Fossil Butte National Monument

July 25, 2014 at 5:30 pm (Bird photography, National Parks, Nature, Nature photography, Photography, Wildlife) (, , , , )

Fossil Butte

Fossil Butte

When I took a mini-vacation recently, I had a change of plans when the birding area I wanted to visit had already raised its avian families for the year.  So I headed back home via Wyoming and the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area.  I figured the little Fossil Butte National Monument would be a quick look-see, and was pleasantly surprised at how much I found to enjoy there.


I dedicated an entire post already to the park’s pronghorns, so here’s the rest of the story.  First, I feel most at home in wide open spaces, where I can see the sky and the changing weather.  So this sage-grassland with its hills and vistas had an immediate appeal.


It was also greener than Dinosaur National Monument where I work and live for the summer, and there were many flowers here that had already gone by in our neck of the woods.  The one disappointment is that you can’t see fossils “in the wild” like you can at Dinosaur, with its quarry of 1500 dinosaur bones and a Fossil Discovery Trail where you can see dino and sea fossils in the open rocks.  However, the natural beauty and the amazing fossils at the Visitor Center, along with the very knowledgeable staff, kept me there nearly 24 hours.


I marveled at the earth’s timeline, which began on the road with signs indicating that nine inches of length equaled a million years of earth’s birth and evolution of its life.  The timeline wound around the visitor center railing, showing the super-continents that arose and then broke apart, and the life forms at each stage of evolution, and the catastrophic extinctions over the millions of years.  I wish there had been good images to go along with it, as many of the scientific names had no meaning for me.  However, I was still fascinated.

I watched the three-quarter moon rise that night and when its light touched the butte I got the stars.

Fossil Butte and stars in the moonlight

Fossil Butte and stars in the moonlight

At dawn I hiked the mile-long nature trail which wound through an aspen forest and sage land flowers.  Of course I was distracted by every flower, bug, and bird, so it took me a very pleasant several hours.  I met only one other couple on the trail the entire time.

Picnic area and nature trail

Picnic area and nature trail

I was especially keen on getting the green-tailed towhee, which we don’t have at Dinosaur, but which I first saw in Mesa Verde three summers earlier.

Green-tailed towhee male

Green-tailed towhee male

The sage grouse hens were feeding along the roadside, just as they are now doing in Dinosaur, mostly with their half-grown chicks in tow.  I am still hoping to see an extravagantly dressed male.

Sage grouse hen

Sage grouse hen

Sage grouse closeup

Sage grouse closeup

A juvenile red-tailed hawk kept up a racket in the aspen while its parents circled the sky looking for a ground squirrel or an inattentive rabbit.

Red-tailed hawk juvenile

Red-tailed hawk juvenile

Red-tailed hawk adult

Red-tailed hawk adult

Black-capped chickadees raided the junipers, robins and house wrens found worms and bugs for their fledglings, and sparrows flushed from the underbrush and landed too quickly for me to identify.

Black-capped chickadee

Black-capped chickadee

There was a small fossil quarry at the top of the trail, but you could only go with a ranger guide.  There are hundreds of square miles of fossils from the ancient lake that covered this land, mostly fish, some alligators and turtles, and ferns and palms and other plants.  Only a tiny portion of this lake’s fossil bed is preserved in the monument.   The fossil display in the visitor center is amazing, and the dark colored detail is the true color of the carbonized fossils, not painted on to show the detail.  A private quarry across from the monument is even manufacturing counter tops with the little fish fossils in limestone – what a lovely idea!

I was having trouble visualizing how these fossils are extracted, and two videos show the process very nicely.  A technician also demonstrated how the limestone slabs are cleaned to reveal the fossils, first with a tool to chip away the layer over the fossil, and then with a fine sandblast of dolomite, which is harder than the limestone but softer than the fossil.  She used a microscope to do this tedious (but relaxing, I’m assured) process and you can see it magnified on the TV screens.

Below is a photograph from the park’s website of a Diplomystus dentatus with Knightia in its mouth.  For more fossils see their fossil gallery.

Diplomystus dentatus with Knightia in its mouth

A very knowledgeable and engaging young Ranger Esther also taught me much about the earth’s history, the moon’s formation, and the way fossils are discovered and prepared.  It’s an entirely different process than that done with huge dinosaur bones.  I was totally captivated by these delicate fossils that showed the thin bones in a fish’s fins, or the scales of a gar.  I even bought a small fossil at a shop along the Flaming Gorge, knowing that it came from that ancient lake I had just visited.

White-tailed prairie dog at its burrow

White-tailed prairie dog at its burrow

Yellow-bellied marmots

Yellow-bellied marmots

Before I left the park I drove the scenic road and enjoyed the views and the pronghorns.  I marveled at the variety of native grasses that somehow evaded the cheat grass invasion in our area.  Ranger Nancy told me they were all trained to yank the nasty stuff whenever they saw it.  Blue flax, red paintbrush, purple fleabane, and the pale version of the scarlet gilia (below) decorated the grassland trail.  I photographed the sego lily, too, but somehow lost those images.



So if you find yourself on your way to or from the Grand Tetons or Yellowstone, take a little side trip to see Fossil Butte National Monument in Kemmerer, Wyoming.  It’s definitely a gem with many facets awaiting discovery.

This website does a good job showing the quarrying process in a private quarry, and you don’t have to be a believer in creationism to appreciate learning from it.  You can also dig your own fossils at some commercial sites.


Text and photographs copyrighted by Cindy McIntyre

Feel free to reblog or share


Online gallery:  Smugmug and Fine Art America

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  1. bobdouat said,

    Great pictures and I loved the fossil slide show. Thanks for the link.

  2. Pam Leonard said,

    I had wanted to stop here when we were in the area years ago but we didn’t have time. Thanks for showing it to us, it’s a treasure I’m sure we’ll enjoy eventually for ourselves.

  3. earthstills said,

    Just love your images!! They are incredible!!

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