Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Where To Find Fossils In New Jersey

Did you know that there is a place in New Jersey that is one of the best places in the entire United States to find fossils? Not only that, but it’s amazingly easy to find them. You don’t have to be any kind of expert. You only have to be able to adhere to a few simple rules. I’ll talk about those in a bit.

I first found out about this place through a geology association that I am a member of. My first experience here was on a field trip that was organized by my club. If you have a great interest in fossil collecting, rock hounding, rocks, minerals, and crystals, etc., you might enjoy being part of a geology club as well. Ask around and you will probably be surprised to find out that there are more than one in your area that you can join. Now getting back to my story, the first place that I went to for fossils is pretty well-known to those in fossil collecting circles, as well as here and there on the Internet, and that is Big Brook New Jersey.

Big Brooke is a creek located in Monmouth County, New Jersey (I'll put the address at the end of this post) that runs through a pretty area with lots of shady trees that overhang the cool water. On the day I was there it was very hot, about 96 degrees F (!) so it was the perfect spot to escape from the heat while having a little fun.

Once you get there, there are a few parking spots on the side of the road where you can park, and then you follow a trail into the woods that is short, but muddy in some places if there has been rain in the recent past. Did I say muddy? OK, you heard me right - be forewarned Lol.

Can you spot the animal tracks in the silty mud? Leave a comment below if you think you know what it was that left those tracks.

After following the trail you will soon land up at the creek. You will possibly have to walk down a moderately steep embankment to get down to the water to hunt for the fossils. This embankment - depending on how the weather has been - with all the rain etc., might be muddy and slippery or steep. Be prepared. This is not a place to bring babies or toddlers. Did you hear what I said? Not a place for very small children and babies!

This entrance to the creek wasn't too bad - it was definitely steeper than it looks in the photo but relatively easy to climb up and down

I was actually very surprised on one of my recent trips to Big Brook when while I was in the water looking up to the bank I saw a couple of young mothers with one-year-olds looking down the steep embankment and then turning away. If you have kids, they would probably love this place, but I would say the best ages are probably no younger than six. Once you are down in the water it is very silty and muddy in certain spots and your feet can sink in a little bit, and I could see that scaring a small child, so that’s my word of advice as a mom about that. 

Second, you have to wear shoes in the water. Not flip-flops or sandals, you need sneakers or boots or water shoes with relatively thick soles. I heard that there was plenty of glass in the water and once I got down there, there sure was. I pulled out a few huge 6 to 8 inch sharp shards of glass which I tossed away so someone else would not step on them. This is another thing I was surprised about: The amount of people both kids and adults, who showed up at the bank in bare feet! They thought they were going to go in the water without anything on their feet, and a few of them did. We cautioned the ones we saw about the glass and sharp objects in the water.

It can be super dangerous so you definitely should wear at least an old pair of sneakers in the water. Years ago in college in my Field Biology class and I remember when we visited a muddy marsh - and had to walk in it - we were instructed to take an old pair of sneakers and drill holes in the bottom. That way when we walk in the marsh the mud would not suck our shoes right off of our feet. It worked, but I wouldn’t recommend that for this place due to the difference in the materials on the floor of the creek bed.

Yes, on my very first trip to Big Brook I climbed under and over those trees like Lara Croft but I would not recommend it, it was scary and I won't do it again

So now that you’re there, the first super important rule is that you are only allowed to look for fossils in the water. This means, you may only look for fossils in the water! You may not dig into the banks or walls of the creek, as that speeds the erosion and can be dangerous as well. I’m usually not a very squeamish person, but when I saw lots of exposed roots leading up to precariously angled tall trees, I made sure to say to my kids, let’s look for fossils away from that area! Some of the trees with exposed roots look  very dangerous and you can see by just looking down the creek that there are lots of fallen trees due to erosion, exposed roots, and I’m sure that were helped fall by all of the recent storms. Just a word to the wise, be aware of your surroundings.

OK, so we’ve established getting there, finding and following the trail, getting down the bank, and into the water. Now let’s talk about collecting fossils. You will mostly find prehistoric oysters and seashells and probably a belemnite, but Big Book is most known for the varieties of sharks teeth that have been found in its waters. I will caution you here, finding them is no easy task!

Here's what one rocky river bank looked like. Recognize anything?

There are a few websites where it shows bounties of sharks teeth but they actually can be kind of hard to find. If you bring a screen that has too large a hole, the small teeth will slip right through back into the water. Most of the sharks teeth you will find here are small. We found a few that were 1 1/2” to close to 2 inches but those were rare. We found plenty of ones that were a quarter inch or so. It was still fun finding the small ones!

