Get Outta Town: Go dig up half billion-year-old fossils in Utah

by Nick Gonzales

Life was simpler in the past — specifically, about 507 million years ago. Life on dry land was practically non-existent, and the oceans were full of prehistoric bugs, the most famous of which were probably trilobites.

The ancient, aquatic creepy crawlies had bodies split up into three sections and spent their lives crawling around the ocean floor, looking for other animals to prey or scavenge upon. The largest ever found popped up near Boston and was 18 inches long. Most were much smaller, fitting in the palm of your hand. They may look pretty similar to the uninitiated, but scientists have found over 20,000 species of trilobites. If that fact has stoked a latent desire to hunt fossils in you, you’re in luck.

You can play paleontologist and get a look into the ancient world of the Cambrian Period pretty easily if you know where to look. And to find a load of trilobites that you can dig up, and even keep, just head for Utah’s Wheeler Shale.

The layer of rock is perhaps best exposed and most accessible at the locale after which it is named — the Wheeler Amphitheater in Millard County in the western part of the state. The amphitheater contains three quarries, one public and two private.

The public site is on Bureau of Land Management property further up in the hills from the other two. It’s free to dig there, but it’s essentially just an acre of land with a bunch of exposed shale and some piles of scraps. You can poke around in the piles, but you won’t have access to a ton, and the nicest fossils will likely have already been picked out of the selection.

This is why the other two quarries exist. U-Dig Fossils and A New Dig will both charge you for access to their quarries, but you’re also basically guaranteed to find better fossils.

Both sites use excavators to tear the earth open, exposing rock that hasn’t seen the light of day since around 270 million years before dinosaurs roamed the planet. The guides operating the excavators can also explain how best to collect trilobites. U-Dig appears to provide buckets, hammers, and the like for breaking rock and transferring your spoils to your vehicle, but New Dig might not. Prices at the quarries vary from $19 to $120, depending on how old you are and how long you plan to hang out looking for ancient life.

If you go, you’re going to want to be careful. Shale breaks apart easily, but can also get a bit jagged in the process. Wear thick gloves, boots, and clothing (and eye protection) to avoid accidentally stabbing yourself with something half a billion years old. There’s also no shade, so wear a hat and bring sunscreen.

The road to get to the quarries is maintained but unpaved and the closest outcrop of civilization is almost 60 miles to the east in Delta. As such, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to take a vehicle on the burlier side of the spectrum, as well as water, food, gas, and the like. You’ll be in what can generously be described as the middle of nowhere, so your ability to find a cell signal will resemble what it would have been during the Cambrian.

U-Dig Fossils is only open between March and October, but A New Dig appears to open whenever someone makes a reservation. If you don’t want to make the trip across Utah (and you hate your mail carrier), U-Dig will send you a 40-bound slab of shale from its quarry for about $95 with shipping and handling. You can then break it open at home and see what was inside — the perfect gift for the holidays.

Nick Gonzales


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