Local Treasures with Pia: Fossil Digging

If your family includes someone who’s fascinated with dinosaurs and anything prehistoric, then I have a super approachable fossil digging road trip for you. Here’s the best part: you get to take home the 15-some-million old fossils you find.

Load up your car with lunch, water, an Idaho paper road map (just in case, you know, no cellphone service happens) old newspapers, a dull butter knife for every member of your expedition, and head to the Fossil Bowl just south of Clarkia, Idaho. Bring cash: it’s $10 per person and then you can dig all day long.

The Clarkia Fossil Beds are located about 30 minutes south of St. Marie’s on State Highway 3 by mile marker 52 ½. You will see signs for a motocross track – the Fossil Bowl - that’s located on the same property. Pull up to the house and prepare to get dirty.

The story goes that Francis L. Kienbaum was building a snow mobile track in the early 1970s and when he dug into the hillside above his home what looked like leaves came spilling out. Kienbaum didn’t know what he had found, but he knew it wasn’t ordinary leaves. He called the University of Idaho and eventually connected with the late geologist and paleobotanist Dr. Charles Jack Smiley. Smiley determined that Kienbaum had found a 15-million-year-old fossilized lake bottom full of well-preserved leaves, sticks, seeds and fish. The discovery set the track for much of Smiley’s research the next 20 years, and the Clarkia Flora (as it’s known among scientists) became the source of countless dissertations and thesis.

Yes, this is the real deal.

Once you are situated at the digging site, you get to go all Indiana Jones and break big chunks of wet, clay-like soil out of the hillside. The soil chunks contain skinny layers, almost like pages of a book stuck together, and this is where the dull butter knife comes in: carefully slide it in between layers, wiggle it a little and watch the chunk split open hopefully revealing a leaf or a seed or a flower that’s been untouched for 15 million years.

The leaves are so well-preserved some retain their original color: brown, greenish or dark rusty red. Scientists were actually able to extract 15 million-year-old DNA from some samples and you will soon be engrossed in digging for that perfect leaf.

It’s highly unlikely you will find a dinosaur – but you are almost guaranteed to find beautifully formed leaves and stems. Pick your favorites and wrap them in the newspaper you brought along. Leave them wrapped in paper for about six weeks to dry, and you have the perfect show and tell.

Call: (208) 245-3608

Bring: water, lunch, snacks, sunscreen, hats – no services on site.

Wear: sturdy closed toed shoes and pants that can get dirty – the site can get very hot.

Read more stories like this in Thrive Outdoors.

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