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Looking for fossils can be one of the most exciting things you can do. You can make pretty incredible discoveries while searching through dust and along sandy beaches. Let’s talk about some of the most likely places you can find a fossil.
Some of the best places to find fossils are at fossil-hunting lands in Pennsylvania, Maryland, South Dakota, and Kentucky. You can also get lucky at certain bodies of water in North Carolina, New York, Florida, Ohio, and West Virginia.
Let’s look at these places in more detail to help you start building your fossil collection.
1. The Mahoning Fossil Fern Layer in Ambridge, PA
Pennsylvania is one of the few states showcasing fossils throughout the entire area. This state features fossils from top to bottom and through every space in between. However, one of the best places in Pennsylvania to find fossils is in Ambridge.
Ambridge contains what is known as the Mahoning Fossil Fern Layer. This is a huge layer of rocks, many of which contain fossilized ferns, hence the name.
The ferns here are primarily from the Carboniferous period, which occurred between 360 and 280 million years ago. This period is commonly divided into two periods—the Mississippian and the Pennsylvanian. The Mississippian period was from 360 to 320 million years ago, while the Pennsylvanian period was from 320 to 280 million years ago.
It is said that during the middle Pennsylvanian period, Pangea was formed. During this time, the Appalachian Mountains were also formed, and they ran north and south through the center of Pangea.
Since Pennsylvania was located significantly closer to the equator, it grew large rainforests. This was where the ferns came from. Back then, the state contained huge forests, fern-filled swamps, and more.
You can still see massive amounts of evidence in the fern fossils found throughout the Mahoning Fossil Fern Layer.
In addition to the Fern Layer, you can find fossils in the roadcut next to the Ambridge Woodlawn bridge. The fossils you can find here are the preserved remains of coal swamps that once permeated this area of Pennsylvania.
2. The Calvert Cliffs in Maryland
These gorgeous cliffs are one of the best places to find fossils.
This area is part of a larger collection of fossiliferous exposures, better known as the Chesapeake Group. This group contains multiple fossil exposures that range from the Chesapeake Bay to Washington D.C. and throughout Maryland and Virginia.
The fossils in this area were primarily created by sediment accumulation. This is one of the most common ways that fossils develop. At one point, this area was covered by the ocean, which is one of the ways that the fossils were formed through sediment accumulation. As the ocean receded, it caused the sediments to pile on top of one another.
The Calvert Cliffs run for a total of 24 miles (39 kilometers). There are tons of places to explore throughout this area. More than six hundred species of fossil plants and animals have been found in this area. This includes marine animals, such as whales and seals, and land animals, such as the peccary.
This area is one of the best places to find unique fossils. While many fossil hunting areas showcase only specific fossils, the Calvert Cliffs offer tons of diversity.
The Calvert Cliffs aren’t as old as some others on this list. Instead, they are somewhere between 18 and 22 million years old. This is still pretty old, but it can’t compare with some other 200 million-year-old fossils. As you move South along these cliffs, the fossil deposits also lessen in age. This allows you to see fossils from a myriad of different periods while still staying in the same generalized area.
3. Coastal Areas in Aurora, NC
Coastal areas are some of the easiest places to discover fossils. All along the Eastern United States, there are areas where you can discover fossils of all shapes and sizes. However, the most common fossil discovery you’ll make in this area is megalodon teeth.
The town of Aurora is a fairly quiet area, making it one of the best places to simply spend your day searching. This town lies just south of the Pamlico River—another area where fossils are frequently discovered.
Many of these coastal areas have Miocene and Pliocene rock outcroppings on the shelves that are just offshore. As water erodes the outcroppings, hundreds of shark teeth are set free into the water and surrounding areas. It is here where you will find most of the megalodon teeth.
The best place to look is along the shoreline. You may have to do a lot of searching through the shells, as these areas are well known for having a ton of seashells. There may be a lot of scooping, but you’ll find at least a few shark teeth at some point.
