North Dakota is an often forgotten and overlooked state, but those in the know will visit for the extraordinary buried treasure that can be found here. No, not real buried treasure, but something just as interesting. This small northern state is popular with professionals and hobbyists alike due to the abundance of fossils that can be found all over the state.
Why take a vacation and just sit on a sandy beach somewhere when you could be digging up and exploring history? If fossil hunting sounds like it is something you and your family would be interested in there are few places you can visit that will be as rewarding as taking a trip to North Dakota.
If you do decide to visit, these are several main locations for various historical periods. The fossils here span tens of millions of years, so there is such a wide variety and abundance of different fossil types that can be found. The most famous is of course the Tyrannosaurs Rex, but there are thousands of other fossil types that occur spanning many different prehistoric periods.
If you’re looking to hunt for fossils from the cretaceous period you should head to the Fox Hills Formation and the Breien Member of the Hell Creek Formation. The fossils that can be found here date as far back as 65 million years ago when the area was a lowland corridor. The area is housed between the Rocky Mountains and what was once the Western Interior Seaway meaning that the water from the area flowed through the Hell Creek Delta creating the Hell Creek Formation where you will find fossils.
You’ll mostly find fossilized fish and reptiles but if you’re lucky you could find Triceratops or Tyrannosaurus Rex fossils.
Just after the Cretaceous period was the Paleocene which falls between 65 million and 55 million years ago. During this time sediment from the Rocky Mountains flowed down and were brought to the area of Western North Dakota where it became part of various waterways. The best places to find fossils from this time are the Ludlow, Slope, Bullion Creek, and Sentinel Butte. Together these areas are referred to as the North Dakota Everglades. Here you can expect to find many aquatic fossils including Champosaurs.
The period of 50 million years ago is called the Eocene and the Oligocene. During this time the climate in North Dakota changed. It became colder and drier than what it had been during the time of the Paleocene. Since the area was no longer lush and swampy the animals that lived here began to change as well. With the changes in weather and life, the North Dakota Savanna was born.
In this area there are now an abundance of fossils to be found. The most popular places to search are the Chadron, Brule, and Arikaree Formations. You will not find the same types of fossils that can be found in the Paleocene areas. Instead you will find fossils that are very familiar to animals that still in existence today. Imagine finding large fossils from turtles as large as the common day Galapagos turtle, or maybe some rhinoceros that used to roam these lands. These areas are rich with fossils and you are almost certain to find something even on your first trip out if you know what to look for.
We have all heart of the last Great Ice Age. This massive event happened approximately 1.6 million years ago and completely changed the geology and life to be found in North Dakota. The area became covered in glaciers that flowed down from Canada leaving only animals that could survive on the frozen landscape. When the glaciers eventually melted the remains of these animals were left as deposits in the sediment.
Now you can hunt for the fossils of great mammoths, mastodons, giant bison, and ground sloths. You can also find an array of other creatures including frogs, crustaceans, smaller mammals, and other fish and insects. If you’re lucky you might even find some artifacts from some of the first people to live in North Dakota.
More about Fossil Hunting in North Dakota
Fossil hunting is done by casual collectors and businesses alike. In fact, fossil hunting is big business for some, as some large dinosaur fossils found in the Dakotas have sold for millions of dollars.
Not all areas are open to collecting. Within some special parks collecting of fossils is strictly forbidden, and private land is also off limits without permission and agreements with the landowners. Make sure you are fossil hunting in an area that is open for collecting.