To find fossils, you need some type of sifter. An old kitchen colander works great, check for those at thrift stores! Scoop gravel from below the water and pour it into your sifter. A simple garden trowel works great for scooping, and is within the size limit of your digging tool which I believe has to be 6 inches or smaller. Your screen or sifter I believe has to be 18 inches or smaller. There is a sign with posted rules and regulations at the parking area which is at the beginning of the trail, so be sure to read all of the rules & regulations first, and hey - tell you kids the rules too.

My setup: colander, trowel, backpack, and plastic bucket to carry it all, sit on, and help keep everything dry

I loved using a metal kitchen colander because it has two wire handles on each side which made it super easy to hold onto. You do not need to go out and buy any kind of certain tools or anything like that. You can make your own sifter at home if you use chicken wire that is 1/4 inch or smaller and attaching it to some type of frame. I did see one or two folks with large clunky wooden frames and they did not look easy to work with! So get yourself a colander and a garden trowel and that’s all you need for digging. As a matter of fact, you aren’t allowed to dig with shovels and especially not into the banks as I noted before, so leave your shovels at home, even the small, kid-sized ones. A plastic utility bucket is handy for carrying your tools, sitting on, and keeping everything dry.

Bring foam garden kneeling pads for when you need to sit and take a break

Scoop up a trowel full of gravel, pour it into your sifter, and then swirl it around with the sifter in the surface of the water so that all the sand and tiny debris washes through the holes. Keep doing this until all the sand is gone, and you can remove the larger rocks by hand. Carefully examine what you have. Once you are done, pour the remaining gravel back into the water and start over again! That’s all there is to it.

We set up our tools on a gravel bar since as you can see there was nowhere else dry along the creek to set up

Another thing you probably want to bring is some kind of a hard container to put your delicate finds into such as an old pill bottle with a lid. I wore my fanny pack around my waist and had a plastic bag in there and that worked great because it was hands-free. You may also want to bring an extra bag to throw litter or glass into that you may find while you are looking for fossils. It’s a shame that people litter, but you might as well pick some of that up while you’re there, right? Take it with you and throw it away.

The next rule they have is that you are only allowed to take five fossils or artifacts per day. I’m sure I pulled out a lot more than that but I tossed the great majority of them back, especially if I found a sharks tooth that was broken etc.. That way you are taking just a couple of nice specimens home and leaving some for someone else to find. So keep only your favorites.

If it’s a sunny day it’s good to bring a hat and you should always have sunscreen as well. I had a big utility bucket with all of our supplies in, as well as my backpack for my truck keys and water bottle, and a few extra plastic bags to seal my cell phone in. I also threw a couple of my gardening kneeling pads into my supply bucket and they came in handy for anyone wanting to sit and take a rest, or to kneel on in shallow water to save your knees! Wear old clothes that can get dirty and wet, and since it was so hot when we were there, I told my kids to put their swimsuits on under their clothes and that was a good call. 

I brought insect repellent as well but we were grateful that we did not need to use it on any of our trips there. Since I had to drive about an hour and a half to get there, I packed a cooler with ice and water bottles and sandwiches for us. We were glad for them when the time came! You may also want to bring some extra tap water in an old gallon milk jug to use to rinse your hands and feet before you get back in your car. That, along with a small hand towel were great to have along.

Some things you might want to bring along:
Sifting screen or colander
Small trowel for digging
Water shoes/old sneakers
Gardener's foam kneeling pad
Bag or hard sided container for your finds
Bag for trash
First aid kit
Cooler, ice, water bottles, lunch
Hand towel
Gallon of tap water to rinse off before driving home

Here are some of the finds that we found on a few of our trips. All of the fossils found at Big Brook are from the Late Cretaceous period. The address is 95 Hillsdale Rd., Colts Neck, NJ 07722.

Image 1 & 2: Some type of fossilized bone, unknown (above and below)

Image 3: Can you identify anything?

Image 4: Can you identify anything?

Image 5: Can you identify anything?

Image 6: Can you identify anything?

Be sure to check back again to read about my next adventure...I'll be blogging about another fossil collecting spot, and also my recent trip to the Adirondacks to search for crystals!

What do you think? Have you ever collected fossils?

Have a great week!

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Article copyright ©Laura Beth Love 2019 and may not be republished in print or other media without express written permission from the author.