Although it may not seem like it at first glance, Ohio contains some of the most renowned fossil parks in the world.
These fossil parks do not contain any dinosaur bones. On the contrary, they contain the shells of life forms that existed hundreds of millions of years before dinosaurs—and even before creatures walked on the land—when Ohio was covered by a shallow ocean filled with massive coral reefs. The animals that inhabited these reefs lived, died and fell to the bottom of the ocean. Those with shells fossilized in the limestone sediment.
Millions of years later, glaciers advanced across Ohio and buried the limestone beneath deep layers of dirt. However, where streams have cut through the soil, or where humans have built roads, dams and other projects, the limestone is visible.
Because of this preserved ancient marine environment that dates back a half a billion years, today, southwest Ohio is one of the best places in the world to find fossils of some of the first complex life forms on the planet, including Ohio’s state fossil, the trilobite.
In other parts of the state, evidence of some of the earliest fish can be found in the fossil record, and by lucky fossil hunters.
Each year, Ohio’s fossil parks are visited by amateur and professional geologists from around the world. But you don’t have to be a geologist to enjoy fossil hunting.
Whether solo or with friends or children, fossil hunting is an inexpensive, worthwhile hobby that involves visiting some of the most unique and beautiful places in Ohio and looking for hidden treasures. Fossil parks are located in old rock quarries, state parks, next to dams and lakes and, surprisingly, sometimes, in the middle of cornfields!
While visiting these parks, you’ll discover just how amazing Ohio’s geological record is, and you’ll get to bring a piece or two of it home with you—all while spending time in the Great Outdoors.
With this in mind, here are 8 public fossil parks to explore in Ohio, all of which are free to visit and almost all of which are open 365 days a year.
Caesar Creek Spillway
4020 N. Clarksville Rd., Waynesville (Caesar Creek State Park)
At left is what is known as fossiliferous limestone. It contains dozens (and sometimes hundreds) of fossils from sea creatures that lived in Ohio nearly a half-billion years ago when the state was covered by a warm, shallow ocean. Geologists believe ancient hurricanes swept across this ocean, stirring up and then burying millions of sea creatures in the sediment.
Scattered across a manmade spillway at Caesar Creek State Park are countless fossils that date back between 443 and 485 million years (the Ordovician period) when Ohio was located south of the Equator and covered by a warm, shallow ocean (named the Tippecanoe Sea), as was most of North America.
Over these 42 million years, the shells of billions of sea creatures (and their fecal matter), plus algae and organic debris from giant coral reefs, fell to the bottom of the Tippecanoe Sea, eventually hardening into massive blankets of limestone and shale.
At the Caesar Creek Spillway, where these layers of limestone have been exposed, the fossils of ancient coral-dwelling creatures can be found in abundance. This includes brachiopods (little clams), bryozoans, cephalopods, corals, crinoids, gastropods, horn coral, and—the most desired—trilobites.
As with most fossil sites in southwest Ohio, hunters will notice how compact and jumbled together many of the fossils are, as if hundreds of creatures died at the same time and were buried together in mass graves. This is not far from the truth. Geologists believe that ancient hurricanes periodically swept across the shallow seas in southwest Ohio, picking up and then burying masses of reef animals. This may have happened for millions of years, stacking up hundreds of feet. In fact, it has been said that if all of the fossils were removed from beneath southwest Ohio, the region would slump down below sea level!
Fish did exist at this time, but are not typically found in southwest Ohio. Retired Ohio geologist Michael Hansen has said that this may have been because fish lived in very shallow parts of the ocean next to the shore, while the reefs in “Ohio” were further out at sea, where the fish didn’t yet go, or rarely ventured.
The most popular area to search for fossils at Caesar Creek is along the south edge of the spillway, where layers of limestone have been exposed and continue to crumble to reveal new fossils all the time.
A permit is required to collect fossils from the spillway. It can be obtained free of charge at the Visitor Center, 4020 N. Clarksville Rd. during regular hours. Along with a permit, you will receive a pamphlet that explains the different fossils that can be found in the spillway. There are no tools or breaking of stones allowed, and hunters may only take home fossils or rocks that fit in the palm of their hand. Experienced fossil hunters suggest visiting this park in the spring, after freezing and thawing has broken apart new rocks.
Of course, leave plenty of time to explore Caesar Creek State Park and Caesar Creek Gorge, or to hike the 14-mile Perimeter Trail and visit the Pioneer Village in the park.
The map below, seen at the Karl E Limper Geology Museum in Oxford, Ohio, shows where the museum and Ohio would have been located during the Ordovician, and this image from Wikipedia show what the waters may have looked like.
Cowan Lake State Park
1750 Osborn Rd., Wilmington
Even if you’re not interested in fossil hunting, Cowan Lake State Park is worth the short drive (about an hour), if only to hike down to the impressive and out-of-this-world spillway beneath Cowan Lake Dam.
Used mostly by fishermen, an un-named trail can be accessed on the north side of the dam on Ohio Route 730. It leads almost straight down to Cowan Creek, passing through countless layers of limestone that are overflowing with Ordovician-age fossils.
