Iowa Nature July 28, 2021
Hunt For Fossils On The Beautiful And Easy Russell Wildlife Rabbit Trail In Iowa
Finding buried treasure is usually just a pipe dream, but not at Russell Wildlife Area in Iowa. If the treasure you’re after is fossils, you won’t be disappointed at this 220-acre county park hidden in Mahaska County. You’re likely to pick up a whole handful of various fossilized water plants and animals… and you’re even allowed to bring them home!
Russell Wildlife Area has a unique history; it used to be a limestone quarry where tons upon tons of rock was dug out in order to obtain limestone that was crushed into gravel. The pits where the rock was dug from are now filled with water, creating five beautiful ponds and excellent habitat for wildlife.
In the process of digging out the limestone, the crews created spoil piles of mixed dirt and rock that really aren’t junk at all; they’re chock full of fossils. Herein lies the treasure!
There are brachiopods, marine animals with jointed shells that mirror-image each other, similar to modern-day clamshells. There are crinoids, whose closest living relatives are sea stars and sea cucumbers; the cylindrical, ribbed segments have a star-like pattern on the ends.
If you’re lucky, you might find a horn coral that looks like a tornado if you turn the pointed end downward. Brizoans are another commonly found fossil at Russell Wildlife; they have a unique dotted surface texture and branching structure.
Now for the details... in addition to your usual hiking gear and water bottle, you’ll want to bring along a plastic sandwich bag to take your fossils home in. You’re allowed to bring a small hand trowel to dig with, but generally just scanning the surface of the ground yields plenty of fossils.
Train your eye to look for small rocks with lines on them, or cylindrical shapes, or branching patterns. They’re the same color as all the surrounding gravel and rocks, but the shape, texture, and surface patterns are definitely unique.
Park at the County Conservation Center’s maintenance building and head toward the shelter house. Check out the posted trail sign; you’re headed for the exposed dirt and rock mix on the east banks of Pond 4 as well as the southern trail (a grass and gravel maintenance road) between Ponds 2 and 4 where you’ll see the exposed spoil piles along the road.
Really, any exposed, gravelly area will do the trick, but these are some of the best places to hunt for fossils.
Enjoy the walk there too - the prairie restoration area boasts beautiful wildflowers, and birds love the lush trees and undergrowth beside the mown trails.
You can’t beat the aqua-colored water of several of the ponds, and there’s even a wooden suspension footbridge where the trail wraps around the southeast corner of Pond 5 if you’re up for a longer walk.
Before you go, you might want to stop by the folks at the Mahaska County Environmental Learning Center in nearby Oskaloosa where you can learn more about the fossils and get more tips on finding the best spots to hunt fossils. The staff and displays are incredible resources to get your treasure hunt off on the right foot! And Russell Wildlife Area isn’t the only good spot around here for digging up some fossilized treasure; try Iowa’s unique Fossil and Prairie Park Preserve as well. Address: Russell Wildlife Area, 2254 200th St, New Sharon, IA 50207, USA