Located in Hamburg, NY, about 15 minutes from downtown Buffalo is the 54-acre Nature Reserve of Penn Dixie.
This unusual park is best known as a place where you can go to dig up your own fossils and take home whatever you find!
We took our troop of five little ones (ages 11 months to 8 years), along with a few other relatives, to Penn Dixie in early October, which, by the way, is an ideal time of the year to go.
It was a great hit for everyone, young and old alike.
Here’s what you can expect at Penn Dixie
We pulled into the parking lot, and made our first order of business taking care of business at the port-a-potties located near the gate.
A couple thoughts about this:
- It would be really nice to have actual facilities, especially for toddlers who are freaked out by the idea of a port-a-potty. But I get it, it’s a relatively low-budget operation.
- The location of the port-a-potties could be more conveniently located, so you don’t have to trek across the parking lot in the opposite direction of the welcome pavilion, when you’re trying to get to your scheduled tour on time.
My kids described the look and feel of the site as a grey desert, which I thought was fairly apt. It’s a barren flat of shale debris with “dunes” of shale piles a quarter mile in the distance.
Not super inviting at first arrival, but fascinating all the same, with the lure of fossils to be found!
We packed the baby in the stroller with all our other gear (water, jackets, snacks, etc.).
Then we checked in at the welcome pavilion (we had made an online reservation for a tour), where we were given wrist tags, fossil ID cards, spades, and buckets.
We barely squeaked into our tour group, which was already heading up the path. If it’s your first visit, you definitely need to make sure to hop in with a tour, as it’s super informative.
Our tour guide was great – he was funny, knowledgeable, and great with kids, and above all, he helped us know what to look for and where.
After we had made it with our tour group to the current digging location, our tour guide made sure everyone had made a good start with finding and identifying a few fossils before leaving us to explore and wander on our own.
He delineated a few areas not to go – namely anywhere with standing water, as those locations are frog and bird habitats that should not be disturbed.
Other than that, visitors on site are free to walk, hike, or dig just about anywhere.
This was a great invitation to the kids, who headed straight for the “dunes” as they called them, or piles of shale rock, perfect for climbing, exploring, and of course, digging.
The 2-year-old repeatedly filled his bucket, dumped it out, then refilled it again. He happily sat in one spot for about a half hour just digging with his spade and bucket.
The 4-year-old, 6-year-old, and 8-year-old all had excellent fossil-locating success. Within a minute of first looking around, they had each found their first fossil. Buckets got filled up with nice specimens, and the freedom to roam and explore was enjoyed immensely.
The 11-month-old was possibly the only one who didn’t fully appreciate the experience, though she did toddle around a bit on the loose shale and tried to taste it, of course. Fossils are not for eating, baby!
The experience held everyone’s attention well for over 3 hours, and even when mom and dad were wearing out and ready to hit the road, the kids were reluctant to leave the fossil search fun.
I’m sure it helped that the weather was absolutely spectacular, with warm sun, but just a bit of chill breeze in the October air to keep everyone from getting too warm.
I could see how the blazing sun on a summer afternoon would make it harder to stay out in the shadeless desert of shale all day.
What fossils can you find at Penn Dixie?
Perhaps you’re wondering whether you will be able to find any fossils at Penn Dixie. Yes! You are almost guaranteed to find fossils. In fact, you’ll be hard-pressed not to find any fossils there.
If you were hoping to find a dinosaur bone or two, you’ll have to readjust your expectations because you simply won’t find any there. As our tour guide explained, the layer that you’re digging in at the Penn Dixie site vastly predates the age of the dinosaurs.
So if you’re not digging up T-rex bones, what kind of fossils will you find at Penn Dixie?
The most well-known and sought-after fossil specimen at Penn Dixie is the trilobite. These are extinct arthropods that were plentiful in the shallow ocean that once covered this part of New York State. While a little bit harder to spot, we were able to collect a few of these on our outing.
The most easy-to-find fossils at Penn Dixie are brachiopods, which look like your standard scallop-shaped shell. These seem like they’re in almost every rock you pick up. Some even still have the shiny layer from its previous life as a shell.
The other fossil we found a lot of were the horn corals. These are also plentiful, and come in various sizes, from pinky-nail sized up to index finger long ones. I’m sure bigger have been found there, but that’s what we came home with.
You may also find fossils of bivalves (clams), gastropods (snails), bryozoans (moss animals), crustaceans (lobsters and crabs), and more, but these are less plentiful than the horn corals, brachiopods, and trilobites.
We each came home with fossils a-plenty in those last three categories.
Are trilobites hard to find?
