All photos were provided courtesy of Kelly Underwood.
Ladonia Fossil Park is the coolest place you’ve never been in North Texas. If you like being outdoors and have an appetite for adventure, it belongs at the top of your day trip bucket list.
This hidden gem is located along the North Sulphur River near the town of Ladonia (about an hour and 15 minutes northeast of Frisco).
The “Fossil Park” is essentially a designated area of the North Sulphur River channel, located on Highway 34 just two miles north of Ladonia. The riverbank and riverbed provide acres of legit fossil hunting for serious enthusiasts and casual adventurers alike.
The area is known for its Cretaceous and Pleistocene Period fossils, included mosasaurs, plesiosaurs, mastodons, and mammoths. (For those of us who aren’t paleontologists – or the parents of four-year-old boys – mosasaurs are the huge marine dinosaurs, like the one in “Jurassic World”. Their cousins, the plesiosaurs, look sort of like the Loch Ness monster).
Fossils found in the North Sulphur River can date back more than 80 million years. And while museum-worthy finds are rare, small fossils are plentiful. It’s a truly extraordinary adventure to be able to find such cool fossils in such a unique, natural setting.
My family visited this summer (with eight “kids” ranging in age from 43 to 2) and all of us agreed it was a fantastic excursion. The experience was completely different for each of us but equally fun for all and definitely a highlight of the summer.
If finding fossils, getting muddy, and enjoying nature sounds like a good time to you, check out this quick guide to help you plan your trip!
Why should you visit Ladonia Fossil Park?
Real (and really cool) fossils that are easy to find: The North Sulphur River is a true regional treasure and renown throughout the U.S. for its Cretaceous and Pleistocene fossils. Particularly after it rains, the river “turns up” its fossils very generously.
Smaller fossils, including mosasaur teeth, shark teeth, vertebrae, and baculites are surprisingly easy to find in the riverbed. The larger fossils are typically in the sides of the riverbank and require more tools and expertise to explore.
For families and casual adventurers, sifting through the riverbed is great fun and almost certain to turn up some pre-historic treasures. Most visitors who spend a few hours leave with at least a few very good finds. And, either way, the hunt itself is half the fun!
Outdoor adventure: Under perfect conditions, the North Sulfur River will have enough water to wade in and a very gentle current. It is an absolutely perfect place to enjoy a morning out in nature. You can climb over rocks, splash in the water, and enjoy the peace and quiet of the river.
Kids will love digging in the mud, sifting through the gravel, and getting super dirty. A visit to the NSR feels a little like a trip back to a simpler time. For the littlest members of our family, the fossils were secondary to the pure bliss of freely exploring the cool, clear North Sulphur River itself.
Education made fun: A family trip to the North Sulfur River also provides countless educational opportunities. Dinosaurs are the hot topic, but kids can also learn about geology, conservation, and environmental change.
Kids of all ages will be fascinated to learn how our area of North Texas was once under a sea filled with all kinds of fantastic and toothy creatures!
A trip to Ladonia Fossil Park is an adventure in every sense of the word. It’s incredibly fun and memorable, but you should be prepared for a genuinely “natural” experience. We’ve gathered some useful tips to help you make the most of your time at the North Sulphur River.
What do you need to know before you go?
Rugged/Rustic setting: Ladonia Fossil Park is not a park in the sense you might think of here in Frisco. On the plus side, it’s free, always open, and offers visitors the chance to experience nature at its best. But, from an amenities standpoint, it’s pretty rugged. There are no restrooms, no vending machines, and cell phone service is spotty once you are down in the canyon.
You’ll enjoy the natural beauty but just remember to BYOP (Bring Your Own Toilet Paper)! Also, bring sunscreen, bug spray, and plenty of water. Some visitors also like to bring snacks/picnic lunches.
Our family all made it down without too much trouble but we had to carry the little ones and it was slow going.
This adventure is definitely not ideal for anyone with mobility issues or health problems. For families with young children, be ready to tote/help them down the somewhat precarious path.
Be Prepared to get Dirty: No surprise here! You’re going to dig for fossils in a riverbed, so be ready to get seriously dirty. It’s generally recommended to wear sturdy, close-toed shoes or hiking boots, both for the climb and navigating the river. (Visitors are also known to see snakes and other creepy crawlies in the summer months, so keep an eye out).
Many visitors recommend wearing long pants as well. In any case, leave the flip flops (and any clothes you don’t want to be caked in mud) at home. Do wear hats and sunglasses, as there’s little shade and it can get very hot very quickly.
Bring your supplies: We brought simple garden-style trowels and a colander/strainer for each adventurer, plus a large shovel to share (and buckets for our fossil treasures, of course). I think this was perfectly adequate equipment for amateur day-adventurers like ourselves.
On the riverbanks, you’ll see seasoned fossil hunters with more specialized tools, but a few basic items are all most visitors need.
Confirm river conditions and weather: A visit to Ladonia Fossil Park is best if there has some recent rain and the river is flowing at a low level. The rain “turns up” the fossils and makes for a great hunt. However, when the river is high it flows very, very quickly and wouldn’t be safe for casual hunters (and certainly not for children). Also, it’s prone to flash floods during the rain, so skip rainy days and exit right away if rain starts during your visit.
The best place to check the river conditions is by joining the Ladonia Fossil Park group on Facebook. It’s a community of enthusiasts who have tons of great information to share. Someone from the group is there at least every few days (and many locals are on the page) so it is easy to get good updates on river conditions, etc.
Do your fossil homework and ask for help: At the start of our visit, we realized we didn’t know exactly what we were looking for. The sifting process was great fun, but we found it difficult to differentiate between random cool rocks and fossils.
Luckily, there were several friendly “experts” hunting that morning as well. They were more than happy to share their wisdom with us. They pointed out good places to sift and explained exactly what to look for (for example, the fossils are usually black). We enjoyed visiting with the fellow fossil hunters and plan to do a little more research before we go back.
Want to learn more? Ladonia Fossil Park is having a Fossil Day on October 19, featuring paleontologist Nathan Van Vranken and several other paleontologists and naturalists. The speakers will discuss Cretaceous Texas, significant 2018 finds at Ladonia, and safety issues on the river. Weather permitting, treks into the river bed will follow. Check the Ladonia Chamber of Commerce page for more information. Happy hunting!
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