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Fossils are among the most prized findings of many rockhounds, and it’s easy to see why. Apart from being present in every state in the U.S., these items often take us on a journey where humanity wasn’t even present, making their finding fun, adventurous, and rewarding.
You can’t collect fossils from anywhere, and some U.S. states are more abundant and permissive regarding fossil hunting. Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, and Iowa are the most abundant fossil states. The Petrified Forest National Park, Wheeler High School Fossil Beds, and many other locations are the best for fossil hunting.
In some areas, especially national parks, collecting fossils is often prohibited and illegal, but many places allow collecting. Let’s look at what fossils you can find in the U.S., where to find them, and explore some fantastic fossil hunting trips and dig sites available to the public!
Which Rock Has the Most Fossils?
Searching for natural fossils can be tricky if you don’t know where to look for them. Generally, it would be best to focus on finding exposed sedimentary rocks of the right age in river valleys, cliffs, hillsides, outcrops, road cuts, and other mediums.
Sedimentary rocks have the most fossils because organisms must be buried quickly after their demise to become preserved and later fossilized.
But sediment and sedimentary rocks aren’t the only mediums to find fossils because you can also find them in low-grade metamorphic rocks, among other places.
When searching for fossils, focus on finding sedimentary rocks such as shale, sandstone, limestone, and coal. In some cases, when you go fossil hunting, you can find fossil imprints in fine-grained sediments such as mud.
Generally, marine and plant fossils are the most commonly discovered specimens, followed by mammal and dinosaur fossils, which are the rarest. Yet, finding them is an achievement no matter what type of fossils you stumble upon.
TIP: How is it that fossils are often found in sedimentary rock but not igneous or metamorphic rock? Find out the detailed answer in the article below:
Fossils Can Be Often Found in Sedimentary Rocks & Here’s Why
What State in the US Has the Most Fossils?
If you live or plan to visit the U.S. for fossil hunting trips, consider yourself lucky! Fossils have been unearthed in all the states so far, and plenty of locations are worth visiting to observe and collect fossils.
The most important thing is to research beforehand to avoid trouble with the law, collect where you are allowed, and not go beyond the limitations.
The most abundant U.S. states regarding fossils are Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Idaho, Utah, Texas, Oregon, Nebraska, Connecticut, California, New Jersey, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico, Massachusetts, and Virginia. The southern states generally have the highest volume of fossils.
|State||Official State Fossil|
|California||Smilodon californicus (Designated in 1974 as a mammal fossil)|
|Colorado||Stegosaurus (Designated in 1982, dinosaur fossil)|
|Utah||Allosaurus fragilis (Designated in 1988, dinosaur fossil)|
|Arizona||Araucarioxylon arizonicum (Designated in 1988 as a plant fossil)|
|Pennsylvania||Phacops rana (Designated in 1988 as a marine fossil)|
Out of the 50 U.S. states, only 44 states have officially designated fossils. Some states have more than one designated fossil. Mammoths, whales, and dinosaurs are among the most commonly assigned fossils, along with plants and other marine fossils.
TIP: Amber has a certain mystic, unearthly beauty, and it’s no wonder why so many rockhounds would want to find it. Check out the best spots in the article below:
Where to Find Amber: 7 Best Environments & Locations (USA)
Fossil Dig Sites Open to Public
Although there are various places where you can go fossil hunting in the U.S., there are also fossil dig sites available to the public where you are guaranteed to find something interesting.
The best fossil dig sites open to the public in the U.S. include Fossil Park, Mineral Wells Fossil Park, Florissant Fossil Quarry, Dinosaur State Park, Peace River, Dinosaur Center, U-Dig Fossils, Mazon Creek, and many others. Collecting in these areas is permitted but limited, and you might have to pay an entrance fee.
Let’s explore some of these open fossil dig sites and see precisely where they are located and what you can find!
Wyoming, Dinosaur Center
The Dinosaur Center in Wyoming is located in the central parts of the state, near Thermopolis. You must pay an admission fee, but it is primarily an educational fossil-collecting family-oriented activity.
