While fossils of varying sizes can be found worldwide, the Northern Plains and Rocky Mountain west offer a particularly inspiring glimpse at some of the creatures that once inhabited our planet. Because of the conditions found in the region geologically and climatologically speaking, a high quantity of large fossils are often exposed at the Earth’s surface, making search and recovery a bit easier and exciting. A number of private and public organizations exist which can help a visitor to learn more about the geologic history of the region as well as help them to view the fossils without causing them harm.
The region’s more remarkable fossil beds are characterized by arid conditions with highly erodible soils which seem to unearth a new crop of fossils on a yearly basis. Coupled with geologic strata that put the more productive eras such as the Cretaceous at or near the surface, finding a fossil to observe in these regions should not be difficult. Public parks such as the Hagerman Fossil Beds in Idaho offer an interpretive look at the fossils in their natural environment. Other formations where fossils are likely to be found include the famous Hell Creek Formation in eastern Montana and the western Dakotas (Peck’s Rex was unearthed from here and there are many active dig sites), the Brule formation in South Dakota and Wyoming, and the Green River Formation in southwestern Wyoming.
Throughout all of these regions, there are a number of interpretive centers to visit to observe specimens that have been removed from the fossil beds. The centers are typically well organized with friendly, knowledgeable staff. They offer the passerby a quick opportunity to learn about the geologic history of the region without having to invest in an off-road vehicle and obtain permission to go fossil hunting.
However, a number of groups do exist which can organize day or weeklong visits to active fossil digs. This is a great opportunity for the family or older individuals to observe fossils in their natural habitat and participate in the great excitement of scientific discovery. Beware of the conditions that you are likely to encounter before signing up for one of these adventures. They are often based out of small towns with limited services, are conducted during the hot dry days of a Northern Plains summer, and will tend to leave you with memories of a stunningly stark but beautiful landscape!
If you choose to venture out into a fossil bed on your own, however, there are some rules to remember. First, if you want to travel on privately owned land, get permission! Though the main house might be miles away, you are still traveling on someone’s private land – and if you remove a fossil, the owners might be rather upset (particularly if that fossil had been sold to another explorer!). Second, if you are traveling on any public land, fossil looking is acceptable. Fossil taking is illegal. The penalties for removing a fossil from public lands are quite severe and are not worth whatever thrill you might get from removing them. Remember, as with all adventures, the best policy is to take only pictures and leave only footprints.
Exploring the geologic history of the Northern Plains through fossil hunting is bound to be a memorable experience for you and your family. Even if you choose not to make it the whole focus of your vacation, try to spend an afternoon exploring a park or interpretive center devoted to the fossils of the region. You will come away with a new sense of wonder as you drive through the seemingly desolate landscape on your way to another great adventure.