The view from above and at the bottom of the spillway shows how many different layers of limestone exist just near the surface of the land. Where the rock has been blasted away to create the dam, flat layers now form beautiful, cascading waterfalls. Beneath the water, these same layers are homes for aquatic snakes and fish.
The entire spillway is one giant fossil bed, so chances are, you’ll go home with a good find. There are no permits required to fossil hunt at Cowan Lake State Park.
There are a number of other things to do at the lake. On the other side of the fossil hunting parking lot on Route 730, for instance, is the Spillway Trail. At just over 5 miles long, the hiking trail hugs the north shore of the lake. This is one of multiple trails to explore at the park. There’s also a beach, nature center, several campgrounds, kayaking and fishing opportunities and much more.
Within a stone’s throw of the spillway are two local restaurants that you might want to try. The Spillway Lodge is located in an old farmhouse that was turned into a restaurant in 1973. It is known for its prime rib, baby back ribs, caramel apple pie, glazed salmon and more. The address is 623 Old State Rd. in Clarksville. The Capricorn Inn is a ma and pa restaurant that serves 20 different sandwiches, plus fish and chicken dinners and homemade desserts. They are located at 6660 St. Rt. 730.
If you visit in the fall, the spillway is also near the Hidden Acres Pumpkin Farm and the Jeep Jam takes place nearby each August.
East Fork State Park Fossil Park
2185 Slade Rd., Batavia
Even the park rangers at East Fork State Park are unimpressed with the fossil hunting area at their facility, especially compared to other nearby parks. Nonetheless, a permit is required from the Visitor Center before exploring the official area. Take time to view the exhibits at the center as well.
Hunting and collecting is confined to the Slade Road Trailhead area, which, like other parks on this list, is located in a manmade spillway. Here, Ordovician-age limestone has been exposed at the surface. The spillway is very large, but, due to the flat lay of the land, where little weathering is occurring, it is easy to imagine that most of the good fossils were found long ago, leaving only a few scraps here and there.
On the east side of the spillway is a massive pile of boulders that contain tons of fossils, but that are not part of the official fossil collecting area. You are not allowed to collect from the boulders, but you can look at them. This is worthwhile because there are some impressive specimens to see.
The Visitor Center and the spillway are right next to each other, but don’t overlook other parts of the park to explore. As one of the largest parks in Ohio, East Fork State Park is known for its hiking, bridle and mountain biking trails, its nice swimming beach and camping areas and abundant fishing and boating opportunities.
In the summer, finish up an evening of fossil hunting with a movie at the nearby Starlite Drive-In Theatre.
Hueston Woods State Park
6301 Park Office Rd., College Corner
There are several fossil collecting areas at Hueston Woods State Park, and you can keep whatever you find, with no permit required. Chances are, you will find something good.
The park is known as one of the best places in the world to hunt for Ordovician-age fossils, and it’s visited by people from around the world each year.
The main areas to hunt are at the Four Mile Creek Picnic Area, next to the dam, and at the Covered Bridge Area.
The banks of Four Mile Creek are overflowing with fossils, as is the creek near the covered bridge. Just turn over a slab of limestone and look for good specimens. Fossil types include bryozoans, brachiopods, pelecypods, horn corals, cephalopods, gastropods, crinoids and, if you’re lucky, trilobites. In total, there have been 1,200 species of fossilized animals identified in southwest Ohio.
An added bonus when fossil hunting at Hueston Woods is that you are near Miami University and the Karl E. Limper Geology Museum. This impressive museum explores the deep geological history of Ohio and features hundreds of specimens and informative displays and maps. It is free to visit and open 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. The museum is located in Shideler Hall, near the intersection of U.S. Rt. 27 and Ohio Rt. 73.
Just south of campus is Peffer Park. It is home to the Miami Bluffs, which is a deep cut through Collins Creek that exposes ancient and more recent layers of rock and sediment, including fossiliferous limestone, which lies stacked in sheets along the bottom of the creek bed.
Oakes Quarry Park
1267 E. Xenia Dr., Fairborn
Probably the closest fossil park for most readers, Oakes Quarry Park is also one of the most interesting to visit. In fact, many people come here to hike and walk their dogs in the unique environment, rather than fossil hunt. But it shouldn’t be overlooked.
Encompassing nearly 200 acres, this former limestone quarry is home to some “newer” fossils on our list, this time dating back about 424 million years to the Silurian period, which directly followed the Ordovician. The Silurian is a time when fish developed jaws and backbones and when plants and fungi were spreading across the land like wildfire. But not in Ohio; Ohio was still covered by a shallow ocean filled with coral reefs and new forms of life.
Oakes Quarry is considered one of the largest and most diverse Silurian-age fauna sites in the world.
