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Originally published Wednesday, April 7, 2010 at 7:01 PM

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Learn about fossils at Burke Museum, then hit the road to see more

Learn about Washington's distant past through a special exhibit, "Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway," at Seattle's Burke Museum. Then take a road trip to find fossils "in the wild" around the Pacific Northwest.

Special to The Seattle Times

Road trips to find fossils

• Perhaps the easiest place in the state to find fossils may be the Stonerose Interpretive Center, which includes a nearby fossil-digging site, in the town of Republic in northeast Washington.

"At Stonerose, it's almost impossible not to get a fossil," said Dr. Liz Nesbitt, Burke Museum paleontologist. There's a fee of $4-$6 for the public to dig, and visitors need to show what they've collected to the Stonerose staff, who keep rare or extraordinary specimens. Open May-October. www.stonerosefossil.org or 509-775-2295.

• Pilgrims of Northwest fossil grounds head for Northeast Oregon, to the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. Hike into the area with a ranger or sign up for a monthly hike with the nonprofit Oregon Paleo Lands Institute (OPLI), whose guides can also tell you how to find the small plot behind a local school where you can dig for plant fossils.

The Thomas Condon Paleontology Center near Kimberly, Ore., at the Sheep Rock Unit of the John Day monument, has ranger-led museum tours and hikes into the fossil beds; www.nps.gov/joda or 541-987-2333.

OPLI in Fossil, Ore., near the John Day monument, has an interpretive center and fossil day hikes and seminars. www.paleolands.org or 541-763-4480.

• Closer to home, at Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park, in Vantage, admire pretty slabs of different types of petrified wood in the visitor center, buy a chunk in the nearby rock shop, and hike among a graveyard of giant stumps of ancient trees that were buried in lava. www.stateparks.com/ginkgo_petrified_forest.html or www.parks.wa.gov, 509-856-2700.

• South of Bellingham, Chuckanut Drive is famous not only for its scenic views but for the plant fossils found in the adjacent outcrops of the Chuckanut Formation. George Mustoe, a geologist at nearby Western Washington University, suggests looking in road cuts south of Larrabee State Park. "It's a good fossil area, because material is always being exposed by rockfalls, especially in the winter."

The highway department owns the rights along the road, and is generally happy to get rid of any loose rocks. However, be careful of traffic on this narrow, winding road, avoid the (policed) Burlington Northern railroad tracks below, and park safely.

Stop by WWU's Environmental Sciences Building in Bellingham to see the three floors of fossil and rock displays that Mustoe designed for nonscientists; some are even touchable (great for kids). Open weekdays 7:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. and weekends 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. (closed during school breaks). More info: http://geology.wwu.edu/dept/visitors.

Chuckanut Formation field trips: http://nwgeology.wordpress.com/the-fieldtrips.

If You Go

See and learn more

Museum exhibit

Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway, a special exhibit at the University of Washington's Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, runs through May. The museum is at the northwest corner of the Seattle campus, off Northeast 45th Street at the 17th Avenue Northeast campus entrance. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. $9.50 general admission, $7.50 seniors, $6 students and youth; free to members, children 4 and younger, and UW staff, faculty and students. Free to all on the first Thursday of each month. 206-543-5590 or www.washington.edu/burkemuseum.

Lectures

"A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Fossil Freeway," a series of paleontology lectures, will be held at the museum at 7 p.m. on April 13, April 27 and May 4; $5, free for students and educators with ID. See www.washington.edu/burkemuseum/cruisin/events.php.

Guidelines

The Washington Department of Natural Resources provides fossil-collecting guidelines at www.dnr.wa.gov/RecreationEducation/Topics/HarvestingCollecting/Pages/fossil_collecting.aspx. Vertebrate fossils or artifacts should be left where found, and the Burke Museum/state archaeologist notified of the location.

Rock clubs

For a list of more than two dozen rock and mineral clubs around the state, including meeting places and times, see the Web site for the Washington State Mineral Council, www.mineralcouncil.org. Scroll down in the left column and click on "WSMC member clubs."

