Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks get droves of tourist, but Fossil Butte National Monument in southwest Wyoming, not so much. I had seen the national monument signs multiple times driving Interstate-80. For some reason, I decided a frigid winter morning was the perfect time to detour on a road trip from Heber City, Utah back to Denver, Colorado.
Wyoming is the least populated state. I’m going to guess, Fossil Butte is probably is the least visited national park site in the state. As I turned north off of Interstate-80 and onto Highway 189, I instantly noticed how sparse the population is in this corner of Wyoming. On the 40-minute drive I saw more vastly rugged landscape and wildlife than I did people. You feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere. Granted it was a Sunday morning, but even in Kemmerer, I saw only a handful of people. Usually national monuments are less crowded than national parks. I’ve been to multiple national monuments sparse with tourists, but getting one completely to myself was a new experience.
Fossil Butte National Monument is about 15 miles west of Kemmerer. Driving into the national monument, I saw a trailhead but decided to go to the visitor center first. You can see more than 325 fossils, including fish mammals and plants, in the yurt-style visitor center. Unfortunately for me, it was closed. The visitor center is open 8a-4:30p Mondays-Saturdays.
It was 10°F and I had the circular deck to myself to take in the view of the semi-arid landscape filled with flat-topped buttes and ridges covered in sagebrush and desert shrubs blanketed in a little snow. I tried to imagine this now-chilly climate as the subtropical landscape it once was. Fifty-two million years ago this area was covered by Fossil Lake. It and Lakes Gosiute and Uinta were three great lakes that covered present-day Wyoming, Utah and Colorado. It’s one of seven national parks and monuments where you can see Cenozoic Era fossils. The others are John Day Fossil Beds National Monument (Oregon), Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument (Arizona), Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument (Idaho), Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument (Colorado), Agate Fossil Beds National Monument (Nebraska) and Badlands National Park (South Dakota).
I drove to the picnic area that’s 2.5 miles up the 5.5-mile scenic drive. Just beyond it the other 3 miles of the scenic drive is closed in winter. You can still walk, snowshoe or cross-country ski it. On the drive you get great views of Fossil Butte and the Wasatch formation along with possibly seeing some wildlife. I thought about hiking the nature trail, a 1.5-mile loop with an elevation gain of 300 feet, but opted to drive back to the historic Quarry Trail instead.
The Quarry Trail is a 2.5-mile loop that takes you through the geology of the national monument. At the trailhead I learned about Lee Craig. He mined fossil fish in a quarry just below the ridgeline for forty years. He had lost a leg in a mining accident and hiked the quarry trail on a wooden leg. You can hike the 600-foot side trail that climbs up to the historic fossil quarry where Craig and others mined. I decided to do the loop counterclockwise, which was a mile to the spur trail turn-off. It was cold, but a beautiful day. The trail is well-maintained and fairly easy with a gradual incline. I always love to read signs in national park sites. They’re filled with information about the geology and geography of area, plus history. I learned about the town of Fossil. It was founded in 1881 beside the newly laid Oregon Shoreline Railroad. Settlers arrived in 1884 and oil was discovered in 1885. In its heyday it had a store, saloon, post office and restaurant. In the 1930s the small boom town went bust and today the old site is almost abandoned. Only descendants of one original Fossil family and a few other residents are there now. There was also an in-depth sign on debris versus slump flow. A debris flow can exceed 50 mph and the churned up earth at the bottom looks like a wave crashing on a beach. With a slump flow, the soil moves as a block and can be undetectable even if you’re standing on it. Both occur on slopes after water lubricates the particles or the soil of underlying rock. What you see on this trail is a slump flow.
I could easily see the historic quarry from the mail trail. The spur trail is a quarter of a mile long but a portion of the trail is fairly steep. Fossils are only exposed as dark thin lines in the rock layer. Starting to get short on time, I opted to stay on the main loop where I started to encounter patches of snow on the trail filled with animal tracks.My next stop was at a historic cabin. The fossil hunter’s tiny pup-tent style shack was used in summer while David Haddenham searched for fossil in the fish quarries.
Shortly after the cabin, I started the descent and the snow quickly faded away. While I didn’t see any wildlife, the snow tracks and scat told the story of the animals in the area. You might see deer, pronghorn, elk, jackrabbits or maybe a moose. There are more than 100 species of birds, mammals, snakes and amphibians in the national monument.
Because Fossil Butte has some of the world’s best-preserved fossils and I really want to drive the entire scenic loop, a return trip to this national monument is on my list for summer. I’m sure there will be more people around then, but I sure enjoyed having a national monument all to myself on a beautiful winter morning.
Author Jennifer Broome has been to several of the other areas to see Cenozoic Era fossils. Check out her blog on Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument near Cripple Creek, Colorado.