The trilobites at Penn Dixie are somewhat rarer than, say, the brachiopods or the horn corals. But each of us found several specimens of a trilobite fossil. None of the trilobite fossils we found were what I would call particularly clear or whole, but definitely recognizable.
If we had the skill or expertise to use more advanced tools, it’s possible we could dig out the trilobite fossils a bit more from the rocks we brought home, to end up with a more clearly defined, complete fossil. As it is, most of the trilobite fossils we found are still mostly buried in layers of shale rock.
But if you spend a bit of time out digging and looking, it’s not that hard to find trilobite fossils at Penn Dixie. Look for the tell-tale squiggly black lines in the gray shale rock.
How old are the fossils at Penn Dixie?
The Penn Dixie site is located in what used to be a quarry. The top layers of rock were removed, leaving behind a shale layer that is made up of sediment left over from the shallow ocean that once covered NY State and most of the eastern US.
This undersea environment was thriving around 380 million years ago in what is known as the Devonian Period.
This was long before the age of the dinosaurs, which came about 248 million years ago, in what is known as the Mesozoic era.
Were there dinosaurs in NY State?
Dinosaur fossils have not been found in New York state, but that doesn’t mean there were no dinosaurs here.
In fact, fossilized dinosaur footprints from the Early Jurassic period, discovered at the Roseland Quarry in Essex County, New Jersey, and at Dinosaur State Park near Rocky Hill, Connecticut, would suggest the presence of dinosaurs in our general area.
So even though no dinosaur fossils have been unearthed in New York State yet, it’s pretty much assured that they were here.
Penn Dixie – what to bring
If you’re headed out for an excursion to Penn Dixie, being prepared will help you have the best experience possible. Here are some things you should bring on your outing:
Keep the sun out of your eyes (and the bugs, too) with a brimmed hat.
There is little to no shade throughout the Penn Dixie site, so even on a cloudy day it’s possible to get sunburned after a few hours out digging.
Bring some water bottles for you and the kids, especially if it’s a hot day. Bring an extra to wash off hands when you’re done, as there are no running water facilities on site.
Pack a lunch!
Or at least bring snacks for the kids. Pavilions located throughout the park have picnic tables, so a picnic lunch is a no-brainer.
We packed a sandwich lunch for the family, and it made the day just right to fuel up the kids just before spending a few hours exploring and digging away. Snacks on the ride home kept everyone happy till dinner time.
Comfortable walking shoes and clothing
You can end up doing quite a bit of walking around in your search for fossils, so comfortable shoes, and a breathable outfit will give you staying power.
A stool or chair
If you plan to spend several hours digging for fossils, a stool or chair could be nice to have with you. However, if you plan to roam quite a bit (and of course with young kids, you will!) the chair could just end up being extra baggage. The gravely ground is just fine for sitting on too.
If you’ve got a baby or a tot in tow, a stroller is great. There is a paved path leading part of the way into the park, but it doesn’t get you that far.
The shale rock surface is not super smooth, and much of the ground is covered in hills and pits, but there’s enough smooth ground that it’s possible to navigate a stroller.
Our double stroller was a perfect place for naptime for the baby, not to mention somewhere to load all the inevitable stuff that goes along with a bunch of kids.
Penn Dixie provides a basic trowel and a bucket to take along on your dig. If you want your own, that’s fine too. If you want to bring more advanced tools like hammers, chisels, safety goggles, etc., they may help you find bigger or better fossils.
Boxes and tissue paper
After your day of digging, you’ve got a bucket full of awesome fossils. What now? They will supply you with a souvenir bag at the end of your trip, but while nice, there are several downsides to the bag.
First, it’s too small. My 4-year-old had enough fossils to fill up two bags.
Second, the fossils get banged around a broken in a fabric bag.
Next time we go, I plan to have each kid bring a shoe-box-type box with tissue paper to wrap and protect the fossils they collect. They can then pack them straight in the box from the bucket without breaking anything on the ride home.
Penn Dixie tickets
I recommend making a reservation and ordering your tickets online ahead of time. You can show up at the gate and pay on-site, but you might have to wait around for the next available tour time if there are lots of other visitors.
You can order Penn Dixie tickets on their website. The cost is $14 per adult and $11 per child (3-17). Seniors, military, and students are given a discounted rate of $13 per person with a valid ID.
Look for Groupon deals or other coupons for special pricing or seasonal special events and rates. We happened to go on Columbus Day when they were offering free admission.
Penn Dixie is open daily throughout the summer, and weekends only through the fall. It is closed to non-members throughout the winter. Members can access the grounds even when it is closed to the public.