You can easily identify them through their coloration, which is typically black with streaks of some other darker colors. You can also occasionally find other black bone fragments.
4. 18-Mile Creek in Western New York
This area is one of the more remote places to find fossils. It is also one of the best places to find relatively unique ones.
Western New York contains multiple areas to find fossils— the 18-Mile Creek being one example of these. You can find equally as many fossils in other creeks in the same area.
Most of what you’ll find in this area are Devonian fossils from the Middle Devonian period when a huge landmass—the Acadian Orogeny—was being formed. It is said that this is what eventually formed the eastern part of North America.
This collision formed high mountains, better known as the Acadian Mountains. As rivers flowed downwards through the Acadian mountains, various basins were filled, and sediment began accumulating in the seas and rivers. As the sediment settled, fossils of various fish, coral, and other plants began forming. Over time, this has settled into what we now see.
Much of what you’ll find in this area is fish. There are hundreds of different fish fossils in this area. You can find Armored Fish, Placoderms, and tons of various primitive shark fossils scattered throughout this area. Many of the fish fossils that you’ll find in this area were once huge predators. Sometimes, you can see smaller fish fossilized with larger predatory fish.
If you choose to hunt for fossils in this area, you should know how large the area is. This single creek is so large that it is divided into multiple sections—each of which houses different fossil formations.
You can find fossils from the Upper Devonian period in one part of the creek. As you move down the creek, you see fossils from the Middle Devonian period.
Through the Middle Devonian section, you can also see the Moscow Formation and the Ludlowville Formation—both of which contain massive amounts of fossils.
There are multiple access points to 18-Mile Creek. Some of these access points include the following.
- Penn Dixie Paleontological and Outdoor Education Center
- Lake Erie Cliffs
As a side note, you don’t want to dig directly into the cliffs, as they are now classified as private property.
5. The Peace River in Florida
You may initially think that fossils only exist in the North, but hundreds of different fossils can be found as you move South. One of the most interesting places is, somewhat surprisingly, Florida.
Florida first began to collect fossils during the Cretaceous period, which happened about 50 million years ago. The sea levels were much higher than today, and the whole state was submerged. Fun fact: Florida was submerged for millions of years.
During the time that this area was submerged, limestone was constantly accumulating on the ocean floor. This created what has been known as the “bedrock” in Florida. Once sea levels began to drop, various limestone islands emerged inside Florida. One of the most popular is known as Orange Island.
The Peace River formed a long time after this—some 20 million years after, to be somewhat precise. This is when many of the fossils also began to form and accumulate. Sediment built up around Orange Island, and nutrient deposits constantly flowed down from the Appalachian Mountains. As all these flowed downward, many dead marine animals found themselves entombed at the bottom of what is today The Peace River.
The Peace River has long been known as one of the best locations for finding megalodon teeth, but it contains much more than this. One of the best discoveries you can make in this area is various ice age fossils. These are primarily from the Pleistocene period, which occurred about 2.5 million years ago.
Some of the fossils you may encounter in this area include the following.
- Dire Wolves
- Giant Sloths
6. Caesar Creek in Waynesville, OH
Ohio is enormously rich in fossils; this is just one area where you can find huge amounts brimming with diversity.
Many times, people mistakenly believe that fossils are only found near the ocean, but hundreds can also be found in landlocked states. Of course, it still goes back to the sea, as most of these areas, including Ceasar Creek, were once buried underwater.
About 447 million years ago, this area was completely submerged. In addition, the area experienced a very tropical environment since it was much closer to the equator. Over time, shales and mudstones formed, which you will see more of today.
Caesar Creek is a bit different than some of the other fossil-finding areas we’ve discussed today because you need to register and obtain a permit to search for fossils. You’ll need to visit the Ceasar Creek Visitor Center for this. There are also quite a few rules for this area, including the following.
