Chicago Rocks & Minerals Society, Chicago, IL
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Chicago Rocks and Minerals Society
Chicago Rocks and Minerals Society
Chicago Rocks and Minerals Society
Chicago Rocks and Minerals Society

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Hunting Fossil "Bugs" in Utah
by Donald Baumgartner
From: LOESS Bulletin, 12/2010
1st Place — 2011 MWF Advanced Adult Articles

Trilobite Jam

Our host Jake Skabelund and staff of the American Trilobite Suppliers, planned for everything and spared no expense to make this experience safe, memorable, and rewarding for all 60 fossil collectors from California, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, and other states. They scoured the area for potentially rich trilobite outcrops to quarry (6 quarries in all, most brand new) obtained all necessary government permits to lease the land and paid the fees, hired locals with heavy machinery to expose the trilobite layers below ground, rented several port-a-johns (even with solar lights to find them in the dark), provided hand-wash stations, enticed a rock hunting equipment dealer to be on site to sell tools if needed, and arranged for a rock table saw for free use to cut down slabs. They even offered attractive T-shirts and caps for sale. I was really impressed with the planning, preparations, and accommodations.

Looking around, I was "not in Kansas (err Chicago) any more". This is the desert, in July. Sunny, cloudless skies, no trees, no shade, no bushes, rocks and cactus, and very hot (in upper 90s to over 100 daily). Needless to say, heat exhaustion and heat stroke is a clear and present danger. You cannot cool down in the dry desert because any sweat evaporates immediately. Water, water, and more water is the key to survival, and the Jam staff were well prepared. They did not want any fossil nuts dropping dead and becoming fossils themselves.

Hourly, Jam staff visited each quarry by ATV to check people with water supplies. "It's even too hot for rattlesnakes" as the Jam experts told us - now that's hot! One thing good about desert fossil collecting is that you do not have to worry about a sudden rainstorm spoiling your plans, and mosquitoes and the pesky deer flies are nonexistent. I definitely over-packed roc- tool-wise for this trip, as I really did not know what to expect. All you need are comfortable clothes (long pants of course), a hat, sunscreen, knee pads, boots, water jug, your Eastwing, newspaper to wrap fossils, buckets, flats for fossil storage, a large special pry bar to peel-up the rock layers, and a special iron blade sharpened at one edge to split the layers. While good at home on hard Silurian limestone, sledges, chisels, and safety glasses can be left at home. It's all about splitting the rock layers in the hope of finding trilobites, revealed as positive and negative halves. While one person recommended bringing a tent/canopy as a sun shield, I never used it, as it was impractical with the desert dry wind gusts that came suddenly out of nowhere. The special pry bar and most important iron blades were nothing I ever saw in the Midwest and are not available in hardware stores (I looked). However, the rock hound equipment supplier at the Jam has these (Geological Tools and Outfitter, phone 435/225-6421).

The trilobite collecting was not as dreamed. They were not all over the place and actually were hard to find at most of the quarries after splitting sheets of rocks. The Bathyuriscus and Wheeler quarries were the best for me. These rock layers split rather easily using the iron blades. I would estimate that maybe 1-2 complete trilobites per hour could be found from the hard labor in the desert sun. Did I say it was hot! Yes, I did collect a few complete trilobites and lots of parts in two full days. My greatest finds, though, were the other rarer Cambrian fossils, such as a couple Golgia, occasional small early brachiopods, a huge phyllocarid, and a large Tuzia. I only collected at the Jam for two days of the four potential. The long dusty drive (2 1/2 hours each way), and desert sun and heat really took a toll on this ageing body, which made fossil hunting rather unbearable after 2-3 hours. Although maybe a contributing factor was the antibiotics I was taking at the time, with label warnings of "stay out of the sun," stupid. What we risk for that perfect fossil. Well, at least there were no biting flies to worry about. No insects at all, so leave the bug repellent at home.

While in the area of Delta, a public fee fossil quarry worth visiting is U-Dig. This mid-Cambrian trilobite quarry is famous among fossil nuts for its trilobite Elrathia kingi. It is rather easy to get to, but the trip from Delta is long - about 50 miles out of Delta, west on a paved road and another hour's slower drive for 10 miles on an increasingly degraded, dusty desert gravel road to the quarry. The turn-offs are rather well marked. You can just show up, but before you go, I recommend a visit to the small U-Dig "Bug House" (ph. 435/864-3638) in Delta to verify the quarry hours, directions, and access. Be aware that the quarry is closed on Sundays. While at the store, buy your souvenir U-Dig T-shirt. The Bug House also carries a small selection of fossils for sale. The Bug House is hard to find, though (specific directions at end of article). Yet another public access, nearby trilobite quarry is A New Dig, but I did not have time to try this one, and another collector said that it was closed (may have to call ahead for an appointment).

