Information Circular 33, Fossils in Washington, provides an overview of the kinds of fossils to be found in the state. It was published in 1959. The fossils haven't moved, but land ownership may have changed. For current information, contact a local "rockhound" group. They usually know where to collect fossils and may offer collecting trips. We maintain a list of Washington State Gem and Mineral Clubs on our website. A directory of mineral collecting groups is also published by the Northwest Federation of Mineralogical Societies; it may be available in your local library. The federation has 32 clubs in Washington and publishes a newsletter.
Only one site in Washington is wholly dedicated to public fossil collecting—the Stonerose Interpretive Center in downtown Republic in northeastern Washington (Ferry County). Visitors can collect excellent examples of Eocene leaves and insects. Information about when you can collect is available at 509-775-2295.
Fossil (petrified) wood is the state gemstone. A site on Saddle Mountain in the Columbia Basin is managed for petrified wood collectors. To visit this site, contact the field trip chairman of the Rock Rollers Club, PO Box 14766, Spokane Valley, WA 99214-0766.
The Northwest Paleontological Association is devoted to exploring, understanding, and preserving Washington fossils. The association meets bimonthly in Seattle and sends out a newsletter.
The North America Research Group (NARG) is a resource for identifying or collecting fossils in Washington and Oregon. NARG sponsors the Northwest Fossil Fest and participates in many programs and shows devoted to public education. They collaborate with university scientists and museums to enhance and promote research. Significant specimens are donated to recognized museums to insure they remain in the scientific and public domain.
How do I find out about fossils?
Read up on how animals and plants are fossilized. Textbooks and popular books about geology and paleontology (such as the Golden Guide or Audubon series) explain this process, and you will learn more about what kinds of rocks might be fossiliferous. You will also learn what kinds of fossils to look for and what they might look like in the rock.
Visit museums to see what has been found in Washington. The Burke Museum at the University of Washington in Seattle has several comprehensive displays. Many local museums have smaller collections. Most museum labels tell you at least in what county the fossil was found. And talk to other collectors.
How do I start collecting?
You'll want to begin your fossil hunt by locating potentially fossiliferous rocks. Nearly all fossils are found in sedimentary rocks, like limestone, siltstone, or sandstone. In Washington, fossils have been found in rocks from more than 550 million years old to those only a few thousand years old. Ice Age fossils can be found in sands along coastal bluffs. The state has a few amber localities as well. Some Washington fossils occur in and are associated with volcanic rock—for instance, the unique Blue Lake "rhino" found in a 15-million-year-old lava flow, the petrified wood of central Washington and elsewhere, and ancient plants and animals preserved by volcanic ash deposits. Intrusive igneous rocks, such as granite, or highly metamorphosed rocks, such as gneiss, are not fossiliferous.
Where Is It Legal to Collect?
Collectors should recognize that all of Washington's land is owned by someone—individuals, companies, cities, counties, the state, and some federal agencies. You are trespassing if you do not have permission to enter private or posted land. Washington law (RCW 79.02.310) states: "Every person who wilfully commits any trespass upon public lands of the state and ... digs, quarries, mines, takes or removes therefrom any earth, soil, stone, mineral, clay, sand, gravel, or any valuable materials, is guilty of theft under chapter 9A.56 RCW." The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife expressly forbids removing fossils or artifacts from lands it administers unless you have a permit. (See WAC 232-12-251). We urge you to find out what rules apply to fossil collecting on "public" (county, state, or federal) lands by contacting the appropriate agency. Please respect these permissions, observe the rules, and be courteous; otherwise, future access may be denied to everyone.
Where are the fossil-bearing rocks?
The more detailed the map and information, the better luck you will have in locating your target rocks. The Division of Geology and Earth Resources library has many maps that show what kinds of rocks are exposed at the ground surface. Some of these maps are part of our Geologic Map and Open File Reports series. Other maps are published by the U.S. Geological Survey. Division publications are available at many public libraries and are available online through our Publications List.
There are hundreds of reports about fossils in Washington, available in libraries, particularly college and university libraries, and we have a large collection of these reports. Most of the reports include information about where the fossils were collected and have maps as well. You will want to get copies of the maps and reports for the areas or fossils in which you are interested. However, some fossil-rich sites have already been "mined out" or are now covered by urban development.
Getting to the site
When you have selected a few areas to check out and if you are not going there with a group on an official field trip, go to your local assessor's office to find out who owns the land where you want to collect. Before visiting a site, get the owner's or agency's permission to enter the property and to collect. Park safely, and close gates behind you.
What should I take with me?
Take along maps and reports about the area and illustrations of what has been found there. A rock hammer, safety glasses, leather or other sturdy gloves, a hand lens, a pick or a sledge hammer, a crowbar, a few cold chisels, an ice pick, a camera, a tape measure, and a notebook should be in your tool box. Bring rags, paper towels, or newspaper in which to wrap your fossils and a pack or box to carry them.
How do I collect?
Fossils in rubble at the base of a bluff or cliff are hints about what kinds of fossils might be found in the exposure. The serious collector and scientist will want to collect fossils from fresh rock. The position in the exposure can help determining the age or association with other fossils.
Photograph the site. Put your hammer, lens cap, a coin, or pocket knife next to the fossil you want to collect when you take a picture. This documents your fossil find and gives an idea of scale. Keep these photos with your records.
Work slowly and carefully to remove specimens without breaking them—that usually means taking a lot of "extra" rock.
Use your tape measure and other tools to carefully document the location, and write this information in your notebook. You or others may want to visit this site again.
If you split open a rock (such as a concretion or shale layer) and find the fossil on both halves, don't try to put the split rock back together because you will unintentionally chip away some of the fossil. Wrap each half separately.
Plan to clean up your fossils at home where you have good light and plenty of tools and time.
If you plan to visit several places on your collecting trip, keep the fossils from each place separate and protected. Label or put a note with each wrapped specimen.
Curating a collection
Amateur collectors have found many important fossils, but museums or other collectors will not be interested in your collection unless there is documentation of sources. So always write down, in detail, where your fossils were collected. When you buy or trade specimens, be sure to get this information. Keep a file or notebook of locality and other information.
Label or number your fossils. Indelible ink on a patch of white paint on a corner of the rock works well. Keep a list of your specimens on a simple database or catalog. And collections tend to grow, so prepare some storage space.
Most rockhound or fossil collecting groups have a member who can help you with identifications—or knows someone who can. The Northwest Paleontological Association holds identification workshops several times a year. If you choose to take your fossils to a natural history museum or geology department to verify your identifications, please arrange a convenient time to meet with these busy professionals. Staff members can teach you how to study your collection. And they will learn from you about what fossils are being found.
And a few more pointers...
Untrained but observant people can find fossils, so keep your eyes open. Be thorough when you visit a site—there may be new material behind the bush or around the next hill.
Some kinds of vertebrate fossils are rare, and they can be difficult to collect properly. It takes only a moment of carelessness to destroy teeth or bones that might be clues to a new species. It is best to leave the fossil undisturbed or to gently rebury it and then contact a museum or university for help with collecting it. The "pros" will likely teach you the techniques as well. You may want to donate or loan the specimen to a museum for study or for their collection.
And be aware of dangers—snakes, insects, and spiders, falling rocks, steep, unstable or slippery slopes, and traffic along roadcuts. Pay attention to tides. Bring the warm and rainproof clothing and emergency gear you would take on a hike. Don't go alone, and tell people where you are going.