By Jamie Pearson
The 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.
To reach Warfield Fossil Quarries we drive out of town, then bump eight miles up an unmarked dirt road. We pass four cattle guards and a solitary grave marker before finally arriving at what is 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 hammers and chisels and giving us a quick demonstration of how to split the pale yellow limestone slabs. The trick, we learned, is to go slowly and split the stones as thin as possible.
We all gasped with delight when my daughter Avery 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.
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.
If 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, $60 for four hours, and $100 for a full day, and include tools, hard hats, safety goggles, and instruction. Children 12 and under are half price.
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, as we did).
About the Writer
Jamie Pearson is a writer and mother of two. She sees the funny side of family travel, and blogs about it at www.TravelSavvyMom.com.
Image Courtesy of Jamie Pearson