The only other fossil store in Delta is West Desert Collectors (ph. 435/864-2175), off Main street, north side of the street, next to the hardware store. While the largest supply of fossils for sale in town, it has no great diversity, but ask to see the back where they have much more. Overall, there is a pitiful representation of fossil stores in Delta, for being one of the major Cambrian trilobite locations in the U.S.

Many side diversions exist in Utah. One I highly recommend is Moab, in the southeast part of the State. More desert, but Arches National Park is scenic, and the rock shop in Moab is not to be missed. If you're into dinosaur bones and petrified wood, this store has plenty, in large sizes and cheap. Yet another day side-trip is The Dinosaur Discovery Site in the southwest corner of Utah. They are supposed to have a great museum on dinosaur trackways, with day tours, but they are closed on Sundays. What fossil attraction closes on Sundays in the summer? So, I could not fit it into my scheduled trip this time. From Delta, Utah, you can also drive north into southwest Wyoming (only 1/2 day drive distant) for the world famous fossil fish, which will be covered in a future article.

I hope this account of my summer excursion to Delta, Utah, in search of those elusive trilobites will be retained by you and used as a reference for your own future trip to Utah. Due to the success of this first Trilobite Jam, the organizers now advertise a repeat trip next year in 2011 to be held June 23-26, 2011.

Would I agree to go again? Maybe. The trilobites were not as abundant as I anticipated, and when factoring in the costs of travel, gas, hotel, food, days off work, new tires, etc... .However, I collected some trilobite species and other animals that I rarely find available commercially at local shows or on eBay. The experience was memorable and something I can reminiscence about for years to come. Was it worth the trip expense and heat exhaustion? Yes. Would I recommend that others go and follow in my footsteps? Yes, certainly. You will find trilobites. You will have fun, as long as you prepare for the desert (sun and heat), expect average accommodations, and do not mind an inch of desert dust all over the inside of your car (guys - find a woman to help clean your car afterwards - they are just better at it). This is another fossil adventure for your "bucket list" - one less thing in my "bucket". Now the problem we all have - how do I sneak these trilobites into the house without my wife finding out, and where do I store them?

All in all, this fossil trilobite trip was fun and productive. The 13 fossil trilobite species treasures that I collected included: Bathyuriscus fimbriatus: Bolaspidella wellsvillensis: Ptychagnostus cuyanus: Modocia laevenucha; Linguagnostus perplexus; Utaspis marjumensis; Bolaspidella sp.; Olenoides superbus: Asaphiscus wheeleri; Hemirhodon ampligyge: Marjumia callas: Elrathia kingi: and Alokistocare harrisi. Other Cambrian fossil animals I collected included: trilobite resting traces Ruscophycus: large pyllocarid; Tuzoia sp; Gogia spiralis; sponge Diagonella sp.; Anomalocaris coprolite; algal balls?; brachiopods Acrothele subsidua; and a possible worm.

I wish to acknowledge and thank the following rock hounds who promptly responded to my inquiries for advice and provided collecting suggestions: Jack Null, Tom Stout, Alan Silverstein, and Dave Fen.

Useful References:

Trilobite Jam:

American Trilobite Suppliers at

U-Dig Trilobite Quarry: ; Bug House store at 350 E. 300 South, Delta, UT, 435/864-3638 or 435/864-2402 (hard to find - turn South off Main at McDonalds and go to 300 South, turn left (east) on 300 to end of road and follow curve to the store on your left)

Other Trilobite Quarry: A New Dig at

Related Web Sites on Utah Trilobites:

Videos on Utah Trilobite Hunting:

Moab, Utah Rock Shop:
Moab Rock Shop, 600 North Main,
Moab, UT, 435/259-7312 or

Utah Dino Track Site:
Dinosaur Discovery Site, 2180 E. Riverside,
St George, UT 84790, 435/574-3466 or

Area Store Worth Visiting:
West Desert Collectors, 278 W. Main,
Delta, UT 435/864-2175 (ask to see more fossils in back)

Fossil Tool Supplier:
Geological Tools and Outfitter,

Area Accommodations:
Days Inn, 527 Topaz Blvd.,
Delta, UT 84624, ph. 435/864-3882

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