Looking for something fun to do around the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula area of Virginia? Try taking the whole family out to go fossil hunting! Few places in the nation beat Virginia when it comes to exploring for fossils. The coastal plains of Virginia are a literal treasure trove of fossils, ranging from the widely revered Megalodon teeth to even dinosaur footprints, and more.
Believe it or not, fossils go together with Virginia almost as well as wine country. That’s to say that Virginia is one of the best states in the whole of the union to bring the family to go fossil hunting. In fact, Virginia was where the very first recorded fossil was found in all of North America. Discovered in 1687 by Martin Lister, the Chesapecten Jeffersonius (seen above) is a large, extinct, species of scallop that dates all the way back to about 4.5 million years ago, according to the Virginia Department of Education. The Chesapecten Jeffersonius is also the Virginia state fossil, and it has the honor of being named after Thomas Jefferson himself.
What will you find in Virginia?
Virginia isn’t one of the best states in the nation to go fossil hunting simply because of how many great spots there are to go, or even because of how relatively easy it is to find something. Virginia is one of the best states in the nation for fossil hunting because of the vast diversity of flora and fauna that hunters can find.
Pelecypods: This is a broad term to refer to any mollusk that has a bivalve shell enclosing that covers a headless body. This class of fossil generally refers to oysters, clams, mussels, and scallops. The easiest way to tell Pelecypods from Brachiopods, which they are commonly confused with, is by the shell. Both will have a top and bottom to the shell, but the Pelecypod shells will be identical, whereas Brachiopod shells are not.
Brachiopods: Upon first glance it’s easy to mistake Brachiopods from Pelecypods. They look very similar to modern clams, but they are not closely related to the mollusk family at all. Technically, Brachiopods are Lophophorates, which are still fairly common today. Well, they are if you make your home in very cold water at the polar regions, or in some of the deepest parts of the ocean. In other words, they’re pretty rare to find but are in fact out there.
Gastropods: Gastropods are among the most diverse groups of animals on the planet. They are the largest group of mollusk, by far, with over 62,000 different living species. They are extremely diverse in a number of different ways — habits, habitats, shapes, sizes, morphology, and are the only mollusks to be found on land. You may know Gastropods best by their more common names – snails and slugs.
Shark Teeth: Virginia’s coastal plain is home to dozens of different varieties of shark teeth, including the extinct Goblin Shark, the Pygmy White Shark, Sand Tiger, and more. The biggest prize for any fossil hunter in Virginia is the revered Megalodon tooth, which can be up to 7 inches long!
Trilobites: Trilobites have the distinct honor of being one of the most earliest known arthropods and one of the most successful extinct creatures to have ever existed. The Trilobite roamed the Earth’s oceans for over 270 million years before disappearing in the mass extinction at the end of the Permian period. Trilobites have a huge amount of diversity, but can always be identified by their distinct similarity to the modern Horseshoe Crab.
Whale Bones: If you find shark teeth, you’re very likely to find whale bones. In fact, in 1990 at Carmel Church, Dr. Alton Dooley discovered a the Eobalaenoptera Harrisoni, a previously unknown and extinct baleen whale.
Best time to go fossil hunting?
Although you can technically go fossil hunting any time of the year, we recommend waiting for the off summer months and to go during low tide, on sunny days, and especially after storms. While the first day after a storm usually leaves the water off the coast pretty choppy, on the second day everything typically clears up and has a tendency to drag out some otherwise hidden finds. The real key to a successful hunt is to wait until low tide, as many of the best fossil hunting in Virginia is right on the coast of Virginia’s waterways. And remember, it’s never easy the first time. It takes an experienced eye and practice to become a talented fossil hunter, even in the most prime locations.
Tools for Fossil hunting?
As you become more experienced you’ll be more aware of what sort of hunting you’ll be doing, and what tools are necessary to be effective in doing so. To start off we recommend bringing all of the following along.
- Rock Hammer
- Sledge/Crack Hammer
- Pry Bar
- Cold Chisels
- First aid kit
- Safety glasses/goggles
- Work Gloves
- Hiking or Work boots (preferably steel-toed)
- Cell phone
- Newspaper/foil to wrap specimens
Before you go, you should always make an extra effort to make sure you tell someone where you will be, and how to get to you. Even if you bring someone else to share the fun, be safe and tell someone where you’ll be.
