Tuesday, September 26, 2023

A gold mine for fossil-finders: York River State Park

A fossil sits on a fallen log on Fossil Beach in York River State Park. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)
A fossil sits on a fallen log on Fossil Beach in York River State Park. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)

The banks of the York River were quiet Monday, save for the light sound of the waves washing up against the shore.

In York River State Park on Fossil Beach, the river waves washed up against pebbles and various shells strewn across the beach.

Some weigh several pounds and are thousands of years old.

While state park visitors are unlikely to unearth fossils of ancient land animals, Fossil Beach has fossils of more than a dozen different shellfish and aquatic creatures, said John Gresham, education support specialist for York River State Park.

The fossils are found in abundance at York River State Park because of the way sea creatures were stranded over time as a pre-ice age, subtropical ocean dried up. As the sea level went down over eastern Virginia, certain sea creatures were stuck in parts of the York River, where they eventually died.

The sea creatures swam in the York River more than 6,000 years ago.

“Every now and then you’ll find something that is so unique that you wouldn’t even think it would be here,” Gresham said.

Other fossils include barnacles, coral, snails, clams, oysters and whale bones. Shark teeth are occasionally found at Fossil Beach, but guests typically do not find many, Gresham said.

“You say ‘Fossil’ to a kid and they’re immediately thinking ‘Jurassic Park’ and all that they’ve seen on television,” Gresham said. “However, I have to quickly inform them that no you aren’t going to find a (Tyrannosaurus) rex tooth or a brontosaurus backbone. That’s simply not going to happen.”

Dozens of fossils can be found on Fossil Beach in York River State Park. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)
Dozens of fossils can be found on Fossil Beach in York River State Park. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)

Gresham isn’t worried the park will run out of fossils, because storms and erosion on the river’s sandy cliffs always unearth more. He does ask park guests only take one fossil home when they visit to make sure other fossil hunters can visit the beach and find nature’s treasures.

“That’s partially because the fossil frenzy hike is such a popular program at our park,” Gresham said. “Especially during months in March through June, we’re kind of busy with that program, so we ask people please leave something for somebody else.”

For visitors who don’t mind a longer walk or bike ride, the Riverview Overlook trail has a beach for fossil hunting as well. That beach is less-visited because of its distance from the main parking lot, Gresham said.

Other parts of eastern Virginia including Chippokes Plantation State Park and Westmoreland State Park are also prime locations for fossil hunting, Gresham said.

Mastodon bones were found at an excavation site in Yorktown and include a complete tusk, several teeth and ribs and a partial jaw. Those bones have been included in Virginia’s Top 10 Endangered Artifacts of 2018.

One fossil not found at York River State Park, but found elsewhere in the region, is the Chesapecten jeffersonius, an extinct scallop and Virginia’s state fossil. The Chesapecten jeffersonius lived between 4 and 5 million years ago and was named after President Thomas Jefferson.

Want to get involved with fossil hunting? York River State Park is hosting its Fossil Frenzy Hike at 10 a.m. Feb. 2. The event is free.

Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

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