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Fossil Hunting at York River State Park

fossil hunting

Article by: Karen M. Layou, Ph.D., Professor of Geology, Reynolds Community College -- Are you looking for an outdoor activity for fossil lovers and their families? Get everyone outside for some fossil hunting at York River State Park! Along the banks of the York River, this park is within an hour’s drive from Richmond. While the park offers abundant opportunities for outdoor recreation, including hiking and biking trails, kayak rentals, fishing, and more, one of the hidden gems in the park is the easy hike down to the Fossil Beach. You'll be amazed at everything you can explore and discover there. You can even find Virginia's State Fossil -Chesapecten jeffersonius. To learn more, watch this Science Matters' video of a recent fossil hunting trip I took with my sons.

Here are some suggestions for your fossil hunting trip to York River State Park:

Start at the Visitor’s Center and grab a trail guide then hike about 0.2 miles along the York River, down the gravel road/trail toward the fishing pond. Keep an eye out for osprey that hunt along the river, and herons and turtles around the pond’s edge. After a short uphill grade, follow the marked path another 0.3 miles to the Fossil Beach.  Along the way, you’ll cross a wooden boardwalk across a marsh—see if you can find marsh crabs and snails, and maybe even some tracks of the park’s animal residents in the mud.

To access the Fossil Beach, you'll need to navigate a wooden staircase to the water’s edge, but stop to take a look at the table holding a diversity of fossils that have been collected by rangers and previous visitors to the park. On the beach, examine the various bit of flotsam and jetsam brought up by the York River—here you’ll find a mix of both modern animals and plants that live in and around the York River today, and fossils of marine animals that lived in the same area millions of years ago. This is because sea level used to be much higher, and the area that is now exposed at the surface used to be ocean.

In the bluffs exposed along the river, you will find a variety of marine shells, including clams, oysters, barnacles, and a very cool scallop—Chesapecten jeffersonius, the state fossil of Virginia! Please note that you cannot dig in the cliffs along the river, as this significantly contributes to erosion. In fact, one of the best places to look for specimens is along the water line, where the river washes against the sediments.

Since the York River is tidally influenced, you may want to check to see when high and low tides (Roane Point VA tidal station nearest to the park) will occur during your visit. While the beach and cliffs are still accessible at high tide, more fossil treasures are exposed at low tide.

Return to the Visitor’s Center by retracing your steps, and be sure to stop in and check out the great displays on the environmental, geological, and cultural history of the park.

Have fun exploring the outdoors with your family!

Check out some of the other Virginia State Parks with fossils:

Need to check the tides? Visit Tides and Currents by NOAA.

More great resources for kids and families: