If you’re expecting to walk among fossils of fish, plants, and animals still stuck in rocks, you’ll be disappointed by Fossil Butte National Monument. If you’re keen on learning about “America’s Aquarium” and how fossils are formed and preserved, it’s a worthwhile stop for a few hours.
Fossil Butte National Monument contains one of the best preserved records of the Cenozoic Era. The area was once underwater, covered by a prehistoric freshwater lake. The lake lasted about two million years before it was covered by sediment. Thousands of fossils (mostly of aquatic species) have been uncovered, hence the name “America’s Aquarium”. Most of them were unearthed from 1897 to 1937 when fossil hunter Lee Craig made a healthy living off his finds. The National Park Service took over the area in 1972 and fossil hunting is now illegal within the park boundaries.
The visitor center at Fossil Butte has an interesting timeline along the railing on the outside. It goes through each geologic era and shows when species appeared on earth, when they extinct, and major events, such as meteors, continents splitting apart, and the approximate time of formation of some of the national parks. It’s worth checking out before going inside. You can see near the very end of the timeline where humans enter the picture. It puts into perspective the amount of damage we’ve done to the planet during our short time here.
Inside the visitor center, there are over 300 fossils on display. It’s possible to see extinct fish, turtles, alligators, plants, insects, birds, and more. You can also watch a 13 minute video about Fossil Butte and maybe even get a chance to watch fossils being prepared in the lab.
Many visitors start and finish at the visitor center but there is more to see. Two hiking trails in the desert and a scenic drive are located in the park. We arrived late and didn’t have enough time to hike so we took the scenic drive. There were some spectacular views from the very top of the hill. Just be careful driving. It’s a gravel road that can be narrow and steep and is about five miles one way.
For the hikers, there’s a 1.5 mile nature trail through sagebrush and an aspen forest. There’s also a 2.5 mile historic quarry trail that leads to an old fossil quarry. The ranger said you won’t be able to see any fossils but it’s an enjoyable trail nonetheless. Both trails run on a loop.
Fossil Butte National Monument is located about 9 miles from Kemmerer, Wyoming, on US Highway 30, and 45 miles north of I-80. Check the website for a schedule of ranger guided programs.