Here, you will be joined by experienced paleontologists and work on active dig sites to learn how to find fossils, clean them, and prepare them in laboratory settings.
Although this dig site might not be fun for seasoned fossil hunters, it is an excellent location for beginners, especially to generate interest in the beautiful hobby of fossil collection.
Colorado, Florissant Fossil Quarry
The Colorado Florissant Fossil Quarry, just west of Colorado Springs, is an excellent place for fossil hunting for a small fee.
The Clare family has a private quarry and allows enthusiasts to excavate. However, significant fossil findings are usually donated to the National Park Museum. Smaller fossils can be kept.
Texas, Mineral Wells Fossil Park
If you are in Texas and want to get away from city life and keep what you find, then Mineral Wells Fossil Park is the place to go. Here, you keep everything you find and don’t have to pay any fees.
The only downside is that this location is relatively remote, so you must bring plenty of food and water to enjoy your fossil hunting sessions.
Ohio, Fossil Park
The Ohio Fossil Park in Sylvania is an excellent fossil dig site for beginners and professionals. However, it would be best to go only when the season is open for fossil hunting. There are some areas where rock quarries dump the fossils.
If you schedule a guide, you have to pay a small fee, but you will learn many exciting things about fossils and how to find them. If you don’t want a guide, digging is free, and you can keep what you find.
With over 200 species of fossils around, the Fossil Park in Ohio is an excellent place for an easy catch, especially since you won’t need any sophisticated tools since the shale covering the fossils is soft and can be broken apart even without equipment.
Pennsylvania, Montour Fossil Pit
Suppose you want a great time with your family while fossil hunting; visit the Montour Fossil Pit in Pennsylvania, in Danville.
Just south of I-80 in the eastern parts of the state, you will find plenty of exciting specimens by visiting the one-acre pit of exposed shale.
The best part is that you can keep whatever you find, don’t forget to bring food and water and keep your children under supervision, as the rocks are sharp and potentially dangerous.
Virginia, Westmoreland State Park
Some fossils are more exciting to find than others, and if you want to find some fantastic megalodon shark teeth, then Westmoreland State Park in Virginia is the place to go! The sand along the Potomac riverbanks hides all sorts of treasures, not just shark teeth.
Ancient megalodon bones and other marine Miocene fossils can be unearthed here since the ocean that engulfed the lands receded. As the Potomac River eroded, it revealed various layers of rocks that held the fossils together.
There are also some mammal fossils and plant fossils that you can unearth here, and the best part is that this place has camping grounds, fishing and swimming grounds, and hiking trails, so you are guaranteed to have a lot of fun in nature.
New York, Penn Dixie Fossil Park & Nature Reserve
New York might be the last place you would think about when going fossil hunting, but there are some areas in this state where you can make your fossil hunting dreams come true. One such area is the Penn Dixie Fossil Park & Nature Reserve.
Located just south of Buffalo, this park is among the best places in the world to have a fossil hunting experience, as various layers of Devonian fossils are exposed due to quarry operations. You will first need to buy online tickets to visit this place since it’s usually very packed.
The quarry in the park where the fossil hunting commences isn’t open all days of the week, so you should research beforehand. You can keep everything that you find in this place.
TIP: Unless you are a scientist, you are unlikely to know the difference between fossilization and petrification. Find out more in the article below:
The Difference Between Fossilization and Petrification
Fossil Hunting Trips in the USA
Though some fossil hunters prefer open dig sites available to the public, others like to venture into the wild and find fossils lost in nature, if you are prepared to go on some fossil hunting trips in the U.S., you should visit the states that are most abundant in fossils to make it easier.
The most popular fossil hunting trips are the Fossil Park in Ohio, Mineral Wells Fossil Park in Texas, Florissant Fossil Quarry in Colorado, Dinosaur Center in Wyoming, Montour Fossil Pit in Pennsylvania, Westmoreland State Park in Virginia, and Penn Dixie Fossil Park and Nature Reserve in New York.
