Hankering for a paleontology dig, for you or your kids? Not sure where to start?
Paleontology, the study of fossil life, is often a child’s first exposure to scientific enthrallment. Almost any third grader can tell you something about fossils, which is always fascinating and a little intimidating. Fossils are the gateway drug for science, and kids who show an interest in the field soak up that knowledge like it’s going out of style. From TV shows to books and movies, children are a big audience for the field of paleontology.
Luckily, paleontology digs aren’t just for Hollywood or, to quote Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, for the “super rich”. They also aren’t just for kids!
On the contrary, many paleontology digs in the US are affordable and accessible to adventurers of all ages.
What, exactly, do we mean when we say “fossil” and talk about paleontology? Not just dinosaurs!
Fossils are, by definition, the preserved remains or behavior of any organism.
That means dinosaurs, yes, but any living thing can make or become a fossil. Fossils can be trackways, preserved droppings, burrows and other evidence of biological activity beyond the big old body fossil.
Can you spot the footprints below? They count as fossils!
The Importance of Ethical Fossil Collection
Since fossils are so rare, and can provide irreplaceable clues about the past, it’s super important to make sure they are collected in an ethical manner with the proper permitting and permission.
Fossils, especially vertebrate fossils, must be collected with all the pertinent information on their “provenance” — the information about where, when, and how they were collected, as well as all the key information on the rock formation in which they were collected.
This information is important because it is the only way an animal’s paleoenvironment — their ancient stomping grounds and ecosystem — can be reconstructed and used to interpret data about the fossils you find.
Vertebrate Paleontology Digs in the United States
Our first few entries revolve around museums in the United States that offer vertebrate paleontology digs.
Vertebrates, any animals with a backbone, comprise many of the most famous and well-known fossils–including dinosaurs, pterosaurs, ancient sea reptiles, and ancient mammals such as mammoths and sabre-toothed cats.
Also, Velociraptor mongoliensis, my personal favorite.
Let’s check out a few of the top vertebrate paleontology dig sites I’ve been to, worked with, or worked for. Many of the places we talk about will cater to families with children. However, with a little cash and travel time, paleontology digs are accessible to just about anyone in good fitness who has an interest in ancient life.
Museum of Western Colorado
P.O. Box 20000
Grand Junction, Colorado 81502-5020
Prices: $55-175 per person
Ages: Age 5 and up, unless otherwise noted; children age 5-16 must be accompanied by an adult.
From half-day digs, to river rafting fossil tours, to full day experiences in the famous Mygatt-Moore Quarry, the Museum of Western Colorado is an excellent place to go on an unforgettable paleontology hike or dig. You can explore the well known Morrison Formation, a pristine piece of the Jurassic Period, with the help of expert guides.
If you’re looking for a more independent adventure, the Grand Junction, Colorado area is chock full of hiking and outdoor exploration opportunities; you can rest assured that the fossils you help excavate at the Museum of Western Colorado will remain with the institution for future research.
Paleontology gurus John and ReBecca Hunt-Foster (make sure you check her blog out), as well as their colleagues, have set up a fantastic field program on the western side of the Rocky Mountains.
The Wyoming Dinosaur Center
110 Carter Ranch Rd.
P.O. Box 868
Thermopolis, Wyoming 82443
(307) 864-2997 or 1-800-455-DINO (3466)
Prices: Rates vary, but tours are under $20. See the admissions website for further details.
Ages: 8 through 12 with parental supervision, although interested adults can tag along.
In a place like Thermpolis, you might expect to find a few Greek ruins. But remote Thermopolis, Wyoming, is home to one of the premier dinosaur research centers in North America.
The Wyoming Dinosaur Center offers a full day experience in fossil quarrying and excavation, a tour of the fossil preparation lab, and a picnic lunch in the scenic Big Horn Basin. The Jurassic Sundance Formation comes to life on these dig tours, and young folks can get their hands dirty while conducting actual scientific research.
Looking for the first and only actual Archaeopteryx fossil in North America? Yeah, we thought you were. You can find this amazing transitional dinosaur, a “first bird” fossil, here at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center.
Judith River Dinosaur Institute
Billings, Montana 59105
Prices: $1,695 for a one week dig.
Ages: 12 and older.
Hatched in 1993, the Judith River Dinosaur Institute seeks to educate the public on all of the rich fossil resources that the beautiful state of Montana has to offer.
The Institute offers paleontology mentoring programs for children ages 12 and up, sending young ones on a week long apprenticeship in paleontology while teaching them the ropes of a paleontology dig.
Alums of the program have gone on to work in paleontology, and at the very least have had a major leg up on high school science. Although a bit pricey, the experience is unforgettable. Yes, you will camp, and food is included. It’s a true Montana field trip. Teacher continuing education credit is also available.
