11 US National Parks where you can find fossils

“Can you spot the fossil?” asks the bronzed ranger as a gaggle of park visitors circle around her in Badlands National Park. The ground is slick and muddy after the morning’s rain, and everyone is staring at the ground, searching. Suddenly an excited child squeals and points at a small fossilized partial jaw bone and teeth. (Kids are apparently the best fossil-spotters, perhaps due to their proximity to the ground.)

If the ranger hadn’t already been aware of its existence, this would have been one of the four daily fossil discoveries in Badlands National Park. A full-time team of paleontologists would tag it, possibly excavate it, and take it back to a working lab in the visitor center to identify and catalog it. The South Dakota park is one of a handful of U.S. national parks that’s focused on not only outdoor recreation, but on the secrets of the ancient world. And visitors are welcome to take part.

Buried in time (and rock)

Badlands isn’t the only national park with a robust fossil and paleontology program or that encourages visitors to not only share their discoveries but also get a closer look at the paleontological process. Fossils of one type or another—from ground sloth skulls to dinosaur footprints—spanning every geologic age have been discovered at 286 national park properties, according to Vincent L. Santucci, senior paleontologist and paleontology program coordinator for the National Park Service (NPS). Dinosaur fossils specifically have been found at least 21.

While the history of paleontological discoveries far predates the parks, which weren’t established until 1916, NPS has since worked with paleontologists, museums, and students via internship programs to collect specimens, data, and publish research on the vast array of fossils found across the parks.

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But they can’t do it on their own (NPS only employs a dozen or so paleontologists), so they partner with organizations like The Paleontological Society and the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology to conduct research, help support the management and stewardship of NPS fossils, and expand access to educational resources. 

An ammonite fossil found at Big Bend National Park. Image: NPS

The Paleontological Society does so by providing funding and opportunities for paleontology students, explains Christy Visaggi, chair of the non-profit’s Paleontology in the Parks fellowship program, so students can get hands-on interaction with fossils and the ability to contribute to important research. It’s a win-win: Parks get more young scientists to work with NPS and students get valuable experience and mentorship in the field. 

But you don’t have to be a budding paleontologist to head to a park and experience the wonder of discovery.

Explore ancient history at the parks

While fossils have been discovered at hundreds of parks, a handful of properties, which Santucci calls “Fossil Parks,” have been established primarily for their paleontological resources and provide the most robust opportunities to learn about and interact with fossils. 

This includes:

  • Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, Nebraska
  • Badlands National Park, South Dakota
  • Big Bend National Park, Texas
  • Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado and Utah
  • Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, Colorado
  • Fossil Butte National Monument, Wyoming
  • Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument, Idaho
  • John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Oregon
  • Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
  • Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument, Nevada
  • Waco Mammoth National Monument, Texas

“One very exciting aspect of the ‘fossil parks’ are the opportunities to see and discover fossils in a natural setting, preserved within a geologic context,” Santucci explains. “These experiences allow visitors to better see and understand these fragile remains of past life and ancient environments.”

But there are more than just informational displays and exhibits at many of these parks. Some offer so much more in the way of hands-on education and experience, including guided fossil walks like the one in Badlands, ranger talks given by educated park staff, even fossil preparation demonstrations and even the ability to watch scientists conduct research and examine and categorize fossils found on site.

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Junior Paleontologist activity booklets and badges are also available in most of the fossil-focused parks, which are designed to encourage curiosity and teach kids of all ages about history and science. This includes, Santucci says, the relationship between fossils and the rock layers in which they are preserved, how paleontologists carefully recover fossils, the techniques they use to prepare fossils found in the field to assemble them for displays in museums, and witness fossil research and discoveries made by paleontologists working in the parks.

dinosaur fossils in a wall
150-million-year-old dinosaur fossils at the Quarry Exhibit Hall Fossils at Dinosaur National Monument. Image: NPS

Research and discoveries that NPS carefully preserves to benefit the field of paleontology and public education. And there’s plenty of it to preserve. “Collectively, the fossil record of the NPS spans over two billion years of Earth’s history and tells an incredible story of how life changed, adapted, and in many cases went extinct over geologic time,” Santucci explains.

Visit a park, learn about fossils

You can find a whole list of parks that have discovered fossils on the NPS website. Once you’ve got your sights set on one (or several), plan a trip and get ready to explore. Santucci recommends researching what fossil programs and education might be taking place during your visit, then planning exploration around fossil-related events. After all, only by visiting can you revel in the immense sense of place and historic relevance that these parks offer as you immerse yourself in history.

If you do find a fossil during your visit, follow leave-no-trace principles and leave it where it is, but take a photo and drop a pin on your map app. Find a park ranger and share what you found, including photos and location, with them so they can excavate it if necessary. Then sit back and enjoy the histories and stories revealed with each footprint and bone fragment.

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