Where to see fossils in Washington state

October 21, 2013
Burke Museum

Washington state is home to a wide variety of fossils—from delicate flowers to bulky mammoth bones to the fossil mold of an ancient rhino. Best of all, Washington has several fossil sites that are open to the public. 

Bruce Crowley with the tusk found in Seattle.

Washington’s official state fossil is the Columbia mammoth (Mammuthus columbi). Learn about the fossilized mammoth tusk found in Seattle in 2014.
Photo: Burke Museum

Here’s a list of fossil sites and other places where you can check out Washington fossils:

FOSSIL SITES OPEN TO THE PUBLIC

Stonerose Interpretive Center & Eocene Fossil Site

Location: Republic, Washington, in the northeastern part of the state
What to see: Fossil beds from the Eocene (50 million years ago)
What to do: Dig for your own fossils!

Insect fossil at Stonerose.

At Stonerose Interpretive Center in Republic, WA, visitors of all ages can dig for their own fossils. Most of the fossils at Stonerose are leaf fossils, but occasionally insects can be found.
Photo: Burke Museum

The area where Stonerose sits was once part of an ancient lake, and plants, insects and fish fossils have all been found here, providing insight into the geologic and biologic past of the Pacific Northwest. Not only can you see these fossils at Stonerose—you can also dig for them yourself and take some of your finds home! 

More details: For more information, check out the Stonerose Interpretive Center website, including guidelines for fossil hunting at the site and open times/days and directions.

 

Gingko Petrified Forest State Park

Location: Near Vantage in central Washington, east of Ellensburg and south of Interstate 90
What to see: Fossilized ancient forests
What to do: Explore the hiking trails, visit the interpretive center (weekends, holidays and by appointment only) 

Petrified wood at Gingko Petrified Forest.

At the Gingko Petrified Forest State Park near Vantage, WA, you can see one of the most diverse petrified wood collections in North America.
Photo: Burke Museum

One of the most unusual fossil forests in the world, the Gingko Petrified Forest State Park runs along the Wanapum Reservoir on the Columbia River in central Washington. Check out the diverse collection of petrified wood and don’t forget to take in the surrounding landscape, which shows evidence of Ice Age land formations.

More details: For more information, see the Washington State Parks website and the video below in which paleontologist Kirk Johnson visits the Gingko Petrified Forest State Park and discusses how petrified wood is formed.

 

 

Blue Lake Rhino

Location: Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area in central Washington, just south of Dry Falls
What to see: Mold fossil of a small rhinoceros, preserved in pillow basalt, from the Miocene (23 to 5 million years ago)
What to do: Visit the Burke to see a cast of the mold or the Dry Falls Visitor Center to see some of the rhino bones or, if you’re up to it, hike to the site and explore* 

Lower Grand Coulee map.

The Blue Lake Rhino fossil—a mold fossil—is one of the most unique in Washington state. 
Illustration: Burke Museum Archives

Rhino sketch.

A small diaroma showing what the rhino and its environment might have looked like before being covered by lava. 
Illustration: Burke Museum Archives

Discovered by hikers in 1935, the Blue Lake rhino is one of Washington’s most unique fossils. Very few fossils are ever found in igneous rocks (rocks formed by magma, molten rock within the earth). The intense heat of magma usually completely vaporizes any organic materials caught in its flow. An exception can occur when lava flows over a lake containing submerged plant or animal remains. This is what happened to the Blue Lake rhino.

About 15 million years ago, the carcass of a rhinoceros lay rotting in a lake. Lava poured into the lake from nearby fissures, engulfing the rhino’s bloated body. Where the lava contacted the water, it cooled quickly and made a mold of the dead animal. (This type of fossil is called a mold fossil and happens when the surrounding rock preserves the outline of an organism but not the organism itself.) In time, the rhino’s body decayed completely, leaving a few bones and teeth in a rhinoceros-shaped cavern. This cavern was large enough for a person to crawl into, which is what that group of hikers did when they discovered it in 1935. 

Cast of the Blue Lake Rhino.

A cast (exact replica) of the Blue Lake Rhino mold fossil as it used to be displayed in the Burke Museum.
Photo: Burke Museum

More details: Getting to the original fossil can be quite challenging (see note below), but for an easier look, you can check out the cast (and crawl inside!) at the Burke Museum in the Life and Times of Washington State exhibit. You can also find information about the rhino and some of the bones at the Dry Falls Visitor Center.

*Note that this site has very limited access and is only recommended for experienced climbers. For an example of just how rigorous the climb is, see the images on the Gator Girl Rocks website.

 

What about fossil sites that aren’t open to the public?
Be sure you know and understand the laws about trespassing and collecting before you attempt to search for fossils or collect fossils. For more information, see the Washington State Department of Natural Resources Fossil Collection in Washington page and the U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management resources and policies about paleontology.

PLACES TO SEE FOSSILS ON DISPLAY

The Burke Museum

Location: Seattle, Washington, on the University of Washington campus
What to see: Fossils, fossils and more fossils from Washington state and beyond!
What to do: Plan your visit and make a day of it

This fossilized whale was found on the Olympic Peninsula.

This fossilized whale was found on the Olympic Peninsula and is now on display in the Burke Museum’s natural history exhibit: Life and Times of Washington State.
Photo: Burke Museum

Check out a wide variety of fossil specimens in the Life and Times of Washington State exhibit at the Burke Museum, including vertebrate specimens (animals with backbones, such as dinosaurs, mammals and fish), invertebrate specimens (animals without backbones, such as clams, insects and sponges), and plant specimens. The fossils come from throughout Washington state and around the world. 

Some of the fossil highlights at the Burke include:

  • Trilobites that are around 470 million years old
  • A 30-million-year old baleen whale
  • A giant ground sloth that was found at Sea-Tac Airport
  • Fossilized salmon 

Plan your visit: For more information about visiting the Burke, check out the Plan Your Visit page on this website.

See more Washington fossils online: You can check out photos and information for thousands of Washington fossil specimens in the Burke Museum’s online database

 

Hanford Reach Interpretive Center

Location: Richland, WA
What to see: Exhibits showing history of the Columbia Plateau, including fossils from the area. See fossils from the Pliocene and Pleistocene including a baby wooly mammoth cast from Siberia, and the mammals that roamed over Eastern Washington ~2–4 million years ago.


Museum & Arts Center

Location: Sequim, Washington, on the Olympic Peninsula
What to see: Bones from the Manis Mastodon 

In addition to a variety of other objects, this museum has the fossilized bones of the Manis Mastodon on display. This mastodon was discovered in 1977 by Sequim resident Emanuel Manis and was found with a bone projectile point. The museum also displays local fossil molluscs. 

Plan your visit: For more information about the Museum & Arts Center, see the center’s website. 

 

Western Washington University

Location: Bellingham, Washington, in the northwest part of the state approaching Canada
What to see: Geology displays of rocks, fossils and minerals

If you’re in the Bellingham area, check out the displays of a wide variety of fossils in the Environmental Sciences building of Western Washington University (displays are on floors 1, 2 and 3) as part of the Geology Department.

Plan your visit: For more information, see Visiting the Department on the Geology Department’s contact page.

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