Nestled in the Okanagan Highlands of northeastern Washington, the Stonerose Interpretive Center and Fossil Site brings a modest amount of notoriety to the small former mining town of Republic, Wash. It is also a unique place to visit and become a paleontologist for a day.

First discovered along Knob Hill Road in 1977 by artist and paleobotonist Wes Wehr and paleontologist Kirk Johnson, the Boot Hill Fossil Site is now owned and operated, along with the Stonerose Interpretive Center, by the non-profit group Friends of Stonerose Fossils. While you aren’t likely to uncover a mammoth tusk (wrong timeframe), the Eocene Epoch fossils found are significant to the natural and geological history of the area.

Initially, the site revealed that Republic and its surroundings were once covered by an ancient lake. The structure of this fossil bed is referred to as an “upland lacustrine bed,” the result of a lake filling with encroaching sediment, which settles in layers and stays when the lake empties. In the case of Republic, the lake’s bottom was saturated with coats of volcanic ash, which hardened into sedimentary rock, eventually developing into shale.

Shale is perfect for preserving fossils and is fairly easy to split open, because of its defined strata, caused by the past layering of sediment. As the sediment settled, it caught a variety of plant and insect life in its weight, including insects, fish, leaves, twigs, and bird feathers. Some of these fossils are of species that are now extinct, but the most compelling fossils found at the site embody the earliest known evidence of the Rosaceae (rose family) and Aceraceae (maple family).

In July 2002, “National Geographic Magazine” pictured a Stonerose fossil of an extinct flower species called Florissantia quilchenensis in the article “The Big Bloom”, bringing significant attention to this modest site. The pretty little specimen is also the Stonerose logo, even though it is not from the rose family. Rather, it is from an extinct cocoa tree and was chosen for its unique beauty.

While it is small, the Stonerose Interpretive Center and its fossil dig are an interesting way to spend an afternoon. The center and museum not only house consequential specimens found at the site, but also a wealth of other awe-inspiring fossils found around the world. The Interpretive Center sits one block off the main avenue in historic downtown Republic, and the dig site is just a two-block walk from the front door.

Without a doubt, the best part of your visit is unearthing your own fossils. With a chisel, a small hammer, and a $10 admission fee, you can wade through the rocks, choose a few that catch your eye, and split them open in search of your own fossilized souvenir. The center has tools that you can rent for a small fee, if you don’t bring your own. Each person can keep up to three of the fossils they find, but Stonerose retains the right to any specimen that is critical to the relevance of the site.

The center is open all year, with limited days October through May. The fossil dig, however, is only available to the public the first week of May through the end of October. If you visit outside of this timeframe and it’s not covered in snow, you may be allowed to search through a pile of shale that is heaped behind the center. Also, make sure you read all the instructions and recommendations on the website before visiting.

The Friends of Stonerose Fossils operate and maintain both the center and the site. Travis Wellman, Operations Manager, is usually at the center and is the “go-to” person for questions and information. Andy Brockett, their seasonal aide during the warmer months, is an enthusiastic young man who is readily available to help visitors identify their fossils and learn about everything the center has to offer. If you are looking for something different to do with your family on a weekend this summer, go dig up some fossils, and bring home a peculiar memento to place on your mantle. Find out more and plan your trip at Stonerosefossil.org. //