Fossil & Prairie Park Preserve
I was in the doctor’s waiting room last May, reading a back issue of The Iowan magazine, when I ran across an article about the Fossil & Prairie Park Preserve up in Rockford, Iowa. This is a place I had never heard of, and it interested me on a number of levels, mostly because I’m working on a story for VISIONS magazine about the geological history of Iowa. I had a chance to visit there this summer.
During the Devonian Period (365 million years ago), Iowa was essentially an ocean. Most of the fossils currently found at the Fossil & Prairie Park Preserve are from a shallow sea environment and are marine invertebrates (no backbone).
You can learn a lot about the prehistoric history of this state at the Fossil & Prairie Visitor Center. It’s geared toward school-aged children, but I found the displays extremely interesting and well executed.
The Fossil & Prairie Park Preserve is one of the few places I’ve ever come across where you can actually pick fossils up and take them home with you. In fact, they encourage it with a little fossil hunter’s guide that they give you at the visitor center.
According to The Iowan article, this park was on its way to becoming a landfill in the 1980s because of its natural clay lining. The area is a former brick and tile quarry.
Climb around and you’ll see fossils literally at your feet – and you can just pick them up. There are exceptionally large quantities of fossils: brachiopods, gastropods, crinoids, horn corals, cephalopods, and more. There are signs throughout the park to help you recognize the different fossils, and the printed guide shows them pretty much actual size.
While I was there, I ran into David Simon, who got a PhD in geology from Iowa State and currently lives in Bartlesville, Okla. He and his wife, Kathie, were just passing through Iowa and stopped at the fossil preserve. Both like collecting fossils, and they showed me some of the best ones they’d found that day (below).
If you’re interested in collecting fossils, bring an egg carton, a plastic bucket, or a cloth bag. Plastic bags are discouraged. No tools are needed, because the fossils are simply lying on the ground. Be sure to wear clothing and footwear suitable for climbing and mucking about – and don’t forget the sunscreen and hats. There’s essentially no shade here.
Fossil hunting is the draw, but for me, the prairie is just as interesting. The park includes 60 acres of remnant prairie that has never been turned by plow, according to The Iowan. Creeping juniper grows here, along with purple coneflowers and orange butterfly milkweed, among many other species of wildflowers and grasses.
There’s also the brick kiln, which you can reach on a well-marked walking trail. The kilns are still standing and are surrounded by broken pieces of brick from their earlier working days.
Fossil & Prairie Park Preserve, operated by Floyd County Conservation, is located about 20 miles east of Mason City and just west of Rockford, Iowa. The Fossil & Prairie Center is open daily from 1-4 p.m. Memorial Day through Labor Day. In May, September, and October, the center is open on weekends 1-4 p.m. Outdoor areas are open from sunrise to sunset.