Let’s examine some states and see exactly where you should go fossil hunting!
Mississippi is an excellent state for fossil hunting trips as the gravels produce abundant fossils. The state rock is a plant fossil, namely the petrified wood, while the state fossil of Mississippi is Basilosaurus cetoides, a giant archaeocete whale.
To begin your journey in Mississippi, visit the WM Browning Fossil Park (Twentymile Creek) to find various fossils, including petrified wood. The general area around Tombigbee River is also filled with fossils, especially shark teeth.
If you are near or plan to visit Waynesboro, search the area gravels and banks to find petrified palm wood and other fossils. The Mississippi River is a fantastic location to find all kinds of fossils along its entire length. Just search the sands and gravel, and you won’t be disappointed.
TIP: For a complete rockhounding guide in Mississippi, check out this article.
South Carolina is also a famous fossil-hunting state due to its abundance of marine fossils. The official state fossil of South Carolina is the Columbian Mammoth; however, what makes this state popular is its megalodon shark teeth specimens.
The Atlantic Coast beaches and tidal rivers are filled with them, while the state’s central regions have plenty of petrified wood locations.
Starting in Darlington, the area east of Pee Dee River, you can find petrified wood and other fossils. Still, you can also head to Bellyache Creek, near Hartsville or Fairfield County, and search the countywide sands and gravels.
In the Southeastern parts of South Carolina, you can find megalodon teeth at Folly Beach or go the Kiawah Island and search in the sands and gravels for megalodon teeth and other shark teeth specimens.
All the gravels, streams, and exposures in Florence County contain petrified wood. At Myrtle Beach, fossilized shark and megalodon teeth are found in the gravel. Megalodon teeth are also easy to find in the Morgan River, Copper River, Morris Island, and Edisto Beach.
TIP: For a complete rockhounding guide in South Carolina, check out this article.
Montana is an excellent state for fossil hunting trips. The state’s official fossil is the Duck-billed dinosaur, and there are various types of fossils you can find throughout the state, especially in the Pryor Mountains.
You can head to the Big Horn Canyon in Central Montana for an amazing fossil-hunting trip. In the gravels, especially along the canyon rim, you can find all kinds of fossils and even silicified corals.
If you plan to visit the Pryor Mountains directly, search for fossils in the area gravels and prospects to the northeast. The Horseshoe Hills is also a great place to explore, especially if you are passionate about trilobite fossils.
TIP: For a complete rockhounding guide in Montana, check out this article.
TIP: Fossils are remnants of organisms that have integrated into sedimentary rock. Some of these fossils contain ancient DNA. Find out more about DNA in rocks in the article below:
Do Rocks Have DNA? I Have to Disappoint You, But..
Are You Allowed to Keep Fossils You Find?
Plenty of fossil hunters are worried about whether or not they get to keep what fossils they find, and the answer varies based on what you find and where.
Some areas allow enthusiasts to collect fossils after paying a fee, while others impose some collecting restrictions per day.
In contrast, other locations demand that notable findings be handed over so that they can be donated to museums or universities for studies. The best way to be sure is to stay informed and ask beforehand.
BTW: Do you want to know more about rock and mineral identification? The books listed below are the best ones you can find on the internet (Amazon links):
- Smithsonian Handbooks: Rocks & Minerals
- Gemstone & Crystal Properties (Quick Study Home)
- Ultimate Explorer Field Guide: Rocks and Minerals (National Geographic Kids)
Fossil hunting is as rewarding and joyful as rockhounding or gold prospecting. It’s a fantastic family activity if you want to spend more time in nature, learn more about our beautiful world, and make a lovely collection at home for display.
TIP: To make your fossils shiny, clean them with a toothbrush and water. Check out the best tips on cleaning and polishing fossils in the article below:
Make Your Fossils Shiny (Simple Clearing & Polishing Tips)