Exploring Wyoming’s Fossil Butte National Monument

Fossil Butte

I’d never heard of Fossil Butte National Monument before seeing it on Google Maps while planning a road trip through western Wyoming. It’s located just west of the town of Kemmerer, Wyoming. I decided to drop by on my way from the Uinta Mountains to Jackson. 

As its name suggests, the park is known for its fossils. The whole area used to be under an ancient lake (Fossil Lake), and the lake’s sediment helped preserve dead animals, which were ultimately fossilized. Collectors and fossil hunters have been coming to the area since the late 1800s.

On my visit, I first dropped by the visitor center, where I watched a little 13-minute introductory video and then browsed the collection of fossils on display, which included enormous palm fronds, an alligator, several turtles, lots of fish, seeds, flowers, insects, a small horse, a bat, etc.

Fossilized palm frond in the visitor center
Fossilized palm frond in the visitor center
Fossilized turtle in the visitor center
Fossilized turtle in the visitor center
Fossilized alligator in the visitor center
Fossilized alligator in the visitor center

There are two short hikes advertised in the park, and I hiked both of them. The first is the Nature Trail. It’s a 1.5-mile-long loop that goes through pretty rolling grassland and a few aspen groves. I didn’t see any animals, but there was plenty of antelope, deer, and elk scat around. Apparently moose frequent the area too. The views of the surrounding hills and mountains are great. There’s a toilet, a water pump, and picnic tables at the trailhead.

Picnic table near the start of the Nature Trail
Picnic table near the start of the Nature Trail
Looking out at the valley from the Nature Trail
Looking out at the valley from the Nature Trail
Nature Trail
Nature Trail
The Nature Trail goes through a grove of aspens that are fed from a spring
The Nature Trail goes through a grove of aspens that are fed from a spring
Looking out from the Nature Trail
Looking out from the Nature Trail
At the highest point of the nature trail are these benches to enjoy the view from
At the highest point of the nature trail are these benches to enjoy the view from
View from near the start of the Nature Trail
View from near the start of the Nature Trail

The second trail is the Historic Quarry Trail. It’s a 2.5-mile-long loop trail that takes you up to an old fossil quarry and then to a tiny old cabin used by one of the quarrymen.

Near the start of the Historic Quarry Trail. The quarry is just below the top of the butte.
Near the start of the Historic Quarry Trail. The quarry is just below the top of the butte.
On the Historic Quarry Trail
On the Historic Quarry Trail
On the Historic Quarry Trail
On the Historic Quarry Trail
The side trail that goes to the quarry
The side trail that goes to the quarry
The quarry
The quarry
Steps leading up and over the top of the quarry
Steps leading up and over the top of the quarry
View from the top of the quarry
View from the top of the quarry
The hike continues along a natural bench below the butte
The hike continues along a natural bench below the butte
On the trail
On the trail
The tiny old a-frame cabin once used by a fossil hunter
The tiny old a-frame cabin once used by a fossil hunter
Inside the old cabin
Inside the old cabin

Both trails are worth doing. If I only had time for one, I’d probably do the Nature Trail. The scenery there was a bit better.

One thing that I kind of expected to see on the hikes were, you know… fossils. The thing is, the fossils are located in the horizontal layers in the limestone, and you can only see the edges of the layers, so you can’t see the fossils. This makes sense in hindsight, but it was a bit disappointing at the time.

Overall, the park is definitely worth a visit if you’re in the area (and it’s only an hour away from I-80). I wouldn’t want to go there in the winter—this part of Wyoming is high-elevation, very windy, and very exposed—but it’s a really beautiful place in the warmer months. Oh, and admission to the national monument is free.

A wild pronghorn antelope I saw near the national monument
A wild pronghorn antelope I saw near the national monument

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