24 Jun Fossil Hunting in Maryland: Be a Paleontologist for a Day!
Growing up, I visited Maryland’s Calvert County beaches just one time each summer. My great-Uncle Tip and great-Aunt Ann would host dozens of guests to celebrate summer in a most traditional Maryland way: a crab feast!
It was so long ago that my memories are hazy. Images float to mind, of picnic tables draped with red and white checkered plastic tablecloths, and of people sitting for hours– chatting and picking away at heaps of steaming crabs sprinkled Old Bay, Maryland’s signature spice.
The crabs were a special treat in itself, but I also remember that after eating my fill, I’d grab my mom’s hand and eagerly walk to the water. Because even more fun than cracking crab claws and licking Old Bay off my fingertips was what followed after the crabs were gone.
It may be hard to believe, but this part of Maryland is home to some of the best fossil hunting on the East Coast. Millions of years ago during the Miocene period, sharks –including massive Megalodons– swam in the water. As they died and sunk to the bottom of what now is the Chesapeake Bay, over time their bodies compressed into the rocky cliffs that now make up the Calvert Cliffs.
Today, as the cliffs gradually erode away, paleontological treasures from over 600 species of fossils dating up to 20 million years old have been found in the Calvert Cliffs. Everything from shark’s teeth from many species of sharks, plus whale and seal vertebrae, crocodile teeth, stone crab claws, and many more wash up on the shore for patient hunters to find.
And patient is the key word. Just because the cliffs are full of them doesn’t mean that it’s easy hunting for fossils.
So, on those special Crab Feast days, my mom and I would spend hours patiently walking along the water looking for shark’s teeth, and were often rewarded with our fair share of the smooth, charcoal grey fossils.***
Years passed and as my great-Aunt and Uncle got older the annual tradition ceased. But I always remembered the fossil hunting… almost like a fleeting dream.
Fast forward 25 years to Spring 2013.
On one of my recent #TravelLocal adventures, I journeyed to the waterfront retreat of Solomons, Maryland. Upon first booking the trip, I didn’t realize that two nature parks flanking Calvert Cliffs were close enough to be part of my Solomons weekend itinerary. But sure enough, they were, and I made sure to make time to visit both Calvert Cliffs State Park and Flag Ponds Nature Park during my stay, eager to recapture the memories of my childhood.
Here are my impressions on both.
Calvert Cliffs State Park
Open daily, year-round, sunrise to sunset. $5/ car for MD residents, $7/car for everyone else. Pets are allowed.
The reality is that the beach at Calvert Cliffs State Park is small. Like really, incredibly, teeny-tiny, shockingly small. And it takes a nearly 2-mile hike just to get to the beach to start looking for fossils. But if you arrive early, you’ll have some of the best chances to find fossils on this really, incredibly, teeny-tiny, shockingly small beach, because the cliffs are literally right next to it. This is the first place the fossils fall before being swept away to other beaches with the tide.
And, there’s more to do at Calvert Cliffs State Park than fossil hunting. The nearly 2-mile hike to the beach is part of a number of wooded nature trails which take visitors through marsh and woodlands littered with wildlife and other flora. There’s also a picnic area with grills and wooden tables and a fishing pond.
Flag Ponds Nature Preserve
Open daily, year-round. Hours vary per season. $4/ car for Calvert Country residents, $6/car for everyone else. Pets are allowed.
Flag Ponds has a few very short nature paths, a fishing pier and some picnic spots with grills. But here, the wide beach with gently lapping water is the true star! The beach is the perfect place to spend the afternoon, particularly if you are bringing kids. (And the fact that it’s only a simple 1 hour and 15 minute drive away from downtown DC makes it one of the closest lay-out beaches around.) Note that here there’s a brief hike to the beach from the parking lot– around 1/4 to 1/2 mile each way.
The only downside is that Flag Ponds is a little farther away from the Calvert Cliffs, which means that the fossils are a bit harder to come by. But if you come early and comb where the waves break, you can find the same caliber of fossils like shark’s teeth, whale vertebrae, sand dollars and scallop shells.
Or, you could be like me and find the tip of a fossilized stone crab claw. Even though I didn’t find any shark’s teeth this time, it was just as much fun searching as I remember.
***NOTE: It is perfectly legal to take the fossils that have washed up on the beaches at Calvert Cliffs State Park and Flag Ponds State Park. But digging away at the cliffs are absolutely not allowed. The eroding cliffs can be very dangerous, so be sure to respect the warnings and the roped off areas and stick to searching on the beaches.