Tate Geological Museum – Casper College
125 College Drive
Casper, Wyoming 82601
Prices: $800 for five days of field work and motel lodging.
Ages: 16 and older; 16- and 17-year-olds must be accompanied by an adult.
The Tate Geological museum is located at small and comfy Casper College in historical Casper, Wyoming. This is a great place to explore the Mesozoic Era and the earliest mammals of the Cenozoic Era. Digs will take you into the field in wild Wyoming, focusing on the Cretaceous Period and fossil animals from the end of the age of dinosaurs.
The expert crew is fantastic; if you visit them, make sure to say hello to JP Cavigelli, a friend of mine who will show you the ropes of paleontological digging and help you come out of your comfort zone.
I will never forget attempting to pick at pieces of a Stegosaurus – a plant-eating dinosaur – on top of a beautiful but harrowing cliff (thanks for not letting me live that one down, JP!); that particular trip was also my first exposure to Rocky Mountain oysters (which are a culinary adventure all on their own).
The Mammoth Site
1800 US 18 Bypass
P.O. Box 692
Hot Springs, South Dakota 57747
Prices: Admission to the junior dig program and the museum will cost you under $40; see Earthwatch Institute for more information on adult volunteer dig programs.
Ages: 4 and up; age restrictions vary per program. Adult partnerships through the Earthwatch Institute exist.
Take a tour of the great Ice Ages at the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, South Dakota. The Mammoth Site is a rare site indeed – a paleontology dig with air conditioning!
The site represents a sinkhole death trap, in which several young male mammoths and their mammal contemporaries met their fate when trapped inside its squishy, muddy depths. The sinkhole’s slippery sides prevented animals from escaping; since its boundaries were well-defined, the site had a world-class research site and museum plunked down on top of it, allowing the fossil resources to be conserved, protected, and studied.
Take a tour of the dig site, or explore the methods of paleontology on a junior paleontology dig. Kids can advance to an in-depth paleontology methods program and learn how to prepare, identify and jacket fossils.
Adults can dig within the actual site itself, through a partnership with the Earthwatch Institute. Teachers can apply for scholarships for the Earthwatch programs, which can otherwise be upwards of $3000.
I was once a tour guide at the Mammoth Site; if you have never thrown the ancient atlatl spear weapon before, or if you’re looking for a fantastic Pleistocene-aged treasure trove in the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota, this is the place to be. Dr. Larry Agenbroad leads this premier research site.
Fossil Butte National Monument
P.O. Box 592
Kemmerer, Wyoming 83101
Prices: Admission is free.
Ages: All ages.
State and National parks are serious about their natural resources. But that doesn’t mean visitors can’t lend a helping hand in the science that goes on in these protected natural areas.
Visitors to western Wyoming can stop by Fossil Butte National Monument to hike, enjoy the scenic view of the undulating Green River Formation and its tall outcrops, and spend a day excavating fossil fish at Wyoming’s “Aquarium in Stone”.
The now-preserved ancient lake environment at Fossil Butte was once teeming with tropical plants, crocodiles, horses with three toes that were the size of dogs, and scads of fish species. It was a very different ecosystem from western Wyoming’s arid shrubland today.
I worked as an intern at the Monument, and helped visitors of all ages peel back the layers of limestone that revealed delicately preserved fossils, just like a book. Little kids–and hell, big kids, too–got a thrill out of revealing the fossil fish and plants to the light of day for the first time in over 50 million years.
All information was recorded in a field book, including the collector’s name and data about the fossil find. It’s a good half an hour hike up to the dig site, but all visitors can enjoy the preparation lab and exhibits in the Monument’s visitor center.
Dinosaur State Park
400 West Street
Rocky Hill, Connecticut 06067
Prices: No more than $6
Ages: All ages
Reckon vertebrate paleontology digs are only out in the wild West? Not so!
New England is home to a myriad of fossil track sites, full of footprints from the Mesozoic Era. These sites help uncover information about the behavior of ancient animals, including dinosaurs. One of the most well-known sites for fossil trackways is Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, Connecticut.
At Rocky Hill, you can view tracks of dinosaurs and other animals preserved in place under the dome of the museum facility. You can also learn how to carefully and ethically mold and cast a fossil trackway–though, to be kind to fossils, remember adventurers: only cast and mold fossils at an approved facility. Using plaster on unsupervised track sites can harm the delicate fossil tracks.
Hopefully these give you some starting points as you hunt down the perfect paleontology dig. If you have any questions about your area, or paleontology in general, please don’t hesitate to shoot me an e-mail. I’m happy to help!
Have you ever been on a paleontology dig? Has it been a life-long dream? How about the little ones–are they dino-crazy? Tell us in the comments below!