Play Paleontologist at These 5 Fossil-Filled Civilian Dinosaur Dig Sites

Because we all wanted to be Dr. Alan Grant.

It’s not too late to give up your childhood dream of digging for dinosaurs. Being a real field paleontologist involves going to school for decades, reading mountains of dense academic research, applying for grants, and spending much more time analyzing specimens than searching for them — so maybe you made the right decision. Maybe it’s better to be a part time dinosaur hunter, to visit one of the many sites the world over where you can help the professionals find fossils. You probably won’t uncover the next complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton, but you’ll definitely have some good, dirty fun.

Here’s a few places you can get started:

South Dakota's dinosaur-filled badlands.

Phil Roussin/Flickr

The Badlands of South Dakota

Paleoadventures offers single- and multi-day fossil dig adventures in South Dakota. The sites are ancient creek beds, where fossils are abundant but rarely preserved as part of a partial or complete skeleton. You might find dinosaur bones, dinosaur teeth, turtle shell fragments, or fossilized plants. You can keep up to $50-worth of fossils you find a day — if you find something particularly valuable, like a T-rex tooth, you might have to have to pay extra to take it home. Also, if you happen upon something of scientific significance, all you get is bragging rights — the specimen will be shipped off to a museum for analysis and safekeeping.

Mongolian rock formations

Einar Fredriksen/Flickr


Mongolia (and northern China) is the new global hotspot for paleontological discoveries, and it’s not difficult to find tour operators who will show you around for a price. Be careful wary, though, of any company that promises to let you keep what you find. It’s illegal in both China and Mongolia to export dinosaur fossils, although the official rules have done little to hinder international trade. You might want to stay on the safe side. It’s hard to imagine a worse end to a vacation then spending time in jail.

The Hell Creek Formation is full of fossils

Bureau of Land Management/Flickr

The Hell Creek Formation, Montana

The PaleoWorld Research Foundation has a two-month-long annual dig season, and amateurs are invited to come along for a day or the whole thing. The organization promises that this isn’t just a tourist attraction — you’ll be contributing to actual research and working alongside a real paleontologist. It’s no walk in the park: local temperatures can hit 120 degrees, and hot sun can turn to hailstorms in an instant. But hey, if you want to be a real (pretend) paleontologist, this comes with the territory.

Manitoba is dinosaur country.

Robert Linsdell/Flickr

Manitoba, Canada

The Canadian Fossil Discovery Center takes aspiring paleontologists out for fossil hunts in southern Manitoba. The bones and teeth you might find here are not technically dinosaurs, though, but prehistoric marine reptiles that creeped through the Western Interior Seaway in the Cretaceous period, about 80 million years ago. This part of the planet used to be covered in a shallow, salty sea, and when animals died they fell to sea floor. In ideal conditions, the corpses became buried in clay that over time fossilized into hardened rock.

We can't stop here, it's dinosaur country.

Albert de Bruijn/Flickr

Death Valley, California

What this tour lacks in getting your hands dirty, it makes up for in exclusivity. The National Parks Service organizes rare, ranger-led tours of areas of Death Valley that are normally off limits to the public. The day-long hike takes adventurers up though a dramatic canyon, which eventually opens up to views of a wide, colorful basin. Here, youll see the tracks of ancient birds, horses, camels, and mastodon-like beasts. Only three tours were organized for the short 2015-2016 season, and one was cancelled due to flooding on the access road. Each hike is limited to 15 participants, and you have to enter a lottery to win one of the coveted spots.