Kids go wild for all things prehistoric. And whether it’s pottering down to Charmouth in Dorset with a little hammer and a raincoat, or heading off on a two-week camping adventure in the USA to look for dinosaur remnants, fossiking is rewarding and fun and can form the basis of a fantastic family holiday.
It’s surprisingly easy to find fossils: all you need is the right location, a bit of equipment, lots of enthusiasm, and a little luck. For an introduction to fossil hunting, check out Discovering Fossils (discoveringfossils.co.uk). Rockwatch (rockwatch.org.uk), the club for young geologists, also has a number of fossil-collecting activities on offer.
For self-catering accommodation handy for the following sites, see our partners Cottages4you.
Lyme Regis and Charmouth, Dorset
The beaches along the beautiful UNESCO World Heritage site of the Jurassic Coast (extending into east Devon) are some of the best in the country for finding fossils, which are constantly brought down to the beaches by streams running through the rocks. Dinosaurland in lovely Lyme Regis is a good place to find out what type of fossil you might find (10 years ago, a family found the whole dinosaur skeleton that’s on display here). Late April also sees the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival, with heaps of great events for families, while inland Dorchester has a superb Dinosaur Museum. See also our feature on Fossil-hunting on the Jurassic Coast.
Isle of Wight
This island off the south coast is one of the best places in the world for fossil-hunters and dinosaur enthusiasts, whether you explore independently or join a family fossil-hunting day. Dinosaur Isle leads fossil hunts all over the island and also have a rather eye-catching display of dinosaurs at their centre. Compton Beach is reputedly the best place on island for fossicking for fossils, and there are dinosaur footprints to be found in the rocks – take any find back to the Dinosaur Farm Museum, where staff will help with identification. A great way to tour the fossil-filled beaches is by vintage campervan (isleofwightcampers.co.uk).
Mortimer Forest, Shropshire
It’s not only the beaches and cliffs of the UK that house fossils – if you know where to look, you can find them in quarries, woods and escarpments, or on building sites. A walk through Mortimer Forest near the Norman town of Ludlow may well reveal some interesting fossils and you might come back with a beautiful piece of fossilised coral – several good places for looking have been clearly marked.
The Field Studies Council’s Family Fossiking Trips along the Pembrokeshire coast are lead by experienced geology tutors who aim to give kids an introduction to the art of fossicking for fossils, as well as teaching them something of the creatures whose remains they are holding.
Southerndown Beach, Glamorgan, Wales
This stunning beach close to Bridgend with its great rockpools and golden sand has ammonites in rock-shale piles, just waiting to be found. It’s a great place so spend a few days swimming and rushing around with buckets looking for fossilised sea creatures.
Filey, North Yorkshire
The peaceful, unspoilt stretch of golden sand between Speeton and Filey Brigg is a good spot to look for fossils in the cliff and the long foreshore that seems to stretch out for ever at low tide. Nearby Filey Bird Garden and Animal Park is another good spot for nature-lovers.
City of London Cemetery, UCL, London
Gravestones are a rich source of fossilised limestone, so historic graveyards or cemeteries such as the 19th-century City of London Cemetery are good places for fossicking for fossils and a sure way to intrigue and inspire your children to look a little closer at things.
Other good places for an urban fossil hunt are the platform at Paddington Station, London, Manchester Central Library, and Cardiff University’s main building (especially the floor), while Cambridge University seems to have been made almost entirely from fossils! Cathedrals and churches are also excellent places to spy ancient creatures, especially those clad in Portland marble.
Natural History Museum, London
The NHM has one of the greatest collections of dinosaur bones and fossils in the world; visit the interactive gallery, go on a trail or tour, or book on one of the hugely popular Dino Snores, where children 8-11 camp overnight in the shadow of a huge Diplidocus after an evening of torch-lit dinosaur-hunting, live animal shows and fossil-making.
Montana Dinosaur Trail
The western state of Montana is the place for the ultimate dinosaur holiday: hire a car, pick up a ‘Prehistoric Passport’ and set out, visiting museums, the site where the first T-Rex was found, and recent dig sites, collecting dino icons at each site to receive a certificate, a gold seal and your own Montana dino T-shirt. The highlight of the Trail is the Two Medicine Dinosaur Centre, with the world’s longest dinosaur skeleton, the first baby dinosaur ever found, and several recently discovered species, plus research programs and digs for the public, where you can learn the basics of palaeontology and fossicking for fossils.
Idaho Fossil Bowl, Clarkia, Idaho
At this spot in the northwestern USA, you stay virtually on site and go out with the owner’s children, who will show you the best place to dig and also lend you equipment. There aren’t any dinosaurs here, but there are plenty of fish, leaf and flower fossils, and everyone seems to leave with bags full of fascinating remnants of the past.
Family Dinosaur Discovery, Colorado
This week-long summer-holiday expedition run by the Smithsonian takes place alongside the Colorado River, where some of the most famous dinosaur finds have been made. Led by a famous palaeontologist, it allows kids 8+ to work alongside scientists in an active dig and in an alpine forest. They’ll learn how to prospect, what to look for, how to prepare fossils and how to cast them in an on-site lab. You can also raft along the river, hike in the mountains, or ride in the valleys. Accommodation is in a nearby Hilton hotel. Participants have to become Smithsonian members.
Florida Fossil Trips, Florida
When you’ve had your fill of meeting Mickey Mouse and being thrown around on a rollercoaster, try hunting for mastadon bones, the tusks of ancient mammoths or the fossilised teeth of ancient sharks in a kayak. Fossil Expeditions runs day tours to the Peace River and nearby creeks looking for a vast assortment of bones and teeth left behind after the Ice Age. Children of all ages are welcome as the tours are not strenuous.
Dinosaur Provincial Park and EnCana Badlands Science Camp, Alberta
The spectacular UNESCO World Heritage listed Dinosaur Provincial Park is one of the world’s most important fossil sites for dinosaurs from the Age of Reptiles, with 35 separate species of dinosaur discovered here as well as numerous other fossils. Stay in a nearby lodge and hike through Jasper National Park looking for birds and deer, before visiting the field centre to join a local tour of the main dinosaur sites.
The EnCana Camp in the middle of Alberta is home to a rich collection of dinosaur finds. Kids stay in teepees and spend their days fossicking for fossils, working with the nearby Royal Tyrrell Museum on their dinosaur collection, and going on field trips. Evenings are spent swimming, playing music and going on treasure hunts. The Junior Camp is for ages 9-11, Senior for ages 12-15, with courses last for 6 days in summer.