Digging for Fossils in Wyoming

Spend an unforgettable family vacation digging for fish fossils

Digging for Fossils in Wyoming with KidsThe 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.

Digging for Fossils in Wyoming with KidsThe Green River Formation

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.

The Experience

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.

We all gasped with delight when my daughter found a promising brown squiggle on her very first try.

“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.

Digging for Fossils in Wyoming with KidsIf You Go

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.

June 7th, 2010 | by Jamie Pearson 12 comments

12 Responses to “Digging for Fossils in Wyoming”

1. Diana on June 7th, 2010

We will add this to our itinerary this summer!

2. Jamie Pearson on June 7th, 2010

You’ll love it! And when it’s over, you’ll have several boxes full of cool fossils and absolutely NO idea what to do with them…

3. Debi on June 7th, 2010

This is my kind of family vacation! I’ve never heard of this place or this type of adventure, so thanks for sharing all the great details. Hope to make it there someday!

4. Luray va accommodations on June 8th, 2010

We have been there in last summer (July); the weather temperature was high approximately between 85 °F (29 °C) to 95 °F (35 °C). So, I didn’t stay there for a long time however we will visit again during winter season.

5. Vera Marie Badertscher on June 8th, 2010

What a great and unusual family trip. Of course if you just want to SEE great fossils, and not have to be out in the sun or chip the rocks, you can attend the Tucson Arizona Rock, Gem, Mineral and Fossil Show in February.

6. Donna Hull on June 10th, 2010

This sounds like so much fun. Sort of like Christmas for fossil lovers as you dig up each piece. What a unique family vacation idea. It would also make a great bonding experience with the grandkids.

7. Nancy D. Brown on June 11th, 2010

Looks much more fun than what the characters from the book/movie “Holes” experienced. Thanks for sharing.

8. Scott Stepanski on June 11th, 2010

I was just thinking about Warfield Springs today! I posted the first Green River fossil fish I found on my blog. It was a poor headless creature, but I was so excited when I found it. I went on to find many others, but I kept that first one too.

9. Pete Berquist on September 7th, 2010

I’m planning on being in Kemmerer around Oct. 20th. Would love to dig for some fossils. Is that too late? How cold does it get that time of the year? Know your not a weather person but just wondering if that’s way too late in the year.
Thanks for your reply,
Pete

10. Jamie Pearson on September 7th, 2010

Hi Pete – As far as I know, that is after the end of the digging season. Get in touch with the quarry directly (link to their site is above in the post) as they do open by special arrangement sometimes, weather permitting. Good luck!

11. Diana on July 3rd, 2011

We went last year and loved it so much, that we’re planning to go again at the end of this month. We must come up with a plan to rid our garages of fossils!

12. Linda Simmons on January 11th, 2014

My husband took our 2 children, then 7 and 10, to southwest Wyoming a number of summers ago. They were having so much fun pealing the layers apart to find the fossil fish that he could hardly pry them away to eat lunch!


Leave a Comment

Pinterest
Email