Digging for Fossils in Wyoming
Spend an unforgettable family vacation digging for fish fossils
The town of Kemmerer, Wyoming, isn’t at all easy to get to. First you fly into Salt Lake City, and then you drive three long hours across an increasingly barren landscape (with your 7 and 9-year-old kids bickering in the backseat, if you’re me). By the time you roll into town, you are hungry, tired, and more than a little sick of sagebrush.
You are also in the fossil fish capital of the world.
Southwest Wyoming is a semi-arid desert now, but 50 million years ago it was a lush freshwater lake full of fish. For about 4,000 years the water’s unusual chemistry caused dead fish to sink instead of float. The result? Fish fossils. Billions of them.
The sediment and fossils left behind by this lake are called the Green River Formation, and digging those suckers up makes for an unforgettable family vacation.
Our first stop was the visitor center at Fossil Butte National Monument, where we hiked, admired the views, and watched a video about the discovery of the Green River Formation at the visitor center. The kids enjoyed making fossil rubbings and ogling the 80 fossils on display here—including a 13-foot crocodile, a soft-shell turtle, and two species of bats.
To reach Warfield Fossil Quarries the next day, we drove out of town, then bumped eight miles up an unmarked dirt road. We passed four cattle guards and a solitary grave marker before finally arriving at what was essentially a big hole in the ground. Frankly I was a little surprised we found it at all.
Since Warfield charges by the hour, quarry manager George Putnam lost no time outfitting us with chisels and hammers and giving us a quick lesson on how to split the pale yellow limestone slabs. The trick, he told us, is to go slowly and split the stones as wafer-thin as possible.
“That’s a coprolite,” laughed George. “You just found the fish’s bathroom.”
In the hot and dusty hours that followed, we found plenty more fossilized fish poop. We also found more fossilized fish than we could carry to the car. Rare species such as stingrays, turtles, reptiles, birds, and mammals belong to the quarry, but visitors are allowed to keep all of the common fish they find, regardless of size. We found plenty.
No matter how many times we opened a rock and found the delicate bones and scales of a 50-million-year-old fish inside, the feeling was intoxicating. Also, the compulsion to split open just one more rock is almost overpowering. We would probably be there still if we hadn’t had a plane to catch.
Warfield Fossil Quarries is open from 8am–4pm seven days a week from the Friday before Memorial Day through the end of September. Digging outside the scheduled season is available by reservation, and according to weather conditions.
Rates are $30 for one hour, $75 for four hours, and $100 for a full day, and include hard hats, safety goggles, tools, and instruction by the endlessly patient and good-humored George. Children 12 and under are half price. One hour is not nearly enough.
Besides an outhouse, there are no amenities available at the quarry. Bring your own food, water, sunscreen, hats and gloves. You will also need to bring your own empty boxes and bubble wrap to ensure your fossils have a safe journey home (or arrange to have them shipped).
Although Kemmerer is just three hours from Salt Lake City, it makes a much better side trip from Park City, which is a fantastic summer destination for families too. You could do it in a day, but spending the night would be better.
For family friendly accommodations in town, try The Best Western Fossil Country Inn and Suites. Amenities include a complimentary continental breakfast and an indoor heated pool and Jacuzzi. The best eating in town is at Bootleggers on South Main Street. For casual meals, try local favorites Scroungy Moose Pizza and the Polar King Drive-In.