- The fossils may not be collected for commercial use. You can only collect them for personal use and do not have permission to sell anything you find.
- You can’t use tools. Instead, you’ll need to pick through the fossils by hand. You also shouldn’t hit other rocks against the rocks in an effort to pry the fossils free.
- The fossils have to be of a certain size. Typically, they need to be able to fit in the palm of your hand.
- Fossils must be collected in specific areas. Most of the gathering area lies in the Spillway.
- You cannot climb the walls. Caesar Creek has many NO CLIMBING signs to direct you in this.
Since you can’t use tools in this area, the best way to find fossils is to get down low to the ground and crawl through the area. You can find the best fossils in the early spring. The cycles of winter freezing and subsequent thawing will often assist in breaking up the various rocks and helping to expose new fossils.
7. The Lost River in Wardensville, WV
This area has similar fossils to the 18-Mile Creek in New York. This is because this area was perched at the edge of the same sea that helped form the 18-Mile Creek. Both were also formed by the Arcadian Oregony, a massive mountain-building event.
At one point, this area of West Virginia was submerged in much the same way as other areas in North America. Throughout this time, thousands of sedimentary deposits were carried through the seas and left here. When the new mountains began to form, the sediments also settled inside them.
Like many of the other fossil sites we’ve discussed today, this site was at one time near the equator. As a result, this area was much warmer than it is now. This once warm and shallow sea was once the home of many animals and coral reefs. As time passed, many of these animals and plants were buried beneath the various rock formations.
Today, you can see this evidence in the rock walls buried along the ground.
Most of this area is surrounded by steep hills, making it difficult to discover certain fossils. Some areas require you to climb to higher areas, but there are still a fair amount of fossils you can find in lower areas as well.
Another thing you should note about this site is that it may be difficult to find up front. Just remember that this site is located on Old Route 55, as there is a newer Route 55. Many people get turned around when searching for this site.
8. The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, SD
If you’re interested in larger fossils, there’s no better place to go than to The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota. This large fossil digging site is nestled deep into the Black Hills in South Dakota. Here, you can find hundreds of mammoth remains that are preserved in a huge sinkhole.
The sinkhole formed over 140,000 years ago. While initially, these fossils were thought to be less than 30,000 years old, more recent dating has shown that they go back far farther than this. Instead, these mammoth fossils are as old as the sinkhole itself.
It is assumed this area has many mammoth fossils because the creatures once went here for water. The sides were quite steep, but there was likely a pond beneath. However, as the mammoths came for drinks, they were soon lost in the pit below.
This area primarily contains mammoths, but there are many other animals here. While some of the animals can be found whole, many of them are broken down into many pieces. This is because, after death, their bones were often pushed around by other mammoths coming to the watering hole.
Over time, these and new mammoths were lost—buried beneath hundreds of pounds of rock. These fossils began to be discovered in the 1970s, and people are still making discoveries today.
This is one of the best places to go for fossil hunting if you are interested in discovering larger land mammals rather than sea creatures.
9. Big Bone Lick State Park in Kentucky
This state park is all about fossils. Here, you can find an entire museum dedicated to fossils that have been found in this area. In addition, you can spend time digging up your fossils near the natural salt springs and the creeks within the State Park.
This area got its name from the Indigenous Americans, who first began to identify massive fossils in this area. In 1739, the first Westerner discovered these fossils and brought them back to France. After this, this area became an enormously popular location for sighting fossils.
This area primarily contains fossils of larger land animals, similar to The Mammoth Site. Here, however, you can find many other animals besides just mammoths. Some of the most popular include:
- Antique Bisons
- Musk Ox
- Stag Moose
- Ground Sloths
Some of the fossils are whole animals, while others are only fragments. Whatever you discover here, however, is sure to be an adventure.
Remember, finding fossils takes time and patience. For more information about how to go about doing this, check out this article by the New York Times. And be sure to check out my article on whether or not you can make a living by rockhounding, as well!