Years ago, when I worked for the Living Classrooms Foundation in Baltimore, we would take students on multi day sailing trips around the Chesapeake Bay, with stopovers at major highlights. One of these stops was Calvert Cliffs State Park, where we’d camp and spend several hours combing the beach for fossilized shark teeth.
Remembering how much I always enjoyed this stop, I decided to do some research on the fossils that can be found at Calvert Cliffs in order to put together an educational display for the Fishmobile.
The first thing I did was join a Facebook group. This is a great way to learn more about a particular topic from people who are knowledgeable and excited about that topic. There is a group specifically for fossil hunting around Calvert Cliffs and folks are happy to share general areas for where they are finding specific fossils and help newbies like myself identify our finds. This was a great first stop to learn more about where to go, plus I got to see what people were finding at the different sites.
There are actually several formations that make up the cliffs, which are around 20 miles long. At the northern end, the fossils are part of the Calvert Formation and at the southern end, the fossils are part of the St. Marys Formation. All of these formations are from the Miocene Age, which occurred from 6 to 20 million years ago. For more information, click here.
While shark teeth are some of the most highly sought after fossils from these formations, you can also find fossilized scallop shells, the Maryland state fossil (Ecphora gardnerae gardnerae), fossilized bones from a variety of marine mammals, as well as crocodile teeth.
When planning a trip, there are a couple of things to consider. The best season to hunt for fossils is in the winter because rough weather means more erosion on the cliffs, with fossils ending up on the beach. In addition, the best time of day to go is at low tide, when more beach is exposed. However, weather conditions may be unpleasant so you have to decide how uncomfortable you are willing to be in the name of fossil hunting. This is an especially important consideration if you are taking little ones.
Another decision involves which location you want to hunt; there are several different spots where you can hunt for fossils from these formations. Calvert Cliffs State Park tends to be a popular spot but it does require just under a 2 mile walk out to the beach. From Labor Day to Memorial Day (the off-season), park entrance costs $5 per vehicle. Fee collection was on the honor system when I went in January and this park is open every day from sunrise to sunset. This is a state park, which means lots of amenities including public restrooms, water fountains, a playground, and maintained paths. The Red trail is the one that will take you to the beach and is generally flat, with slight inclines and areas that get muddy when the weather is wet. For more information on the park, visit the park website.
It was a chilly, grey January day when I visited Calvert Cliffs State Park. You can see the beach in the background and some Phragmites eradication in the foreground (the black tarps).
Aside from the State Park, you can also choose to hunt at several other locations. These include Flag Ponds, Matoaka Beach Cabins, and Breezy Point. Flag Ponds is a county park that is only open Friday through Monday and the entrance fee depends on the time of year and whether you are a county resident or not. The walk to the beach here is quite a bit shorter than at the State Park, at only a ½ mile so this may be a better option if you’ve got little ones exploring with you. Visit the park website for more park information.
Matoaka Beach Cabins is another option with a short walk (¼ mile) to the beach, but does involve some steep stairs. This spot is managed by a private business that rents cabins but they also allow beach visitors for a fee. The beach is available to visit every day, from 7am to sunset and costs $5 per person during the week and $10 per person on the weekend. Visit the business website for more information including an address. If you visit this spot, be sure to avoid driving up the private driveway on the left side of the road to the beach.
Breezy Point is another county run facility but it is only open from May 1st to October 31st, so if you are going in the winter months, this spot is not an option. It does have a limited capacity and fills up quickly on the weekends, so if you decide to visit this location, arrive early! This spot is also a little more expensive to visit, at $20 a person for out of county residents. You can check out the park website for more information on visiting and the amenities.
I enjoyed my trip to Calvert Cliffs State Park in January and I even managed to find a single shark tooth, along with lots of scallop shells. Even though it was cold, I brought a thermos of hot tea, lots of water and snacks, hand warmers, and I dressed in layers to stay warm. This was one of several trips I plan to take this year to explore some of the unique outdoor activities we can enjoy here in Maryland. Later this year, I hope to visit Soldier’s Delight to learn more about the unique serpentine ecosystem found there and I encourage you to find new spots to visit or to revisit old favorites. Get out and explore this year!
– Dr. Kristen