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Where To Go Fossil Hunting in North America (and What To Look For)

From millions of years in the ground to resting in the palm of your hand.

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Hi, I'm Jacqueline!

Jacqueline Kehoe is a freelance writer and photographer with work seen in National Geographic, Thrillist, Travel + Leisure, and more. Find her out on the trails or at jacquelinekehoe.com.

Wander North America, and you’ll be amazed how often a 100-million-year-old (or more) story can be found at your feet. From shark teeth and trilobites to trace fossils of ancient plants, fossil hunting opens us up to worlds long gone, full of fabulous flora and fauna from across millennia.

Though having a few fossil-hunting tools in your belt is useful, all it takes to get started is a keen eye, so here’s our round-up of best places to begin your prehistoric North American adventure.

Red Rock Canyon, Nevada

Person hiking with stick up rock formations in sun
Fossilized sponges and invertebrates are most commonly found in the area.Photo Credit: Harry Beugelink / Shutterstock

Take a trip back 600 million years to Nevada’s underwater origins.

Among the most notable of Nevada’s many fossil spots is Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, just under 20 minutes’ drive from Las Vegas. Hop on the 2.5-mile (4-kilometer) Fossil Canyon Trail loop, and you’ll be swimming in sea fossil–finding opportunities in this former ocean basin. Fossilized sponges, corals, crinoids, and other invertebrates are in high supply, while dinosaur footprints and mammalian remains are a rarer find.

Yoho National Park, Canada

Man walks down trail toward mountain lake
Specialized tours lead hikes into the fossil beds.Photo Credit: Janice Chen / Shutterstock

See some of the oldest and most complex fossils in existence.

Canada’s Yoho National Park, deep in the Canadian Rockies, is home to the Burgess Shale, a rock formation best known for its unusual ability to preserve the soft bodies of ancient specimens. This UNESCO World Heritage Site dates back to the time of the Cambrian Explosion, making it a fascinating record of Earth right at the brink of life as we know it.

Because the fossils are so prized, you’ll need a tour to hit the best spots. Yoho National Park, the Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation, and other local groups lead full-day hikes into the fossil beds, which are well worth the time and effort.

Calvert Cliffs, Maryland

Woman with spade crouches at water's edge on beach
Fossils of about 600 species have been found.Photo Credit: Nicole Glass Photography / Shutterstock

Sink your teeth in Maryland’s fossil-rich landscape.

Maryland’s Calvert Cliffs, about 90 minutes from Baltimore, are the place to go in search of giant shark teeth and ancient invertebrates. Running for some 24 miles from roughly Chesapeake Beach to Drum Point, these fossil-bearing cliffs were once submerged under the sea. Today, some 600 species have been found here via their fossils, including megalodons and long-extinct whales.

Insider tip: Hit up Matoaka Beach or Calvert Cliffs State Park after a thunderstorm to better your chances of finding fossils, which you’re welcome to take home with you.

Baja California, Mexico

Man straddles two rocks next to handmade cross atop cliff overlooking ocean
Much of the area's Pacific coast was once underwater.Photo Credit: Cavan Images / Shutterstock

Dive into the geologic history of Mexico’s Pacific Coast.

Long before Baja California rifted from mainland Mexico, much of the area was underwater, and evidence of the area’s unique geology still can be found today all over the peninsula. In the El Rosario area and toward the coast, you can find ammonites, petrified wood, and more among the sands and inland riverbeds. In the arroyos south of El Rosario toward Punta San Carlos, keep an eye out for petrified clams, oysters, and sand dollars—alongside prehistoric petroglyphs.

Insider tip: Taking fossils out of Mexico is strictly illegal and getting caught can land you in serious trouble. Fossil-hunting in Mexico strictly means fossil-searching, not fossil-taking.

Peace River, Florida

Partially submerged tree with airboat in background
Winter and spring are the best fossil hunting seasons on the river.Photo Credit: SuJo Studios / Shutterstock

Pan for Pleistocene and Miocene-era gold.

Sailing on the Peace River in southwest Florida means floating above a world of ancient history. Arrive in winter or spring when the water levels are lower, bring along some sort of sifter, and scoop up a pile of river cobbles. Between all those rocks, you just might find a megalodon tooth, alligator tooth, or dugong bone.

Penn Dixie Fossil Park and Nature Reserve, New York

Stacks of river rocks on shoreline
The park offers free use of buckets and trowels for fossil hunters.Photo Credit: ShorelineGalesPhotography / Shutterstock

Get hands-on practice digging for fossils.

Though any creek flowing into Lake Erie could be a fossil treasure trove, X marks the spot in one particular western New York deposit site: Penn Dixie Fossil Park and Nature Reserve. A former cement quarry in Hamburg, New York, visitors are invited to scope out the rocks for trilobites, brachiopods, crinoids, and more, then keep any they find.

Insider tip: The park provides a bucket and trowel with admission and requires a 15-minute tour. Additional tools can be rented for a small fee. Come after a good rain to improve your odds of finding something that’s been buried for millions of years.

Joggins Fossil Cliffs, Canada

Rocky shoreline with small waves
The cliffs are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.Photo Credit: Sailorsgirl / Shutterstock

Discover Canada’s very own “coal age Galapagos.”

With the highest tides in the world, a lot happens in Nova Scotia’s Bay of Fundy, including the churning up of fossils—especially around the Joggins Fossil Cliffs. Once a swampy forest, much of the rock-preserved material turned to coal, except in some spots where you can still see Carboniferous-era shrimp, ancient trees, tetrapods, and more.

Today, the area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so tourists can’t take any of the fossils. Stop by the visitor center—located on a former coal mine—to learn more, or hop on a guided tour to scout out the best of the site.

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