The Mineral Wells Fossil Park is open as of May 8 this year. This may be the only public park in the U.S. where visitors are guaranteed to find 300 million-year-old fossils and can keep all they find.
"We used to call them Indian beads," says Donnie Hoover, superintendent of the city Parks and Recreation Depart-ment. "We would string them together and make necklaces."
What he's talking about are the shirt-collar-button-size, limestone-colored rocks that were part of strawlike crinoids (sea lilies), which once lived on the bottom of a shallow seabed that at one time covered much of Texas. If these creatures weren't invertebrates, you might describe the sections as vertebrae of a plant stalk. Millions of the fossils are scattered under the surface of an area stretching from Arlington to nearly Abilene.
Lucky fossil hunters at the park might also find nautilus-shaped straparollus, conical snails, or even ancient teeth from a shark. Since the 1990s, the pit has been a not-so-secret fossil-hunting ground.
At first Hoover couldn't understand what the hoopla was about when the Dallas Paleontological Society suggested the city turn the former borrow pit for a landfill into a park (see "Day Trips," Nov. 27, 2009). Then he saw the smiles on the visitors as they searched the loose dirt for tiny bits of the past. Even if the fossils aren't worth anything scientifically, finding them is as fun as hunting seashells on a beach.
"It's amazing," Hoover says. "Folks 5 years to 80 years old have a great time looking for the pieces." He found 52 fossils within arm's length in one sitting. He's still looking for his first trilobite.
Beth Henary Watson of the local chamber of commerce says scientists estimate that the pit has many years' supply of fossils. Every time it rains, a new crop of the round rocks are exposed. With the assistance of Dallas Paleontological Society members, the chamber has put together an excellent website and brochure.
"It's a wonderful learning environment," says Lee Higginbotham, an enthusiastic supporter of the new park and a member of the Dallas club. The Paleontological Society raised money to help pay for minimal improvements to the park. So far, private donations from around the state have raised $6,500 for fencing, a parking lot, and portable toilets.
"It is still very primitive out there," Hoover says. "We've only done enough to make it safe." The city has added a sign identifying the most common fossils, a chain handrail leading into the pit, and a wheelchair-accessible deck. "You're stepping back in time down in the pit," he says. "Even cell phones won't work down there."
The Mineral Wells Fossil Park is located at 2375 Indian Creek Rd., off U.S. 180 on the western edge of town. The park is open free of charge Friday through Monday from 8am to dusk. For more information, go to www.mineralwellsfossilpark.com or call the chamber at 940/325-2557.
984th in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of "Day Trips" 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.
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