There are two coral reefs exposed at the park, both of which can be seen when hiking the Fossil Trail. They contain a variety of marine fossils, such as mollusks, brachipods, clams and even trilobites, but it is the presence of crinoids that captures the attention of most visitors. Relatives of starfish and sand dollars, crinoids are known as the “lilies of the sea” that lived on coral reefs and looked more like plants than animals. Based on the 29 species of crinoid fossils found at Oakes Quarry, geologist Albert Dickas has described the area as “a Sea-Lily Paradise.”
Fossil collecting is permitted at Oakes Quarry, but only at designated rock piles that are clearly marked and located next to Fossil Trail. You are allowed to use hammers and other tools here, but remember to wear protective eyewear if you do.
There are two miles of hiking trails at the park. Fossil Trail (and the rock piles) is located less than a half-mile from the main parking lot. If you visit in the summer, you might want to bring an umbrella and drinks. There is little relief from the sun at the fossil collecting area and it can get hot quick.
The park is free to visit and open 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. daily. An added bonus at the park is an abundance of summer and early fall wildflowers, some of which grow on the old coral reefs!
Depiction of a Sulurian Sea and what Ohio might have looked like more than 400 million years ago. (Wikipedia Commons)
Paulding County Community Fossil Garden
10000 Co. Hwy 180, Cecil
The least impressive fossil park on this list is the Paulding County Community Fossil Garden, which is nothing more than a cornfield where a nearby quarry periodically dumps new loads of fossil-bearing rocks on the ground for fossil hunters to dissect.
What the park lacks in fanfare, it makes up for in the uniqueness of its fossils. This is one of the only places in Ohio to find Devonian-age fossils, which is the period that directly follows the Silurian. By this time, the ancient ocean was receding from the state and southwest and southern Ohio was dry land. However, small patches of the ocean still existed in the middle of the state and the extreme northwest corner, including Paulding County. These patches were filled with trilobites, brachiopods, horn corals and many other animals that did not leave fossils.
The land is owned by the LaFarge Quarry, which asks guests to sign a waiver that is located at the entrance to the park. Tools and collecting are allowed and you can take as much as you can carry. To find out when fresh rocks are being delivered, call (419) 399-4861.
The park can be hard to spot. It’s located at the intersection of county roads 180 and 87. It really is located in the middle of nowhere in a wide-open space, so use the restroom before you arrive and bring protection from the sun, and plenty of water and snacks.
There are two small nature preserves located near the fossil park that are worth visiting, Forrest Woods Nature Preserve to the north and Flat Rock Creek Nature Preserve to the south.
Artist interpretation of a Devonian swamp forest scene. Artwork by Eduard Riou from The World Before the Deluge 1872.
Sylvania Fossil Park
5705 Centennial Rd., Sylvania
Probably the most user-friendly fossil park in Ohio is in Sylvania, located just a few miles from the Michigan border and west of Toledo. Along with the Paulding County Community Fossil Garden, Sylvania Fossil Park is considered one of the best places in the world to find Devonian-age fossils.
Hunters will find brachiopods, coral and more than 200 species of ancient life that lived in northwest Ohio about 375 million years ago, including trilobites, which were entering their last 75 million years of existence. Fossil hunting at the park is made easy with covered work stations that contain benches and tables, water containers to rinse off specimens and restrooms and parking nearby.
Like Paulding County, the rocks at this park are brought in special from a nearby quarry, but with more regularity than Paulding County. Many pieces can be broken apart with your hands, which is good because tools are not allowed here. You can bring brushes to clean off fossils, but nothing to break them open.
Fossil hunters may keep anything they find, and can take as much as they want.
Before fossil hunting, stop by the nearby Mayberry Diner for breakfast or lunch. After fossil hunting, explore Nona France Centennial Park, which is located in an old quarry that contains a swimming beach with slides and other fun features, plus a pavilion located right next to the deep quarry.
Cyclists can also enjoy the area. The Sylvan Prairie Park Trail passes right by the fossil park and connects to three other parks in the area. Other designated trails include the University Parks Trail, which is 7-miles one way and leads to Toledo, and the trails at Secor Metropark, which is home to the National Center for Nature Photography.
Trammel Fossil Park
11935 Tramway Dr., Sharonville
Certainly one of the most impressive fossil parks in Ohio is Trammel Fossil Park, located just north of Cincinnati in an otherwise industrial area. From a ridge that overlooks one of the best views of the southern Miami Valley, fossil hunters can dig through 10 million years of Ordovician-age rocks to find a treasure trove of ancient fossils, including an abundance of bryozoans and brachiopods.
The park contains educational kiosks that tell the geological history of the region and explain the various layers of rock and fossil varieties found in the park. Coinciding signage on the hillside marks the different layers of the Ordovician period, allowing fossil hunters to target specific types of fossils in the timeline. The ridge is very large, with plenty of space for everyone to enjoy.
Hand tools are allowed at this park and it is recommended to visit after a recent rain, when fresh fossils wash out of the limestone walls. It is open daily from dawn to dusk.
Nearby is the Heritage Village Museum at Sharon Woods, and about seven miles to the east is the Loveland Castle, among so many other fun attractions in this part of Ohio.