Upcoming field trips

• North Seattle Lapidary & Mineral Club, May 2 field trip to Saddle Mountain for petrified wood, June 11-13 to Republic for plant fossils. www.northseattlerockclub.org/fldtrips.htm.

Note: Membership may be required to participate in field trips.

More museums

Other places to see fossils include:

Washington State University in Pullman has fossil displays in the Webster Physical Science Building, open until 7 p.m. on weekdays. www.sees.wsu.edu/Museums/index.html or 509-335-3009.

Port Townsend Marine Science Center (fossils of marine mammals and invertebrates), www.ptmsc.org, 800-566-3932.

On a recent visit to the University of Washington's Burke Museum, I examined a painting of saber-toothed animals. Dominating the top of the composition was what appeared to be a salmon. A leaping, blood-red, sockeye-lookalike with white fangs, about to leap out of the frame and clamp down on something, maybe you. Handy 3D glasses supplied nearby, helped imagine such a scenario. Ha, how cute, a saber-toothed salmon. Yeah, right.

Imagine the surprise when fossils of this fish were found, first in Oregon, then later in Northeast Washington. Not only had this sister species of sockeye salmon existed, it had been a monster — reaching lengths of up to 10 feet. Unfortunately for anglers (or fortunately, perhaps?), they went extinct a couple million years ago during the Pliocene epoch.

The image is one of the wildly whimsical paintings by artist Ray Troll currently paired with many Northwest fossils never before seen on display from the Burke Museum in its "Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway" exhibit.

No T. Rex from Tri-Cities

Although there are several dinosaur bones in the exhibit, alas, none are from Washington — in fact, no dinosaurs have ever been found in the state.

"Most of the sedimentary rocks in Washington state are too old or too young for dinosaurs, and a very large area of the state has been covered by volcanic rocks," said Dr. Liz Nesbitt, Burke paleontologist and co-curator of the exhibit. "There's very little rock exposed on the surface that comes from the age of dinosaurs in Washington, and most of it was deposited in the sea. The little bit of Late Cretaceous rock that was deposited on land contains some plant fossils, but no dinosaurs have been found."

In fact, at the time of the dinosaurs, the western part of our state was still underwater. Even millions of years after dinosaurs went extinct, during the late Eocene epoch, the coast of Washington reached as far east as present-day Interstate 5. Washington's sedimentary rocks did record the evolution of marine mammals, and the Burke Museum has one of the finest collections of fossil dolphins in the world.

Besides sea creatures, the most commonly found fossils in Washington are plants. Dr. Kirk Johnson from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, another co-curator of the Burke exhibit, puts in perspective the chances of finding an animal versus a plant fossil: "When you travel, you can usually find a plant easier than an animal — and it's the same way for fossils."

Where else to look

So fossils are easy to see in museums — but what about finding your own? You can't just hop in your Subaru Outback and set off with a pick and a rock hammer. Most fossils are located on either private or public lands. To search on private land, you need permission, while for most public lands, you generally need a permit. Also, you have to know where to look. The best way is to go with people who know where the rocks are that might contain fossils. Some local rock clubs have fossil field trips (see "If You Go").

The Northwest Paleontological Association meets at the Burke Museum, and welcomes nonscientists and families. "There are talks — not too technical — and field trips, and people always bring in their finds to be identified," said Nesbitt, who attends the meetings.

So, you can join a field trip, or learn about fossils in museums such as the Burke. Or you can take your own fossil road trip around the Northwest and explore the region from a different place and time (see sidebar for suggested destinations).

Whichever approach you choose, you might learn enough to figure out that you've been stepping over dolphin fossils on Olympic Peninsula beaches or driving by an outcrop of Eocene palms along the freeway. Or maybe you'll even unearth a saber-toothed salmon.

Cathy McDonald, a geologist by training, regularly writes the Walkabout column for NWWeekend. She lives in Renton.

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