The Paleo Site just east of Payson is a hot bed for finding fossils! Even though we had no real “tools” or experience, we were able to find dozens of fossils in the hour that we spent there! From what I understand, over 300 million years ago Arizona was covered by shallow seas. Apparently the fossils you find here are of the Naco Formation, a Pennsylvanian Shale-Limestone that was deposited about 300 million years ago. We have been to Payson many times and have found a few fossils on hikes along the Mogollon Rim, but this site was a wealth of fossils!
Apparently it is ok to collect fossils as long as they are not vertebrate fossils. According the the Bureau of Land Management’s website, “The OPLMA-PRP provides for casual collecting of reasonable amounts of common invertebrate and plant fossils from public lands for personal use without a permit.” see http://www.blm.gov for more info.
The Paleo Site is marked by a sign, approximately 12-13 miles east of Payson, just before the Kohl’s Ranch Turnoff. The parking area is even large enough to accommodate most motor homes and travel trailers.
Park in the lot and go through the gate south of the lot. The main collecting area is about 100 yards on the right.
You can see that many people have excavated here by looking closely at the rock areas. There are hammer/chisel marks and a lot of fine limestone. One time we were fortunate enough to run into some real live Paleontologists while we were there! They were fossil hunting on their day off, and were happy to show us how and what to find. They all had special rock hammers that they easily picked at the rock with. However, we didn’t bring any tools, so the kids used rocks to pick at the limestone. It worked, but would be much easier with a hammer, chisel, screw driver, or something like that. You need to be careful not to wreck the fossils, but the rock isn’t very hard, so it is easy to chip at gently. I would recommend bringing some of your tools from your garage, and a bucket or bag. We ususally have rock hammers, screw drivers, and other pointy tools to chip away the limestone. You can easily pick one up rock hammers at one of the many a mining supply stores in Arizona, or online.
Overall, we mostly found a ton of Brachiopods. Once you know what to look for, you quickly realize the area is imbedded with them! One of my teenage boys wandered around a bit at the top of the formation and found some other fossils under rocks and in larger rocks near the site. We found brachiopods, fenestrate bryozoans, bi-valve, spiriferoides, & crinoid stems.
Everyone was able to find some sort of fossil to take home. Whether you have 30 minutes or 3 hours, you will find a wealth of fossils and history here!