This is well known in Southern Maryland, but I had no idea until recently: some of the beaches there have tons of fossils! The Calvert Cliffs, located south of Chesapeake Beach in Calvert County, Maryland, contain sedimentary deposits from the Miocene age (6 to 20 million years old), and those fossils wash up on the beaches. The most commonly found fossils there are shark teeth and oyster shells, but there are also fossils from mammals, reptiles, and fish. And the best part is that you can hunt for them while relaxing by the water.
There are several locations where these fossils can be found. My family searched for them in Calvert Cliffs State Park, located about an hour and a half from Reston. It was a fantastic way to spend a day.
The park doesn’t make it easy to get to the beach, but the journey is half the fun. To get there, you park your car and walk along the 1.8-mile Red Trail. The trail begins at a pond, where we were excited to begin our journey by watching frogs and turtles.
I recommend that you wear comfortable walking shoes instead of more typical beach attire. I don’t know about you, but my feet don’t enjoy walking almost four miles in flip flops. You can always pack your flip flops and change into them when you arrive at the beach. I also recommend that you are selective when packing beach towels, toys, and other paraphernalia. You have to carry in and out everything that you bring. Keep your gear as minimal as you can manage.
The trail is unpaved, but well maintained and stroller-friendly. Several stretches of the trail are on boardwalks along wetlands. The view of lily pads, beaver dams, and wildlife made the walk as much fun as any other part of the day.
If you have lots of time to explore, you can hike along several other trails in the park, too. Calvert Cliffs State Park has 13 miles of marked nature trails to choose from. The Red Trail is the shortest path to the beach.
When you finally arrive at the beach, you might initially be disappointed. The area open to the public is only a quarter of a mile long, and there are likely to be several other people there. Don’t worry, it’s still totally worth it. Walk a little way from the trail and you’ll find more room to stretch out.
By the time we left at 4:30 on a Sunday, the crowds had thinned quite a bit. The park is open until sunset.
Because of landslides, the areas of the beach next to the cliffs are closed for public safety. Even though you can’t walk near them, they’re still beautiful to look at in the distance.
The water is warm in September, by the way. Delightfully warm.
A fun surprise when you arrive is a crate labeled “toys to share.” Among the buckets and shovels available at no cost are these sieve trays for fossil hunting. We claimed one and got to work.
To find fossils, walk into the water a short distance and scoop shovelfuls of sand into your tray. Then swish the tray around until the sand falls through the sieve and the larger items remain for inspection.
Did we find any fossils? I’m not sure. My son found several items that could have been teeth or could have been pointy shells, but my husband and I are fairly certain that at least one of them is a tooth. Shells were everywhere, a collector’s dream. I recommend bringing a ziplock bag to hold the treasures you discover.
According to the Maryland Geological Survey, the best time for finding fossils is during low tide after a storm, when the fossils and shells are replenished and more of the beach is exposed.
Something that I really enjoyed about this beach was the stream leading out of the wetlands into the bay. It, too, was filled with shells and probable fossils, and the water is so shallow that parents can let young children can play there with less concern about drowning.
Make sure the kids save enough energy for the return voyage to the car. It’s a gradual uphill climb away from the beach, but the scenery is so nice along the way that you probably won’t mind.
If your kids still aren’t worn out after a day of hiking and splashing (mine are never worn out), they will love the recycled tire playground at the parking lot. Even I couldn’t resist climbing on those tires. You might also want to pack a picnic dinner to eat at the picnic tables near the parking lots. You won’t want to carry a cooler and a meal down to the beach, so keep it in the car and enjoy it when you’re all done with the hike. It will be a feast well earned after a day of hikes, sand castles, natural scenery, wildlife, and even paleontology. This park’s a winner.
Calvert Cliffs State Park is located at 10540 H. G. Trueman Road in Lusby, Maryland. Admission is $5 per car, cash or check only. They are open sunrise to sunset, and pets are allowed in the park.
Photography by Charlotte Geary
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