It’s hard to imagine that the Buckeye State’s climate was once more like that of the Caribbean, with tropical winds and muddy seafloors full of corals, snails and clams. As difficult as that is to picture, the proof is in the fossils thousands of which are in southwest Ohio just waiting to be discovered!
It seems to be a buried secret that Ohio is home to some of the best fossil-collecting fields in the world. And, many of these fossil-rich fields are located within several Ohio State Parks, including Hueston Woods, Cowan Lake, Stonelick, East Fork and Caesar Creek. Best of all, hunting and collecting fossils at these locations is open to the public at no charge.
“The parks in southwest Ohio offer excellent fossil finds that give testimony to the life of this long vanished body of water,” said Dennis Hull, a geologist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. “It doesn’t take long to find a fossil at these parks because of the great geology of the area.”
For many of these intriguing fossils, we can look to a geological formation known as the Cincinnati Arch. This large expanse of bedrock emerged over the course of millions of years beginning with the Appalachian Mountain’s building process. Today, layers of Ordovician Age limestone and shale are exposed in stream cuts throughout the region, revealing the fossilized remains of marine life, such as brachiopods (shelly invertebrates), clams, corals and trilobites (the state fossil) all inhabitants of a sea that existed in Ohio’s ancient past.
|Trilobite, Ohio's state fossil
While collecting these small fossilized treasures is easy and free, some parks ask that you first stop by their visitor center to pick up a permit and learn more about the rules of the hunt.
Perhaps the best place to go “hunting” is near the spillway of the Caesar Creek State Park dam in Clinton and Warren counties, where you can find fossils ranging from 450 to 500 million years old. Pick up your permit at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Visitor Center, and while you are there check out the center’s display of fossils found at the park. The center is accessible from Clarksville Road and is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For more information about fossil hunting at Caesar Creek, call 513-897-1050.
Nearby Cowan Lake State Park in Clinton County also boasts a rich fossil history. Here, fossil-laden limestone is revealed by the ongoing erosion of the bedrock along the eastern edge of the Cincinnati Arch. Special permission to collect fossils here must be obtained from Ohio State Parks. For more information call 937-382-1096.
Fossils also are plentiful at Hueston Woods State Park in Preble and Butler counties, according to park naturalist Chad Smith. Every Sunday at 11 a.m., Smith leads visitors on a fossil expedition to the park’s dam spillway area. Hueston Woods offers fossil collecting year-round and no permit is necessary. The dam area is accessible from the park’s main loop road. The Rock Quarry picnic area also features great fossil finds. For more information call 513-523-6347.
Further south in Clermont County, fossil hunters who visit the spillways at both Stonelick and East Fork state parks will not be disappointed. A great sampling of Ohio fossils that once were entombed now await discovery. Stonelick’s spillway is accessible from State Route 727, while East Fork’s spillway is located off of Slade Road. Permits are available at the visitor center. To learn more about fossiling at either state park, call 513-734-4323.
Other places to go fossiling include Fossil Park in Lucas County. Travel back some 375 million years ago to the Devonian Age as you dig for these buried treasures. Specific details about fossil hunting at this park, including hours of operation, can be obtained by calling 419-882-8313.
People of all ages and skill levels can enjoy the hobby of fossil hunting. To make your fossil trek more enjoyable consider the following tips:
- To help identify the various fossils, bring a field guide, such as Fossils of Ohio, published by the ODNR Division of Geological Survey.
- Take along a bag to carry your fossil discoveries. Pack paper and pencil to record from where, when and by whom the fossil was collected.
- Consider a mason’s hammer for splitting rocks (some parks do not permit tools, so be sure to call ahead).
- If using a mason’s hammer, protect your eyes with appropriate eyewear.
- Protect your skin with sunscreen and insect repellant.
- Practice good etiquette treat property as though it were your own. Don’t litter.
“Fossil hunting can be a great day-long adventure with family and friends, or even solo,” Hull said. “Either way, it is certain to be an amazing trip back in time.”