Yes, I admit it. I am not the outdoorsy type.

The bugs and I have a love-hate relationship. They love me. I hate them. Soaking myself in DEET isn’t my idea of fun either. My skin is sensitive and I am sure my body just loves filtering out the toxin. Which leads to another reason…

I sunburn in 2.5 seconds even with SPF 50 on my whole body. I don’t tan. I just burn, blister, and flake. Once that whole process has finished, my skin is back to translucent again. I am not complaining. I have made peace with my skin a long time ago.

Let’s not get started on the bathroom situation. Although going to the bathroom on a weed can be more pleasant than some public restrooms I have seen. Yikes.

Despite all this, I do think nature is beautiful. Earth and the things living on it are amazing. I truly appreciate our home in the Milky Way. However after many hours spent communing with Mother Nature, I am good to seek out a man-made shelter.

Despite my preference for admiring nature from the comfort of my lounge chair, I am also a parent. I take my responsibility as a parent seriously. I try to expose my kids to different types of experiences. Even if it is to things I am not super keen on. Let them see the different things our world has to offer and make up their own mind about it. There have been times they have turned me on to things I never would have thought.

So my interest was piqued a few years back when I learned of family field trips that involved paleontological digs. My father, who passed away many years ago, once said that the one thing he wished he had done in his life was go on an archeological dig. Also, my family is a huge fan of the Indiana Jones movie series. Yes, I know there is a difference between an archeological and a paleontological dig. But they are both digging into the earth to discover the mysteries of the past, and they both potentially involve bones. So that sealed the deal, our family was going on a fossil and dinosaur dig.

 

Family field trips

If you have read any of my previous articles or seen my Twitter account, you know that I fancy fossils. I am also a lover of natural history. It feeds my endless curiosity about humans and our universe. Almost all of what we know comes from the evidence we find in the earth. To learn more we should dig more.

(See related: How the Lucy fossil and others can help us today and A beginner’s guide to rock art: Petroglyphs, pictographs, and geoglyphs)

My interest in fossils is how I became acquainted with ZRS Fossils. ZRS Fossils is a store featuring fossils and minerals. I could walk through the store for hours. There are so many fascinating things to see.

Once I joined their mailing list, I learned they also provide programs covering topics surrounding fossils and minerals. Their programs include classes and trips. Most of the classes cover things like the power of crystals and are not my cup of tea. As an engineer I prefer hard science. To each their own. However, the trips sounded super interesting to me.

They host field trips, for adults and families. Most of them are in the midwest United States. However, they also host trips that go to Morocco. That would be quite an education.

On these trips the agenda and location are all taken care of for you. They tell you everything you need to know. From the tools to get to the clothes you wear. No shorts or sandals. Lots of water. An expert tells you what to look for and how to look for it. They even help you on the hunt.

We picked a weekend fossil and dinosaur dig in Glendive, Montana. The trip included a day in Makoshika Park and a day at a privately-owned ranch. Each day focused on different opportunities for finds in the different locations.

 

Day 1: Makoshika Park

The first day was spent in Makoshika Park, part of the Montana State Park system. Makoshika means “bad land” or “bad earth” and was named that because of all the bones found by the Lakota people. The area we visited was part of the Pierre Shale formation of the Cretaceous Period, approximately 80 million-years-old. This site held the potential for ammonites and other marine invertebrate fossils.

We started by looking for concretions. They look like a rough ball of cement. You would hit it with a hammer to split it open being careful to not break whatever treasure was hiding inside. This turned out to be harder than you think. We were all looking for ammonites and marine shells. Luckily, we had been provided with identification manuals so we could figure out what to look for.

misc fossils found at fossil digOn the right is a handful of little ammonites and other finds we picked up. These are all quite small and delicate. It was challenging to get them out of rocks in one piece. You have to gently tap it on the side. Unfortunately, when you don’t even know if anything is encased in the rock, it is impossible to know what is the side. People highly trained in what to look for would find it easier to spot than us amateurs. The largest ammonite here is a little over 1 inch in diameter. A few have a pretty mother-of-pearl appearance.

shell concretion found at fossil and dinosaur dig

The next image on the right is a concretion that my youngest broke open. He was having a blast going around with his rock hammer doing his impression of a Hulk smash. The whole piece stands about 7 inches tall. It was so pretty as-is, that I just coated it to make it shiny. Notice the snail shell just below the center. The whole piece now serves as decor in my dining room.

It was a successful day with everyone in the larger group finding something of interest. A member of our group found a rattlesnake. We also were told to be careful of scorpions that could be under the rocks we were looking at. Luckily, I don’t think anyone had a run-in with one of them. It is a good thing I didn’t encounter anything because I would have been in the car the rest of the day terrified.

 

Day 2: Dinosaur hunting

Who doesn’t love dinosaurs? Larger than life and ferocious. They are often one of the first things to get kids excited about science.

The second day of the field trip took place at Baisch’s Dinosaur Digs. This is a privately owned ranch that hosts visitors. They provide knowledgeable guides to help throughout the entire process: finding the spot, digging up specimen, and casting for removal. The ranch is part of the Hell Creek formation dating to around 70 million years ago. The area contained dinosaur bones and teeth as well as agatized petrified wood. Lots of goodies for our group of treasure hunters.

