It’s no secret that one of my favorite hobbies and past-time outside of researching fossils is fossil collecting for fun. So when I went home over Thanksgiving 2019, of course I took it as an opportunity to visit one of my favorite fossil localities, Calvert Cliffs in Maryland, on the Chesapeake Bay. I dragged my mom and two siblings with me on this overnight adventure, and it was a blast!
These cliffs are exposed along the east coast of the US, and are a part of Westmoreland State Park which I’ve written about previously. They contain beautiful fossil of late Neogene age (Miocene to Pleistocene, about 23-0.01 million years ago). The cliffs in Maryland contain the same age fossils, and the rocks and sediments are part of the Chesapeake Group (the name given to the group of layers that the fossils are contained in). There are several beaches in the area that member of the public can hunt at, but I’ll just go over a few sites we visited.
The first place we visited was Calvert Cliffs State Park. The park has a moderate entrance fee ($5 in state, $7 out of state), but it’s totally worth it. There are bathrooms here, along with a playground for kids (although, we all had a blast on the merry-go-round, to the point of almost puking). It’s a great place for families to visit with nice facilities. The trail to the beach is about 1.8 miles down a gentle slope, and towards the end of the trail there is a low-lying land where we saw several species of ducks and aquatic plants. At the mouth of the trail, there is a wooden bin with a variety of sifters for visitors to use to find fossils. The beach is flanked by the cliffs on either side, which are roped off. The cliffs are an excellent place to collect, however, they are and can quickly become wildly unstable, with huge blocks falling with enough velocity to seriously injure someone standing below. We found a few small shark’s teeth here, and some gastropod (snail) molds in the rocks. Nothing phenomenal.
The next place we visited was called Brownies Beach. Here, the beach is much longer, and at low tide, you can probably walk the beach for quite a while. Be warned, though, because like Calvert Cliffs, this stretch of beach is also prone to falling blocks. We spent quite a while here, and again, all we found were a few small shark teeth (scroll down for a video of my brother finding an incomplete tooth). There wasn’t a fee during the winter, but it did seem the beach has a fee during the summer.
The next day, I took everyone to Matoaka Beach Cabins. This was a really cool spot! The beach is privately owned, with the owners charging folks a mere $5 to access the beach all day. In addition, you can rent cabins here steps from the beach! The beaches are long and are not underneath the cliffs. We had a blast here, but at this point, we were in the midst of a huge rain storm that was hitting the east coast. We were drenched within the hour, and had to give up hunting for the rest of the day. We found another few shark teeth, some smaller pectens (clam) shells, and a dead pelican that I refused to let my siblings take back to my car. This beach is somewhere I’d love to revisit, especially at low tide. The shell line was wide, with several larger shells visible in the waves (the heavier teeth and fossils tend to be found with the same weight rocks, so finding larger rocks indicates the potential of finding larger fossils).
After leaving Matoaka, we then visited the Calvert Marine Museum. Being a paleontologist, I’ve visited a lot of museums, but this little museum remains one of my top five favorites. It combines the history of the region with paleontology and biology. For that reason, I’d recommend visiting the museum first. They have amazing display cases of the fossils found along the cliffs, so you can have an idea of what you’re looking for. You will also gain an appreciation of the rich wildlife in the Chesapeake Bay, and the native peoples that used to live here. Bonus, the museum also has three otters that are incredibly entertaining, as well as tanks of live horseshoe crabs, turtles, crabs, and fish species that are common in the bay.
For a list of fossils you can find in this region, information on the rock layers, and a list of all the beaches and their admission prices, check out the Fossil Guy’s website.
If you are on Facebook, I recommend joining the Fossils of Calvert Cliffs Maryland group. They share collecting advice, recommendations for beaches, and favorite restaurants. I consulted with the group before planning my trip, and several members gave me great food and beach recommendations!