Discover Ohio’s most fertile fossil field
It’s the middle of August, and I’m in the middle of a field, sun blazing overhead, sweat dripping down my back.
“Let’s pretend we’re paleontologists at the Mammoth Site in South Dakota,” I say to Rosie and Max, who are with me at Caesar Creek State Park in Waynesville, Ohio, an hour southwest of Columbus.
Although we’re far from South Dakota, where the kids once watched paleontologists delicately unearth woolly mammoth fossils at an excavation site, the game doesn’t seem too far-fetched.
We find fossil after fossil at the Caesar Creek Spillway, a swath of land that spans several football fields and contains some of the best opportunities for fossil finding in Ohio.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers created the spillway and adjacent Caesar Creek Lake in the early 1970s to control flooding in the area. Doing so unveiled a layer of fossils that date back hundreds of thousands of years when Ohio was under water and near the equator.
Many fossils here resemble shells and coral, remnants of creatures that lived long ago on a large continent called Laurentia. Over time, specimens became sandwiched between layers of earth and formed fossils.
The spillway is open to explore any time of the year, but you’ll need to obtain a free permit first if you’d like to search for fossils. You do so at the Caesar Creek Lake Visitor Center, just north of the spillway. There, ask for a fossil-hunting permit and a copy of the “Common Fossils of Caesar Creek Lake” pamphlet.
An employee will go over the ground rules, which basically are not to use any tools to dig for fossils or to break them apart, and not to take any fossils home that are larger than your fist.
We see signs reminding us not to climb on rock embankments. They’re steep, and the rocks are slippery and sharp. We amble through the open field, eyes fixed on the ground. I pick up a rock that resembles a cone. It’s smooth and pointy. I hand it to Max, who adds it to a collection in his pocket.
We grow thirsty as we hang out in the sun. We head to the nearby town of Waynesville. It’s one of the more picturesque small towns you’ll encounter in the Buckeye State, with rows of beautiful old homes, some of them set up as businesses including antique stores, eateries and candy shops. It’s also home of the Ohio Sauerkraut Festival, held annually on the second weekend in October.
We enjoy lunch at the Hammel House, a bed and breakfast that dates to 1799 and happens to be one of the most haunted buildings in Ohio. We learn that President Martin Van Buren and Charles Dickens have stayed here. We also learn it’s a pet-friendly establishment, which is perfect because we’ve brought along my brother’s dog, Biscuit. (If you have a dog, also check out the Pretty Pooch Boutique, which offers a large selection of cute dog outfits.)
Caesar Creek State Park is located at 8570 E. State Route 73, Waynesville, Ohio. Learn more.
The Caesar Creek Lake Visitor Center is located at 4020 N. Clarksville Rd., Waynesville, Ohio. Hours are 8 a.m.-4 p.m., Monday-Friday; and 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday.