By Rhonda Carrier
Kids go wild for all things prehistoric. And whether it’s pottering down to Charmouth in Dorset with a little hammer and a raincoat, or heading off on a two-week camping adventure in the USA to look for dinosaur remnants, fossicking is rewarding and fun and can form the basis of a fantastic family holiday.
It’s surprisingly easy to find fossils: all you need is the right location, a bit of equipment, lots of enthusiasm, and a little luck. For an introduction to fossil hunting, check out Discovering Fossils (discoveringfossils.co.uk). Rockwatch (rockwatch.org.uk), the club for young geologists, also has a number of fossil-collecting activities on offer.
Lyme Regis and Charmouth, Dorset
The beaches along the beautiful UNESCO World Heritage site of the Jurassic Coast (extending into east Devon) are some of the best in the country for finding fossils, which are constantly brought down to the beaches by streams running through the rocks. Dinosaurland in lovely Lyme Regis is a good place to find out what type of fossil you might find (10 years ago, a family found the whole dinosaur skeleton that’s on display here). Late April/early May also sees the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival, with great events for families, while inland Dorchester has Jurassic and Ancient Dorset displays at the Dorset County Museum. See also our feature on Fossil-hunting with Kids on the Jurassic Coast.
This island off the south coast is one of the best places in the world for fossil-hunters and dinosaur enthusiasts, whether you explore independently or join a family fossil-hunting day. Dinosaur Isle leads fossil hunts all over the island and also has a rather eye-catching display of dinosaurs at its centre. Compton Beach is reputedly the best place on island for fossicking for fossils, and there are dinosaur footprints to be found in the rocks – take any find back to the Dinosaur Expeditions, Conservation and Palaeoart Centre, where staff will help with identification. A great way to tour the fossil-filled beaches is by vintage campervan (isleofwightcampers.co.uk).
Mortimer Forest, Shropshire
It’s not only the beaches and cliffs of the UK that house fossils – if you know where to look, you can find them in quarries, woods and escarpments, or on building sites. A walk through Mortimer Forest near the Norman town of Ludlow may well reveal some interesting fossils and you might come back with a beautiful piece of fossilised coral – several good places for looking have been clearly marked.
Abereiddi is famous for its mysterious graptolite fossils in the rock and among beach pebbles, which resemble miniature hacksaw blades or tuning forks. They're the remains of colonies of tiny animals that lived here 470 milllion years ago.
Southerndown Beach, Glamorgan, Wales
This stunning beach close to Bridgend with its great rockpools and golden sand has ammonites in rock-shale piles, just waiting to be found. It’s a great place so spend a few days swimming and rushing around with buckets looking for fossilised sea creatures.
The unspoilt stretch of golden sand between Speeton and Filey Brigg is a good spot to look for fossils in the cliff and the long foreshore that seems to stretch out for ever at low tide. Nearby Filey Bird Garden & Animal Park is another good spot for nature-lovers.
City of London Cemetery, UCL, London
Gravestones are a rich source of fossilised limestone, so historic graveyards or cemeteries such as the 19th-century City of London Cemetery are good places for fossicking for fossils and a sure way to intrigue and inspire your children to look a little closer at things. (Other good places for an urban fossil hunt are the platform at Paddington Station, London, Manchester Central Library, and Cardiff University’s main building (especially the floor), while Cambridge University seems to have been made almost entirely from fossils! Cathedrals and churches are also excellent places to spy ancient creatures, especially those clad in Portland marble.)
The NHM has one of the greatest collections of dinosaur bones and fossils in the world; visit the interactive gallery, go on a trail or tour, or book on one of the hugely popular Dino Snores, where children aged 7-11 camp overnight after an evening of torch-lit dinosaur-hunting, live animal shows and fossil-making.
Dinosaur Provincial Park and Royal Tyrell Museum of Palaeontology, Alberta
The spectacular UNESCO World Heritage site of Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta is recognised as the richest dinosaur fossil site in the world. Located at the heart of Alberta’s beautiful Badlands region, around 2.5 hours from the city of Calgary, the park covers 80km2 and contains some of the most important fossil discoveries ever made from the ‘Age of Reptiles’. Thirty-five species have been discovered here as well as numerous other fossils, some dating back 75-77 million years. Equipped with nearly 200 campsites for tents and RVs, plus showers, a laundromat and the Cretaceous Café, Dinosaur Provincial Park is an ideal family destination. Sturdy canvas tents are furnished for comfort camping with real beds, pillows and bedding, with private patios, electricity, kitchen supplies and gas barbecues.
When visiting Dinosaur Provincial Park, take a Fossil Prospecting hike and learn from a knowledgeable local guide about how dinosaurs walked the Alberta Badlands during the Late Cretaceous Period 75 million years ago, when the sub-tropical climate nourished lush forests and great rivers that flowed east toward a warm inland sea. The environment provided homes for a variety of creatures big and small, including sharks, turtles and crocodiles. Reptiles with wingspans wider than a small plane soared across the skies.
While on a ‘dino discovery’ trip in Alberta, don’t miss the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Drumheller (220km southeast of Calgary). It houses one of the world's largest displays of dinosaurs and is Canada's only museum dedicated exclusively to the study of ancient life. Following recent news (Feb 2020) that a major new dinosaur – dubbed ‘The Reaper of Death’ –has been discovered in southern Alberta, the fossils from this find will soon be available to view at the museum later. ‘The Reaper of Death’ is the first new tyrannosaur discovery in Canada for 50 years, with the species directly related to the infamous T. rex.
Montana Dinosaur Trail
This western state is the place for the ultimate dinosaur holiday: hire a car, pick up a ‘Prehistoric Passport’ and set out, visiting museums, the site where the first T-Rex was found, and recent dig sites, collecting dino icons at each site to receive a certificate, a gold seal and your own Montana dino T-shirt. The highlight of the Trail is the Two Medicine Dinosaur Centre, with the world’s longest dinosaur skeleton, the first baby dinosaur ever found, and several recently discovered species, plus research programs and digs for the public, where you can learn the basics of palaeontology and fossicking for fossils.
Fossil Expeditions and Megalodon Expeditions, Florida
When you’ve had your fill of meeting Mickey Mouse and being thrown around on rollercoasters, try hunting for mastadon bones, the tusks of ancient mammoths or the fossilised teeth of ancient sharks in a kayak. Fossil Expeditions runs day kayaking tours to the Peace River and nearby creeks looking for a vast assortment of bones and teeth left behind after the Ice Age. Children of all ages are welcome as the tours are not strenuous.
REST OF WORLD
If you’ve really been bitten by the bug, try the Western Desert near Siwa in Egypt or the northwest of Thailand, both superb dinosaur-hunting spots.
See also our hand-picked recommendations for the best adventure holidays with kids.