Fossil, Oregon is appropriately named. Built on, across, and around a suspected fault zone, potential fossil excavation areas can be found next to and around the normally trappings of a small town.
Behind the high school, beneath the football field, next to the garbage dump, the fairgrounds, and so on, it is likely that many potential areas where fossils can be found haven’t even yet been explored.
As a hobbyist, the presence of these fossil beds basically right in town presents a unique opportunity for everyone to play paleontologist for a few hours.
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What You Can Expect When Fossil Hunting Wheeler High School Fossil Beds
Finding the Site (Can Be a Little Difficult)
When you hear about the fossil excavation areas in Fossil, you might drive in expecting something built up, organized, with buildings and walls, and staff.
But when you drive up, what you’ll find in the small town, surrounded by draw brown bills, dotted with modest homes, and signs pointing you at a brown hill with a simple wire fence going around it.
You might not even see the signs to the fossil bed, and instead, you’ll just follow the prominent signs to the high school and then park as close as allowed to the collecting area behind the high school.
Once you arrive, there isn’t much in the way of organization, and you are really left to your own devices to figure things out. During some parts of the year, there might be a volunteer near the entrance fence to help get you sorted. It is there that you’ll pay your entrance fee (that is on the honor system when the volunteer is not present).
The fee is $5 for individuals, $15 for families of four, and every child after that is $3 (cash only).
The volunteer may also help you understand what to look for, and how to get started. If you are on your own, you’ll pretty much just hike up the hill until you find a place that you want to start digging and sorting through.
The site does usually have some tools you can use for free, but other visitors have reported that the tools are not always in good shape (meaning broken).
Best Time to Fossil Hunt at Wheeler High School Fossil Beds
Fossil, Oregon can he harsh weather wise.
The landscape is pretty exposed (few trees).
In the winter, it can be very wet, cold, and windy. In the summer, it can be extremely hot and dry.
If you are headed out there during the fall, winter, or spring, in general it is best to watch the weather and look for a mild day.
If you are headed out there during the summer, we highly recommend getting there early in the day as the sun gets very strong around mid-day and the temperatures climb up into the upper 90s to 100s.
There is no shade, and no real services or places nearby where you can go to take a break.
The biggest complaints you will hear about this site in the summer is that it is very hot.
Please note: there is no bathroom on the site.
If you are drinking a lot of water to combat the heat, you might end up with the problem of having drunk too much water without any place to relieve yourself.
What You can Expect to Find
This particular fossil bed was a shallow lake 33 million years ago, a time when the area we know as Oregon was a much wetter place than it is today.
This particular fossil bed is chock full of plant fossils.
You’ll be able to find fossils of familiar tree leaves (maple, elm, poplar, oak, hickory and birch), along with some aquatic vertebrates like salamander and small fish.
While people get excited when they hear you can “fossil hunt,” they find themselves disappointed when they arrive and realize that they won’t be digging up dinosaur bones.
In fact, the second most common complaint about the site (aside from the heat) is that the fossils to dig up are the ‘boring’ kind.
And the third complaint we hear is that it was harder than expected to find the fossils.
But here’s the thing: the fossils don’t always look like “fossils.”
We are talking about millions upon millions of years here.
Some of the leaf fossils look like an imprint of a leaf or a pine needle, while other fossils look more like red smudges.
It can take some time to find some really good looking ones that you want to keep.
How to Dig For Fossils At This Site
If you are unfamiliar with digging for plant fossils, here’s what we recommend that you DO NOT do.
Do not just pick a spot and start hammering away at the dirt and pieces of rock.
There are layers of fossils just about everywhere on the site, and if you start hammering away without doing it carefully, odds are that you are smashing fossils without even realizing it.
If you are new the site, what you can do is look for a spot where someone else has done some digging, and just take up where they left off.
If you want to start a new spot, you won’t have to dig down all that far, maybe 6-18 inches at most to his the initial layer of stone that will likely contain your first fossils.
Here’s what we recommend:
- find a spot that has been dug into a bit
- use a smaller/finer tool (like a small pick, chisel, or screwdriver
- carefully dig and pry at the rock layers
- look carefully and frequently as the pieces of rock you pull up and out
You are asked to limit your fossil collection/removal from the site to “two handfuls.”
Equipment You’ll need to bring
As noted above, this site is best for smaller tools. Here’s what we’d have on hand for a few hours at this fossil bed:
- small/medium bucket
- knee pads or a towel to kneel on/sit on
- daypack for your water/snacks
- garden trowel
- flathead screw driver or chisel
- small hammer or geologist pick
We’ve also got a beginner’s fossil hunting tools supply list you can check out if you are more serious about fossil hunting.
How To Get To Wheeler High School Fossil Beds
Wheeler is fairly well off the beaten paths of I-5 and I-84. It is located about 3 hours driving from Portland, and about 2.25 hours from Bend.
If you are coming from Portland, the recommendation is to go out east on I-84 until you can exit and head south on 19 at Arlington. Its about 90 minutes from Portland to Arlington, and another 90 minutes to Wheeler High School on the 19 road.
Worth Making The Trip?
There is quite a bit of debate about whether the fossil beds are worth a trip or not.
Some people arrive and really enjoy the outing, while others seem very underwhelmed.
In my opinion, a trip to this particular fossil bed would be best combined with some other adventure or outing in the general vicinity, such as visiting the Painted Hills. or the John Day Fossil Beds Monument (where there is no fossil collecting allowed).
I think many people would enjoy fossil hunting for an hour or two, but few would enjoy 8 hours or more of it.
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Still looking for other ideas for places to visit in Oregon? We’ve created a general Rockhounding Oregon page with some other suggestions for you to check out.