Fossil hunters have always been a combination of professionals and amateurs, dating back to the 19th century when 12-year-old Mary Anning and her brother Joseph discovered an ichthyosaur skeleton near their home in Dorset, England.
Today, there are a number of well-known fossil beds within a few hours' drive of some of the country's largest cities. If you want to know what you're finding, companies like Mid-Atlantic Fossil and Nature Adventures offer fossil-hunting trips guided by real paleontologists.
You: I found this amazing fossil! What is it?
Paleontologist: That's just a rock.
But if you want to go it alone, we've put together a list of places you can go to look for evidence of prehistoric life. This list is far from exhaustive, and you can use Google to find out if there are good fossil sites near where you live.
1. New Jersey
Big Brook is a fossil site near Freehold, New Jersey, about an hour from New York City. Fossils at this site date to the late Cretaceous period, so they're between 66 and 75 million years old. You'll want a small shovel or trowel and a fossil screen, or a colander with small holes. You can find shark's teeth, Mosasaur teeth, and the teeth of an extinct fish with crazy fangs called an Enchodus.
Stratford Hall, the birthplace of Robert E. Lee, is right up the road from Westmoreland State Park. Both sites have beaches along the Potomac River where you can find Miocene era fossils. There are many different kinds of shark teeth, but the big prize is the colossal Megalodon tooth. These monster teeth can be the size of your palm, and come from an extinct giant shark. You can also find fossilized crocodile teeth, dental plates from sting rays, porpoise teeth and whale bones.
Caesar Creek State Park in Waynesville has an abundance of fossils from the Ordovician period. Fossils can be legally collected if you get a permit from the park's visitors' center. You can find a variety of fossils there, including trilobites, brachiopods and gastropods. The state also has a number of other quarries and rivers where marine fossils can be found.
Texas has a number of good fossil sites, like Post Oak Creek in the town of Sherman, where you can find fossilized shells and shark teeth. You can also check out the fossilized dinosaur tracks at Dinosaur Valley State Park in Glen Rose, Texas.
There's a fern fossil site off Hancock Road in St. Clair, but it's reportedly hard to find unless you go with someone who knows where it is. The Montour Fossil Pit in Danville, PA is better marked—literally: There's a parking lot with a sign that says "Montour Fossil Pit." This site is Devonian, and you can find trilobites, snails, and brachiopods. You need rock hammers and chisels for this one; the fossils are embedded in shale.
The town of Capitola, just south of Santa Cruz, has Pliocene era fossils on the beach. You can find snails, clams and sand dollars, especially at low tide. San Francisco's Ocean Beach has Pleistocene-era marine fossils such as sand dollars. Other sites, like Sharktooth Hill near Bakersfield, are controlled by museums or parks and restrict collecting or charge a fee.
7. West Virginia
A quarry near the West Virginia town of Wardensville is a good place to find Devonian-era fossils such as trilobites. It's on Route 55, four miles west of Wardensville. The Fossil Guy can give you directions.
Popular sites include the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument and the nearby Florissant Fossil Quarry. You can't carry anything out of the former, but the latter is a pay-to-dig site where you can find plant, insect, and the occasional bird fossils. The Creede Formation, outside Creede, Colorado, is also a good place to look, but I'll leave you to Google the coordinates for that one.
The Peace River has shark teeth, but also the teeth and bones of large mammals like camels and mastodons. (Mastodons!) You can hunt in the shallows with a snorkel and a sifter, or you can look in the banks on the edges of the river—but keep an eye out for alligators. You need a boat, preferably something small like a canoe or a kayak, so you can get into tight spaces. You don't need a permit to collect shark teeth, but you do need a permit for anything else, so you should probably get one just in case.
Many of Florida's beaches also have good fossils. Manasota Key has shark teeth, including Megalodon, and people have reported finding bison and giant sloth teeth on Jacksonville Beach.
Purse State Park has a beach along the Potomac River where you can find Paleocene era shark teeth. You can also find beautiful fossil snail shells called Turritella. It's recommended to go at low tide, and the parking lot can be hard to find. Brownie's Beach, in the town of Chesapeake Beach, Maryland, has Miocene-era shark teeth, including Mako and Megalodon teeth.