Where To Go Fossil Hunting in Virginia?
Throughout Virginia, there are a few key hotspots to find some pretty incredible fossils. Some of these areas, like Sharktooth Island, require a special permit before you can collect, as they are private property. Remember; it’s entering private property without permission is trespassing, and you can be arrested for doing so. If you’re looking for a fun, family friendly, area to hunt for fossils then look no further! These 3 spots are some of the best in the whole country to look for fossils at.
1) Chippokes State Park: This state park, located on the James River instead of the Potomac, is actually one of the oldest continually farmed plantations in the country. In service since 1619, the park offers a mixture of modern and bygone recreational activities, including a campground, as well as an Olympic-sized swimming pool, areas for horseback riding, picnics, and more. The real catch about the Chippokes State Park is its proximity to the James River. Right off the shore of the park, you’re nearly guaranteed to find an abundance of Chesapecten Jeffersonius — the giant scallop. Be sure to check the calendar! The Chippokes State Park frequently offers guided fossil walks, which are geared at getting the whole family out to enjoy the fun.
2) Westmoreland State Park: Off the coast of the Potomac River in the Northern Neck you’ll find the Westmoreland State Park. This park is listed on the National Register of Historic places, and it offers an Olympic-sized swimming pool for laps or hanging out, a bathhouse, snack bar, and even a powerboat ramp. The state park offers fans of a variety of different activities room and hikers and campers will enjoy the 6 miles of trails to explore, and birding enthusiasts will have plenty to keep their eyes on. The Westmoreland State Park is ideal for American Bald Eagles, ospreys, kingfishers, blue herons, common terns, and gulls. Fossil hunters, however, will have an even better time. Not only is the area great for finding shark teeth (including the Megalodon!), but the state park sees such a high volume of fossils washing up from the Potomac River that the park officials have begun to offer an exploration backpack! Simply stop by the Visitor Center to pick up your exploration backpack that’s filled with gear. Inside you’ll find a magnifying glass, sand sifter, binoculars, a compass, bug net, and magnification container. Basically, these pre-built kits provide you with everything you could need to find and identify birds, bugs, and fossils. After grabbing your exploration bag, simply make your way down to Big Meadow Trail or Fossil Beach to start hunting for fossils! Right up the road from Westmoreland State Park you’ll find Stratford Hall, which is also an excellent place for fossiling. Don’t give in to the temptation, though — while here you’ll see cliffs that likely would reveal some exception fossils, but again, remember, TRESPASSING IS ILLEGAL! Moreover, the cliffs are not a safe place to be digging around.
3) Shark Tooth Island: Found in Montross, Virginia, Shark Tooth Island is more formerly known as Hollis Island. This tiny little island is PRIVATELY OWNED, so be sure to speak request a permit before going. You can reach the owners by phone at 804-472-3416. Once you have secured your permit you’re free to anchor your boat and start scouring the shoreline, the sandy sections, and the marshy areas for Miocene Epoch fossils, which are millions of years old! In particular, at Shark Tooth Island, you’re very likely to encounter fossilized shark teeth (obviously), porpoise teeth, plenty of shells and vertebrates, and even stingray dental plates! The shark teeth that give this island its name tend to come from Tiger Sharks, Hammerheads, and the Sand Shark. If you’re lucky, you’ll also find teeth from the extinct Megalodon, which can easily be as big as your hands. This region is so fossil-rich that you’re more than likely going to find dozens of fossils and teeth within a few minutes of searching. To help organize the volume of finds you may get, check out this resource that documents all the different types of shark teeth in both Maryland and Virginia.
What makes Shark Tooth Island so great for finding fossils is that, hundreds of years ago, the waters of the Potomac river were so high that they covered the 100-foot cliffs that line the river. As the water level fell, the cliffs began to erode, which in turn releases the fossils trapped by the cliffs. These fossils fall into the river, then are carried downstream before coming to a rest on Shark Tooth Island.
DO NOT ATTEMPT TO DIG IN THE CLIFF AREAS. Not only is this area considered private property, but the whole section of land is very unstable and prone to collapse. Basically, not only are you breaking the law by digging on private property, but there’s a good chance that you’ll get severely injured while doing so.