Backcountry Journal: Fossil Hunting in Utah’s High Desert
The high desert of western Utah looks the way you’d expect it to: dry, rugged, and desolate. But it hasn’t always been that way; 500 million years ago this place looked like the Bahamas, covered in a warm, shallow sea.
Trilobites, distant ancestors of crabs and lobsters, crawled around on the reefs in this sea, and their hard shells made them prime candidates for fossilization. One of the best spots in the world for hunting trilobite fossils can be found in the foothills of Utah’s House Mountain Range, embedded in a layer of limestone called the Wheeler Shale formation.
To augment our chances for a successful dig, we teamed up with Cory D., a pro fossil hunter and a seasonal Backcountry.com Gearhead. In the winter months, Cory attends classes and works part-time helping customers find the perfect gear for their next adventure. In the summer months, Cory does field work as a paleontologist, excavating dinosaur bones at remote dig sites, places so isolated that supplies often have to be dropped by helicopter.
As for the dig site, we met up with the friendly folks at U-Dig Fossils, a remote private quarry 50 miles west of Delta, Utah. For a reasonable fee, they’ll set you up with rock hammers, buckets, and show you the best places to dig. The best part is that you keep all the trilobites you find, and after a few hours of effort, you’re almost guaranteed to unearth some excellent specimens. Not only is the House Range great for trilobite hunting, there are sites nearby for rock hounding geodes and topaz crystals, if you’re feeling really adventurous.
Your success at finding trilobites in the U-Dig quarry depends on how many rocks you can split open, and it’s hard work. The soft gray shale consists of many horizontal layers, piled up like stacks of pancakes. It’s because of this layered structure that finding the trilobites is possible at all. The first step is to find a big chunk of shale, about the size of a car tire. Sometimes you have to use a pry bar to dislodge a piece from the quarry wall. Then you grab your rock hammer and turn the rock on its side so you can see all the layers. When you strike the layers just right, the block will split open like a book. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a trilobite on the freshly exposed slab of rock, where it’s been sandwiched between the layers for millions of years. This is the fun part of hunting trilobites; every rock you split open holds the potential for discovery.
With the help of Cory’s keen eye and a bit of luck, we unearthed some remarkable trilobite specimens. It really is a wondrous thing to hold a 500-million-year-old creature in the palm of your hand. When these trilobites were crawling around in the sea, the only life form to inhabit dry land was bacteria living in the soil crust. The first dinosaurs didn’t show up to the party for another 250 million years, making a trilobite twice the age of any Tyrannosaurus Rex. These fossils are a treasure from the dawn of time, and the search for them will take you out into the wild, far from the beaten path.
The U-Dig Fossil Quarry is located 50 miles west of Delta, Utah. The last 20 miles are on a well-maintained gravel road. More information on rates, hours of operation, and trilobite digging in general can be found on the U-Dig website.
There are no designated campsites at U-Dig, but the surrounding area is BLM-managed, and there are plenty of nice spots nearby. We found absolutely stunning camping options along a sheer cliffside at the foot of Swasey Peak. If you continue about three miles up Death Canyon Road (don’t be intimidated) past the U-Dig Quarry site, you’ll arrive at a large meadow with a fork in the road. With a high-clearance vehicle you can access the cliffs by heading south at the fork. We enjoyed an incredible sunset and the wind helped to disperse the bugs that sometimes plague this zone. The real boon of this location is its remoteness; the stargazing in the West Desert is incredible.
With all that time spent wandering deserts and living in the wild, Cory knows a thing or two about the importance of good gear; we’ve featured some of her favorite items below.
Vasque Sundowner GTX Boot
Cory is well aware that the first rule of backcountry living is taking care of your feet; she often encounters craggy terrain and needs sturdy, durable boots to get her through long days out at the dig site. With the Vasque Sundowner GTX Boot she gets the support and protection she needs without having to sacrifice a bit of classic style. The mid-ankle height provides stability on rugged terrain and the burly leather uppers will withstand years of abuse. When a late afternoon thunderstorm rolls through or a stream crossing is in order, the waterproof breathable Gore-Tex lining keeps her feet dry and comfortable.
Garmin Oregon 650t GPS
Discovering dinosaur bones and fossils can be more challenging than finding a needle in a haystack. For Cory, that often means wandering far from trails and roads. She relies on the Garmin Oregon 650t GPS not only to help her find her way back to camp, but to help her find her way back to whatever it is she discovered earlier. The 650t comes pre-loaded with US topo maps and has a three-inch color screen that’s easy to see in sunny conditions. But Cory’s favorite thing about this GPS is the integrated eight-megapixel camera that geostamps the exact location of every picture taken. That way, when Cory sees something of interest, all she has to do is snap a picture and she’ll have the information she needs to find her way back to the exact spot.
Will Leather Goods Canvas Messenger Bag
Handcrafted with the finest fabrics and vegetable-tanned leather in Eugene, Oregon, a Will Leather Goods piece is made to withstand the test of time. Which is exactly why we outfitted Cory with the durable Wax Coated Canvas Shoulder Messenger Bag. Cory spends most of her digs coated in dirt and dust and needs a reliable satchel to tote her essentials to and from sites. The waxed canvas and tanned leather will take on character, improving with age, and the steadfast construction supports Will Leather Goods’ 100% lifetime guarantee.
Icebreaker Sphere Stripe Low Crew
Cory spends her fair share of time working and hiking under the blistering desert sun, so Icebreaker is one of her favorite picks for keeping cool in the heat. The Icebreaker Sphere Stripe Low Crew features a new blend of superfine, lightweight merino wool and Tencel fabrics. This combination of fibers is itch-free and is very effective in helping your body keep cool in high temperatures. Merino’s natural ability to breathe, wick moisture, and resist odor make it ideal for multi-day use in hot climates.
KÜHL Splash Roll-Up Pant
A durable pant that provides protection from the sun and prickly desert plants is an essential on Cory’s packing list for digs. We outfitted her with the KÜHL Splash Roll-Up Pant, a number that brings a flattering silhouette with added versatility. The lightweight, quick-drying stretch fabric has a smooth, cottony feel while the snaps on the lower calf allow you to roll the cuffs up for added ventilation or if you need to cross a stream while hiking.
Brixton Tiller Hat
Treasure hunter meets suave city slicker meets safari maven in the classy Tiller Hat by Brixton. When the sun is beating down, Cory relies on the Tiller’s wide brim to keep her face, eyes, and neck shaded from the rays. The felt construction lends a classic look and feel with ample durability for many days of desert wandering. If high winds blow through, Cory uses the long leather tie to secure the hat under her chin; the leather tie also allows her to toss the hat back onto her neck when she needs to take a closer look at a bit of stone or fossil.
Pistil Avery Infinity Scarf
When you’re miles and miles from civilization, like Cory often is, a scarf is a good thing to have around. Made from breezy cotton, the Pistil Avery Scarf offers a lot more functionality than meets the eye: You could cover your mouth and nose during a sandstorm, dab sweat from your brow, wipe dust from a fossil, and maybe even bandage up a wound should you take a tumble. Not to mention, it adds great style to any outfit, be it in the desert or downtown.