The Best Fossil Hikes in North America
Want to feel young? Hike to some of the continent's coolest prehistoric sites.
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For the ultimate dinosaur fix, check out the Fossil Discovery Trail at Dinosaur National Monument. Over 165 million years and 10 species of dinosaurs are jam-packed into this relatively short hike. Prepare to see dinosaur bones jutting out of the path’s surrounding rock faces, some belonging to beasts that would have weighed over 50,000 pounds in their heyday. The trail also contains fossilized squid, fish scales, and the remains of an ichthyosaur (think “dinosaur dolphin”). [image: Rob Glover/Flickr]
The fossilized plants, mammals, reptiles, insects and fish of Fossil Butte are perhaps the most well-preserved examples of their kind. After slowly fossilizing at the bottom of an ancient lake, these long-dead organisms now litter the Fossil Butte region of Wyoming. Take the Historic Quarry Trail to see the best of the bunch, as well as to check out several abandoned quarries. [image: Didier Descouens/Wikimedia]
A true staircase through time, the Grand Staircase showcases nearly 200 million years worth of fossils. The Vermillion Cliffs (on the Arizona side of the border) are the Monument’s lowest and oldest layer and contain traces of early fish and dinos. The White Cliffs hold Jurassic-era fossils, while the Gray Cliffs show off seashells and shark teeth. The Pink Cliffs, the highest step in the staircase, were formed by a freshwater lake. [image: Wolfgang Staudt/Flickr]
Badlands National Park is known for its desolate beauty, but also boasts one of the continent’s largest fossil concentrations. (Even the trademark yellow and red layers within the park’s rock formations are in fact fossilized soils.) Follow the Castle Trail 5 miles (one way) until it joins with the Fossil Exhibit Trail. [image: Wikimedia]
Over twelve million years ago, a “hot spot” eruption covered hundreds of square miles in thick ash, causing a mass die-off as many animals suffocated from ash inhalation. The skeletons of pre-modern camels, rhinos, tortoises, and horses are now preserved at this Nebraska landmark. Camp at Grove Lake and enjoy a variety of nature trails in the area. [image: Carl Malamud/Flickr]
Speaking of Nebraska, the state’s Agate Fossil Beds also boast the remains of an 8-foot tall beast with the head of a horse and the feet of a sloth. The Fossil Hills Trail, a quick 2.7 miles, is chock-full of curiosities such as these, as well as the remains of other well-preserved Miocene-era mammals. [image: Wikimedia]
The Burgess Shale, located in British Colombia’s Yoho National Park, is hands-down one of the world’s most significant fossil sites. Discovered in 1909, this fossil field – now a UNESCO World Heritage Site – contains the extremely rare remains of both hard and soft animal body parts. Most of its fossilized organisms lived nearly 500 million years ago during the “Cambrian Explosion,” the point in Earth’s history when complex life burst forth into existence. Take the Mount Stephen Fossil Beds trail for a strenuous all day hike. [image: Wikimedia]
As far as plant fossils go, petrified trees pretty much take the cake. For some of the best petrified wood the world has to offer, look no further than Theodore Roosevelt NP in North Dakota. Once a prehistoric swamp, this area teemed with ancient turtles, crocodiles, and plant life. To see its famous trees, carve out a day for the 10.3 mile Petrified Forest Loop. [image: Joe/Flickr]
A mountain range in Texas may be the last place you would think to look for a coral reef, but with fossils, just about anything is possible. 265 million years ago, the reef spanned nearly 400 miles before the surrounding ocean evaporated and now the well preserved marine fossil reefs winds its way through the Guadalupe Mountains. Follow the Permian Reef Trail and don’t forget to pick up the free geology guide from the visitor center. [image: Clinton Steeds/Flickr]
Forty million years of Earth’s history are preserved in John Day’s colorful rock formations. To track ecosystem changes over the millennia, as well as to get up close and personal with animal and plant fossils, take the short Island in Time Trail (1.3 miles). [image: Finetooth/Wikimedia]