Driftless Drifting- The Hunt for Fossils

By Anthony Larson –

It all started with a Facebook post from my friend Bob:
“Heading to Wyalusing tomorrow and taking worms and poles. Lived nearby for 15 years and have never stopped in to see it. Maybe Pikes Peak and McGregor, IA too. We also know a fossil spot on the way back. We have an extra seat or two.”
To know me, is to know that I’m never one to turn down an adventure – especially with one of this magnitude. This intrigued me that I’ve never been to Wyalusing, or Pike’s Peak, but I’ve never looked for fossils before either. Sure, fishing sounded good-n-all, but bumming with Bob and his son Hunter always presents a good time in itself.

I arrived at Bob’s house and the adventure began.

In the excitement of the adventure, we forgot to look up what state parks were open or closed due to the Covid-19 ‘safe in place’ order. Of course, once we got to Wyalusing park, we discovered it was closed. Strike One

Heartbreak ensued and led us to a virtual tour of the park (https://dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/wyalusing/) and we moved on. After we got over from the drama of the closed park, we toured the area, and looked for some new public access fishing locations. The river was still high and many places weren’t accessible.
Strike Two

The conversation turned quickly to fossil hunting. To my surprise, Bob was very knowledgeable on the topic. As we drove around Bob pointed out things that, as a lifelong driftless drifter, have taken for granted.   Things like the different layers of sediment and how they represent different timelines of when the driftless was formed.

It wasn’t too long into our drive where Bob found a wash out just off the road. Eagerly, Bob and Hunter jumped out of the truck and started hunting.  Within minutes, Hunter produced a rock (to me) that contained many shells embedded into it- a rock I walked by probably a dozen times.

Bob explained to me “Once you know what you’re looking for, you kinda get hooked”. And he was right. I dialed my eyes into looking at each rock, then it happened- I found one! It was small, about the size of the palm of my hand, and contained a small brown object buried in a tan piece of shale. Then, I found another, one a little bigger that contained 5 or more distinct shells varying in shapes and sizes.

Hunting for fossils is a family fun activity that requires little skill and equipment. All one has to do is look. Essentially, fossils are everywhere here in the driftless!

What is a fossil?

For those living under a rock (pun intended), the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey Division of University of Wisconsin describe fossils as the preserved remains of deceased animals in rock. Those found throughout Wisconsin formed from creatures that lived in the warm, shallow seas that once covered the state”.

How to find fossils:

To find fossils, simply go where their soil is overturned and rocks are exposed. Creek beds, old quarries, even the public access hiking bluffs all present the potential of finding fossils. Walking about, inspecting rocks for odd shapes embedded inside is a great family fun activity.
Getting started, there are several Facebook groups dedicated to driftless fossil hunting, as well as numerous websites available:


If you go

If you do find yourself going on a fossil hunt, there are some things to keep in mind: If you’re choosing state parks, make sure to check the park is open. Due to social distancing, states and communities may close some parks; don’t trespass, make sure you check with proper owners or that the property you’re on is public access. I utilize the phone app Onyx Hunt to map my adventures, though there are other apps and plat maps that can be useful in finding public spaces to go; most importantly, be safe!