Note: Tours and fossil hunts at Hill Annex State Park are suspended until further notice.
Like any good adventure, our fossil hunting adventure started with a book. On the mid Thursday of August, we were reading Dinosaurs Before Dark – the first book in the Magic Tree House Series. At the end of the book, my 7-year-old asked:
“Do you think we could ever go dig for dinosaurs?”
Any parent knows that “could we ever?” actually means “how soon can we?” Not that I cater to their every whim, but this sounded like a fun idea. So began the best adventure of our summer.
I quick Googled dinosaur digging near Minnesota and found this Star Trib article. It turns out there have been very few dinosaur bones found in Minnesota – three to be exact. The most recent dinosaur find was discovered in a Hill Annex mine.
It just happens that Hill Annex Mine State Park offers a fossil hunting tour where participants can dig and keep what they find. However, the park only offers these tours on Fridays and Saturdays between Memorial Day and Labor Day. We had three weekends to Labor Day and plans for all but the coming weekend. The next morning, I called the park, talked to a nice park ranger, and got the tour details. Saturday morning we packed up our camper van with kids and dog and set off in search of dinosaur fossils. This story does not end with us finding the fourth ever dinosaur bone in Minnesota, but we did find some pretty cool ancient fossils, including one that is kind of rare.
Find More Ideas Like This: Twin Cities Quests, Scavenger Hunts & Treasure Hunts for Families
Fossil tours leave the visitors center at 10 am and 3 pm. You’ll want to get there with enough time to purchase your tour tickets beforehand. The tour costs $10/adult and $6/children 5-12. Children under 5 are free and will have a great time digging in the dirt alongside their siblings.
Guides will be along to help you get started and to help identify fossils. They’ll give a short lesson with advice and pointers. There are examples of what to look for on the picnic tables nearby the dig site. For children who are having less luck, they will kind of lead them toward fossils. I’m not aware of anyone on the dig that my family went on that didn’t leave with something. The fossils are plentiful in this dig site and are mostly sea creatures from approximately 86 million years ago. All of our fossils were the size of pebbles and that is usually what people find.
Plan to spend about an hour and a half in the field. The dig site is all sun and red dirt. Wear sun protection, hats and your oldest, dirtiest clothes. You’ll also want to bring water. My family did not have any bug issues on the dig, but it never hurts to be prepared with bug spray – especially that far up north.
Other Fun at Hill Annex Mine State Park
I did not go on the fossil dig as I volunteered to stay with our dog, Diesel. The park staff said we could park in the shade and leave him tied to our car while we went on the tour. Knowing his anxiety levels, I didn’t see that going very well. Tourists get bused to the dig site, so we wouldn’t know if there was a problem. However, if you have a dog who is cool with being left on a tie out with a dish of water and a shady nap spot, this is an option for you.
While, I want to go on the dig next time, the hike that Diesel and I went on was a beautiful alternative. We made it to the next town and back at a leisurely pace and still had time to lay in the shade with a book before the tour came back. The Mesabi Bike Trail runs through Hill Annex State Park. People on wheels need to purchase a Wheel Pass at self-pay kiosks ($5/3-day), but walkers can use the trail for free. While some areas of the trail are quite sunny, others are shaded and most of it gets a good breeze, making it a pretty comfortable walk even on hot days. I’d still plan for sun block, water, and bug spray. We ended up running the last bit because biting flies decided to go after Diesel.
The park has a picnic shelter, plenty of green space for blankets, and a small play structure. If you haven’t stopped to eat along the way, you could have a nice picnic before or after your dig.
Calumet, Minnesota, where the park is located, is slightly more than three hours north of the Twin Cities. Since we were setting out without a plan, we weren’t sure if we would be doing the return trip in the same day, so we got an early start. You could, theoretically, do this trip in a day, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Even with stopping to camp, it was a long day. In fact, I’d like to make a long weekend of it and explore the area a little more next time.
We ended up finding a state forest campground on the drive home. I don’t recommend this in August either as it was thick with mosquitoes, so we didn’t really enjoy the camping experience as much as we usually do. We ate a quick dinner than all piled into the van to sleep before heading home in the morning.
State forest campgrounds are nice because they don’t require a reservation; but if you are planning ahead, I suggest choosing a state park campground or a private campground – they tend to be less buggy. Explore Minnesota recommends Moose Lake Campground and Cottonwood Lake Campground near Hill Annex Mine State Park (which doesn’t have a campground of its own).
Bringing the Family Pet
As I mentioned above, you can’t take your dog on the tour, but he is welcome at the park. I’m not sure that they are always as accommodating as they were with us (as far as being allowed to tie your dog to your car and go on the tour), but I’d definitely ask. Most state park and state forest campgrounds also welcome dogs, but they need to be leashed and attended at all times. Dogs are not allowed in park buildings or on the beaches. This means you can’t really zip off to do fun things around the area unless someone stays with the dog. When we do this again, I will probably find a dog-sitter so I can enjoy my family and all the activities.
One Last Thing – The Post-Fossil Hunting Science Museum Visit
While the interest in all things fossils was still hot, we visited the Science Museum’s Collector’s Corner. Here my first-grader gave a report on our adventure to SMM staff on where and how we found the fossils. He traded one of his less-favorite pieces toward points to “purchase” other fossils. Because it was his first visit, he received a few bonus points.
This is a fun program and you don’t need to go fossil hunting to get started. Kids can use any natural finds – leaves, rocks, fossils, skulls*. You just have to give an age-appropriate report to earn points. The more details you include when you tell the Collector’s Corner staff about your find, the more points you receive.
Before heading out for your science museum visit, you may want to “Dig Into the Science Museum’s Paleontology Collection,” so you will know what you want to visit while you are there.
*Be sure to review the list of restricted items before you go in. Several things are restricted because of laws or practicality. For instance, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act illegalizes possession of any bird parts, including feathers, nests, and eggs, so you can’t bring those things in to the Collectors Corner.