MD - Calvert Cliffs

Southern Maryland’s Calvert Cliffs hold one of the world’s most extensive exposures of fossils from the Miocene Era, 10 to 20 million years ago.

Parents often find it daunting when a young daughter or son starts using words like brontosaurus, triceratops, or even Cretaceous! Fortunately, the Chesapeake region has several locales where families facing “dinosaur fever” can find some hands-on paleontology.

MD - sharks' teeth and shells

Eureka! Keen-eyed adventurers can sometimes find sharks’ teeth on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay.

Throughout geological time, the Chesapeake region was repeatedly inundated and exposed by oceans and inland bays. As the Earth’s tectonic plates shifted and continents fragmented and collided, hundreds of layers of sediment buried the traces of uncountable billions of creatures. Today, paleontologists—both professional and amateur—hunt for those traces at several regional sites.

The Calvert Cliffs in Southern Maryland’s Calvert County border the Chesapeake Bay’s western shore for more than 30 miles, with bands of fossil-filled sand, clay, and marl layering the cliff’s face, marking the bottoms of ancient shallow seas. The cliffs erode onto the narrow beaches, depositing relict shells, whalebone, sharks’ teeth, and other traces of Miocene life.

Hunting Along the Tideline

The cliffs at Calvert Cliffs State Park in Lusby hold more than 600 species of fossil sharks, whales, crocodiles, fish, and supporting vertebrates and invertebrates. Strewn along the tideline, shards of prehistoric Chesapectens scallop shells mix with precursor snails and bivalves. Fragments of dense, dark whalebone or effective-looking sharks’ teeth reward lucky and observant collectors. While you can use shovels to sift the sand for fossils, many people prefer to prowl the foreshore and shallows, prepared to quickly plunge an arm into the water to grab a possible Charcarodon tooth or an ancient porpoise vertebra.

The Flag Ponds Nature Park, also in Lusby, offers fossil hunting in a topography completely different than the Calvert Cliffs. This county park’s wide expanses of Chesapeake Bay beach and foreshore, wetlands, and freshwater ponds once enclosed a sheltered harbor supporting a major "pound net" fishery. Now, a visitors’ center with wildlife exhibits, a boardwalk, observation platforms and pier, and hiking trails to forested heights combine with fossil hunting to make Flag Ponds a collecting experience for the whole family. 

MD - Chesapeake Bay - fossil hunting - vertical

Hunting for fossils on a sunny day is a tremendous treat for dinosaur lovers of all ages. 

While the beach is accessible at both parks, neither permits access to the actual cliffs. For a small cash fee, Matoaka, a cabin colony in St. Leonard, offers day use at their beach and an opportunity to approach the cliffs. 

“At Matoaka, you can get in front of the cliffs and walk for miles, staying below mean high tide line,” explained Paul Murdoch of Chesapeake Heritage And Paleontology Tours. “In the cliffs you can see nearly 10 million years of almost uninterrupted evolution.”

Certified as a Chesapeake Bay Storyteller by the National Park Service and Maryland Department of Tourism, Murdoch leads customizable, guided fossil hunting tours at Flag Ponds Nature Park and other Calvert County sites. His two- and three-hour tours can include lunch and a tour of the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons. The museum’s exhibits serve as an excellent “primer” about life in the Chesapeake, from the prehistoric to the modern.

Where Dinosaurs Roamed

For actual dinosaurs, Dinosaur Park in Laurel preserves a rare deposit of the extinct reptiles’ remains from the early Cretaceous period, about 115 million years ago. First discovered in 1858 by African American miners digging for iron ore, the open pit mine’s riches range from vestiges of early flowering plants to bones and teeth of the Maryland State Dinosaur Astrodon johnstoni

Bones from this deposit helped scientists understand and reconstruct dinosaurs’ true life appearance and diversity. Today, on scheduled Saturdays at Dinosaur Park, the public can work alongside paleontologists to help uncover the past. Hundreds of fossils discovered by visitors have been collected and cataloged.

At Westmoreland State Park, on the Potomac River in Virginia’s Northern Neck, visitors can participate in fossil programs and interpretive tours along the river’s eroding shoreline. Trails lead from the Visitor Center to the Potomac’s shore below Horsehead Cliffs. Erosion over time has exposed the remains of porpoises, whales, and sharks from 15 million years ago.

Chesapeake fossil hunting—for child or parent—can be an exciting introduction to paleontology or an opportunity to expand an existing collection. Regardless of the reason for the hunt, it will surely be an education and an adventure.

For More Information

Calvert County Tourism,

Flag Ponds Nature Park, 410-586-1477 or 535-5327

Calvert Cliffs State Park, 

Chesapeake Heritage And Paleontology Tours,

Dinosaur Park,

Westmoreland State Park,

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