I'm Lindsay Ferrier, a Nashville writer with a passion for family travel, exploring Tennessee, and raising kids without losing my mind in the process. This is where I share my discoveries, along with occasional deep thoughts, pop culture tangents and a sprinkling of snark. Want to get in touch? Use the CONTACT form at the top of the page.
July 6, 2015
A few months ago, my kids and I were walking along a dried-up portion of riverbed on the Harpeth River Greenway when we came upon a FOSSIL. I had never seen anything like it before, and when I got home I began searching the Internet to try and figure out exactly what it was. That’s when I discovered that our area is rich with easy-to-find fossils, many of which are nearly 500 million years old!
Since that fateful day, we’ve been to several fossil sites in and around Nashville and found plenty of specimens to add to our growing fossil collection. We’ve had so much fun hunting for fossils and learned so much about the history of our earth in the process that I just had to share so that you could try it with your own family.
So let’s get started with some instant gratification. You won’t believe it, but my favorite fossil hunting site so far is right beside a spot nearly every family in Nashville has visited at some point– Red Caboose Park. Park in the lot and walk up to the top of the park along Hwy 70. Just past the Red Caboose Park sign on the Hwy 70 sidewalk, you’ll see a wall of rock.
Take a good look and you’ll discover that this rock wall is absolutely loaded with fossils– Best of all, the rock crumbles easily so it takes no time at all to find fossil specimens in the bits of rock piled at the bottom of the wall– and the fossils themselves have often worked their way out of the crumbly rock that’s held them for millions of years. Within just a few minutes, we’d found these–
These are brachiopods, clam-like filter feeders that ruled the sea floors during the Paleozoic Era. You can read more about them here.
In fact, pick up just about any rock on the sidewalk and if you look closely, you’ll see that it’s loaded with shells and shell fragments. It just kills me that I’ve driven past this rock wall for 15 years and never had a clue about what was in it. This rock is part of the Leipers Formation and fossils here date back to the Ordovician Period, which started about 488 million years ago and ended about 443 million years ago. At that time, Tennessee was a tropical marine environment south of the equator with warm, shallow seas, which means you’ll find a LOT of shell and marine fossils around here.
In about 15 minutes, we had found more fossils than we could carry. The city clears away this rock debris periodically in order to keep the sidewalk clear, so don’t worry– these fossils are yours for the taking!
While shells are the most common fossil find here, you’ll also see lots of bryozoans sticking out of the rock- You might even find some on the ground. These are known as “moss animals”- aquatic invertebrates that lived in colonies and take on a lot of different forms as fossils. Learn more about them here.
Even more fossils can be found across Highway 70. Park in the Bellevue Presbyterian Church lot and walk down the sidewalk to get to the rock wall on the other side of the highway. It’s a bit farther down than the rock wall on the Red Caboose side, so we haven’t been there yet, but we plan to check it out in the future. This site is also very helpful in identifying Red Caboose fossils– The photos are great!
One note- Highway 70 is VERY busy, so this site is only good for children who will stay on the sidewalk and not dart off into traffic. If you have smaller children, you might want to try this next spot instead–
The Nashville West Target! You may have never noticed before, but if you drive down into the Target parking lot (off of Charlotte Pike), there’s an enormous rock wall to your left with plenty of parking beside it. This rock is part of the Catheys formation. It’s mostly limestone and shale and is of Middle Ordovician age, which means fossils found here are about 450 million years old. This is a great spot to take small children to hunt for fossils. There are lots of shell-filled rocks to choose from that have weathered out of the wall over time. We went on a very hot day and didn’t stay long, but we found plenty of shell fragments in the rocks at the base of the wall. In my opinion, the Red Caboose Park rock wall has a better selection, but the Nashville West Target is definitely the safer fossil-hunting option.
There are several more fossil sites in and around Nashville that have been deemed ‘safe’ by the state (meaning that there’s nearby parking and the site is considered to be appropriate for children). The state of Tennessee has a fantastic brochure available online listing these sites, as well as an illustrated guide of what you might find while you’re there. We will definitely be checking out more of these sites in the months to come!
We have also had luck fossil hunting along the riverbed on the Harpeth River Greenway at Morton Mill. Stop at the bridge that crosses the Harpeth River just past the golf course and walk down to the river. We’ve found all kinds of interesting rocks down there- You never know what the river is going to wash up. I still haven’t figured out what this is– Any guesses?
Warner Park does occasional guided fossil walks at the quarry on the park’s property. Check the Warner Park schedule to see when the next one is coming up. If you can get a group together, you might even be able to convince one of the rangers to schedule a fossil walk just for you!
Fort Negley periodically has fossil days and they are GREAT for kids. They dump a load of quarry stone on the lawn and amateur fossil hunters are encouraged to come and take home whatever they can find. Best of all, experts from Vanderbilt are on hand to help you identify what you’ve found. We had a great time at the last dig. Be sure and dress to get dirty!
Need more guidance or help identifying what you’ve found? Go to a Fossil Finders meeting at Fort Negley in Nashville, held on the second Saturday of each month from 10am-12pm. Geologists and other experts are on hand to help guide your search and answer questions.
Got more fossil information on the area? Share it in the comments- We’re now hooked on fossil hunting and would love to learn more!