Fossil Finders

Hike draws large group to hunt for 300-million-year-old treasure

Brent Whetstone hands a small fossil to Michael Rose to identify a find he made early in the hunt at the Paleo Site near Kohl’s Ranch. Whetstone, his wife Christine and daughter Ashlynd had an exciting day searching for fossils and hiking in the area.


Brent Whetstone hands a small fossil to Michael Rose to identify a find he made early in the hunt at the Paleo Site near Kohl’s Ranch. Whetstone, his wife Christine and daughter Ashlynd had an exciting day searching for fossils and hiking in the area.



Andy Towle/Roundup -

Caroline Gurney holds a fossilized shellfish in a rock she just happened to pick up while looking at a large boulder with several shellfish fossils imbedded in it.


Andy Towle/Roundup -

David Mikulak acts as transportation for son Andrew as they listen to Michael Rose explain the terrain, the types of rocks which will most likely contain fossils, and the best places to look.


Andy Towle/Roundup -

Everyone started out in pretty much the same area, but soon broke off into small groups as the hunt progressed and fossils were found.


Andy Towle/Roundup -

Brandon Rafter found it easier to loosen this rock with a stick. He kept at it until it was out of the ground. He liked the rock, but no imprint of any creature was found.


Andy Towle/Roundup -

Riley, Garret, Harold and Jodie Hamblin chip away at some rocks on a small hillside and place their finds in plastic bags.


Andy Towle/Roundup -

Jeff Daniels hands a stone containing a fossil to daughters Echo and Emma.

The Payson Parks and Recreation Department sure knows how to throw a party — even when the guests of honor are 300 million years old.

Turns out, the key to throwing a big bash for an overthrow crowd is to advertise a Family Fossil Hunt. The parks folks figured they’d get a handful of dinosaur geeks for a nice little walk in the park looking for fossilized shells, shrimp, snails and maybe the odd bit of dinosaur bone.


Bright and early last Saturday morning, 106 people crowded into the south parking lot of Rim Country Mall on Highway 260, armed with water, snacks, digging implements, bags and enthusiasm.

Unflappable tour guides Michael Rose and Mary McMullen then registered those who had not yet done so and then gave instruction on the location and what to look for during our trek at the fossil area.

A disjointed and improvised caravan made its way to the area, with no defections. The huge group of fossil-loving hikers then huddled for Rose’s brief description of what to look for before McMullen handed out bags to those without.

Then, finally — the hunt was on, with a great milling stampede of enthusiasm.

Rose stayed for more than two hours and helped inexperienced fossil hunters find various kinds of fossils, while those who had been to similar areas previously, took off and were never heard from again. Just kidding.

Everyone found something, not everything was a fossil, but the the treasures included many kinds of interesting rocks, sticks and reptiles.

What does one hunt for when it comes to fossils in Rim Country? Depends on what you want to find.

In this case, the Paleo Site just off Highway 260, some 12 miles east of Payson just before the Kohl’s Ranch turnoff, yielded a wealth of mostly invertebrate marine fossils.

Marine fossils, Really? Yep.

Some 300 million years ago most of Arizona was covered by shallow seas 40 to 50 feet deep. A host of invertebrates like modern-day shrimp and crabs swam in the ocean, sometimes huge winged insects were everywhere — no change there — and odd-looking amphibians had the run of the place — although they had to share quarters with a growing variety of semi-aquatic and terrestrial reptiles — which included the ancestors of modern crocodiles and

That means you don’t know what you will find, sorting through the layers composed of silt, sediment and bones of sea creatures that settled on the bottom before being buried, pressurized and turned to stone. It could be a fossilized bird wing, a skeleton of a fish, many types of shells and maybe even the impression in the silt turned to stone left a sea sponge.

Of course, all of these specimens will be in the rocks in the area as they have had plenty of time to be turned to stone.

Brownish gray, shale-like siltstone and mudstone from the shallow ocean floor were the predominant rocks that contained fossils.

Everyone started in the same general area near the circular parking lot, but slowly disbursed as they looked around for fossils in this hide-and-seek venture.

Fossil hunting demands a combination of a keen eye for detail and a casual approach. A quick hike through the area will turn up only living creatures. A slow, meticulous walk with eyes on the ground and a basic knowledge of geology will yield a piece of a long-vanished world.

Of course, being a child helps. Most of the finds were made by the younger people in the groups that formed, as they were closer to the ground, had less brain baggage and were more excited to find a cool fossil. The other good finds were made by those with the most experience.

What do you find during a fossil hunt? Hikers found many types of marine fossils especially brachiopods (also known as lamp shells) and bivalves, which have two-part shells that are symmetrical and include scallops, clams, oysters and mussels.

Other interesting possible finds included snail-like gastropods and don’t forget crinoids. Crinoids are characterized by a mouth on the top surface that is surrounded by feeding arms. These creatures are not nearly as common as other fossils, so any find may be considered a worthy prize.

But even for the people who found not a scrap of a 300-million-year-old clam, it proved a good day to be outdoors doing an activity that could reward one with a link to the ancient past.

In the right frame of mind, sunshine and a light breeze is a discovered treasure as well.dinosaurs.


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