Located in the city of Fossil, an easily accessible digging site is open to the public for a small donation fee. The hillside just behind the baseball field at the Wheeler High School is a productive fossil bed.
The Wheeler High School fossil bed as well as other John Day Formation fossils were formed over 30 million years ago. At that time there was a moist temperate climate here. The prehistoric lake was surrounded by lush deciduous forest. During the formation of the Cascade Mountains, volcanic ash and silt along with leaves, needles, fish, salamanders, and insects were washed into the lake. Over millions of years, the sediments had been fossilized, preserving the ancient organic debris.
Over 30 different species of plants have been found here including ones somewhat similar to present-day alder, maple, sequoia, oak, ash trees, rose, and hawthorn. Some extinct species can be found as well. The Cascades formation blocked most precipitation, creating a rain-shadow effect. As a result, the climate east of the Cascade Mountains becomes semi-arid. Maple and pine trees are only adapted to the dry conditions and today can be found in this area.
The fossil bed was exposed during the Wheeler High School constructions in 1949. Since access to the bed is allowed to the public. Almost every rock on the hillside behind the school contains a leaf impression, but a little bit of digging is needed to exposed shale. Fossilized leaves are hidden inside of the soft rock. Rarely, collectors can find insects, salamanders, seeds, and flowers.
Open the shale piece by splitting the layers with a chisel or a durable knife, lightly tapping it with a hammer. Hopefully, a whole ancient leaf will be revealed.
There are some tools available on the site to use, but it is suggested to bring your own including a rock pick hammer, trowel, and chisel.
Fossils Bed in Fossil | General Description
Managed: Wheeler High School
Rocks & Minerals: Fossils
Accommodations: In the town
Distance from the parking: Short
Road access: Any passenger vehicle
Day-use fees: Yes
Popularity: Low to moderate
Elevation: 2,700 ft (823 m)
Fossils bed in Fossil is located:
- 90 miles southeast of The Dalles
- 109 miles northeast of Bend
- 173 miles southeast of Portland.