitations.”
College professors and professional experts lead campouts and field trips. They’re partly educational, partly search-and-rescue, in which members hunt down fossils with significant scientific value and prepare specimens for research.
Joining a club can help you network with experts, and you can also be part of cutting-edge discoveries. In 2007, a NARG group working in the Blue Mountains of Eastern Oregon discovered the fossil remains of a Jurassic-era reptile, previously unknown in this part of the world, that looks like a cross between a crocodile and a fish.
When a rare fossil is found, members typically turn it over to a museum or university for further study.
Membership is open to anyone with an interest in fossils. Only members are allowed on field trips.
Join an organized dinosaur dig
Some of the world’s most famous dinosaurs are found in Montana, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada and Wyoming. Just because you’re not a trained paleontologist doesn’t mean that you can’t work alongside one on a dig.
Dozens of organized trips sponsored by universities, museums and private groups put amateurs in the field to prepare fossils for study.
Trips range from half-day outings to several weeks, and often involve physical labor in rugged conditions.
“We’re in the field a total of three months a year, mostly in the summer and early fall,” says Randall Irmis, curator at the Natural History Museum of Utah.
Once they’ve completed a training course, volunteers may join regular trips to excavate the likes of duck-billed dinos, horned dinos, tyrannosaurs, armored dinos and crocodiles, he says.
“No prior experience is necessary — but you do need to be willing to camp out, work in sunny, hot temperatures, and work hard, but have a good time!”
To enroll in a class or program, search Western universities and dinosaur museums for summer classes. Irmis recommends watching message boards at universities for upcoming training programs.
Some active programs include:
• Natural History Museum of Utah (nhmu.utah.edu/volunteers)
• Museums of Western Colorado (museumofwesternco.com/things-to-do/)
• Billings, Mont.-based Judith River Dinosaur Institute (montanadinosaurdigs.com)
• Baisch’s Dinosaur Digs, in Glendive, Mont. (dailydinosaurdigs.com).
The Burke Museum
Closer to home, Seattle’s Burke Museum at the University of Washington cares for more than 3 million fossil specimens with a focus on Northwest species, including the state’s earliest dinosaur, mammoths and sea life. Open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; adults $10/kids $7.50. On the first Thursday of each month, including July 7, admission is free and the museum is open until 8 p.m. Corner of 17th Avenue Northeast and Northeast 45th Street. burkemuseum.org.