(See related: The Lost Dutchman Gold Mine: Missing treasure or myth?)

This was by far my favorite day because I found a good-sized dinosaur bone. A real dinosaur bone! (see the image below when it had been partially exposed). I can’t tell you how exciting it was.

dinosaur dig, bone in the ground

I found it just like they said it would happen. We were walking around on the ground looking for white or reddish chunks of bone. Believe me, we went through a lot of rocks. We were positive that they were bone every time. “Is this a bone?” Nope. “This must be a bone.” Nope.

An amusing side note, do you know one of the ways to tell the difference between a rock and bone? You lick it. I am not kidding. Rock is hard and feels like, well, rock. A bone will have a slightly tacky feeling. Because it absorbs moisture it will pull slightly at your tongue. Let’s just say I licked a lot of rocks that day. ha ha!

Finally, we spotted a couple of pieces that looked slightly similar. The color was right. It was bone!

At that point, you need to figure out where the bone originated. Is it still embedded partially in the earth? Is it in a pile of rocks at the bottom of a cliff? Did rain or wind cause it to move from where it was unearthed?

Mine was in a pile of rocks at the bottom of a drop-off. I climbed up to the top of the ledge and looked around. Sure enough, there it was. A piece of bone poking out at the edge of the drop-off. It was sooo exciting!bones found at fossil and dinosaur dig

I continued to remove the dirt to see if the bone continued into the dirt and it did. Turns out I had a lot of work ahead of me to dig out the entire bone. Of course, it was missing many pieces and broken, but it was definitely a bone. You can see the fragments and more we found to the right.

Another memorable part of the day was our guide, Marge. She is one fantastic woman I will never forget. As she helped me excavate my bone she told us stories. Stories about the bones they have found and the people that have visited her ranch. The severe winters and weather destroyed the exposed bones. She liked to have people, especially kids, have a piece of it before it literally weathered away to nothing.

I believe that she lived all or most of her life on a ranch. She was very wise. She is one of the most competent people I have ever met. She carried to gun in case there were any mountain lions or rattlesnakes in the area. She was taking care of us and I trusted her completely. Whatever Marge says, goes. No messing around. My kind of woman.

She was also watching the weather. Rain was coming and she didn’t want us to get trapped back behind the creek. Apparently it would swell beyond the point of passing during a rain. If that happened, we would have to walk many miles on a railroad track to get back. She said she had done it a couple times and didn’t want to have to do it again.

We hurriedly extracted the bone. We were able to get back just before the rain. It was an amazing experience. I won’t ever forget that day or Marge.

 

My thoughts and recommendation

I have to say that this family adventure, and it was an adventure, was truly unique. It offers an experience unlike the city, beach, and cabin getaways so popular for family vacations.

The landscape feels so foreign and yet so homelike. The strength and consistency of the Earth is all around you. It gives a feeling of solitude amongst the endless views. It is a humbling experience that gives you perspective. That is why I think it is perfect for families.

If you want to try something different, your kids love dinosaurs, or you all need a little perspective, I would definitely recommend this for a family vacation. The kids get exposed to something entirely new. You gain a new appreciation for our environment. It reminds you of what is important, sharing experiences and learning together.

If you are knowledgeable enough to do this on your own, go for it. If you aren’t, a planned field trip or organized dig is the perfect setup for you.

(See related: How to decide if you should you take a Stonehenge tour)

I break the experience down like this:

Pros:

  • very different type of vacation
  • educational
  • best souvenirs of any vacation. Okay, that is a bit subjective.
  • don’t have to know much of anything to participate, thanks to the guide.
  • You get to meet other interesting people.

Cons:

  • can be timely/costly to get to location
  • had to buy tools that we wouldn’t likely use again
  • would have been easier/more productive if we knew more, but that was our fault for not studying the guides given to us beforehand

I am sure there are programs all across the world that offer these types of services. If you are interested in our exact trip, the organizing group is ZRS Fossils. The best way to find out about their programs is through their mailing list. I would recommend using the email from their contact page to ask to be put on their mailing list. You can try the ZRS Fossils website, but it isn’t great. The ZRS Fossils facebook has better information in their events and photos sections.

 

Would you dig a fossil and dinosaur dig?

Are you fascinated by fossils? Perhaps you think they are old dirty rocks that have no relevance to you. We can learn so much from the past. Just image what life was like for those creatures so long ago.

Have you ever gone on a fossil and dinosaur dig? Where?

If you do decide to go out on your own, here are a few friendly reminders. Ensure you are not trespassing on private property. Know the rules of where you are excavating, you may not be able to keep your finds. Make sure you abide by any park fees and guidelines. Basically, be a good citizen.

If you want to learn more about the locations or businesses involved in our trip, see the Resources below.

Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

 

Resources

Baisch’s Dinosaur Digs from Daily Dinosaur Digs

Glendive from Glendive Chamber of Commerce Dawson County Economic Development Council

Kids can find keep dinosaur bones Montana ranch from NBC News

Makoshika State Park from Montana State Parks

ZRS Fossils from Facebook