We admit to being geology geeks. While we find rocks cool, we think fossils are the best things to find in the rocks. K-Country is full of fossils, but you have to know where to look to find them. Some places are far better than others!
Where do you find K-Country fossils?
There are a number of rock formations in K-Country that have fossils. The easiest to find, and the one with the greatest density of fossils, is the Mount Head formation.
The Mount Head is part of the Rundle group, which are lower carboniferous rocks of Mississippian age (about 340 million years old). In this time period, what are now the Rundle group rocks of K-Country were the bottom of a warm shallow sea located near the equator, and they were full of coral atolls and reefs. Time and pressure turned the calcium of the shells of the corals into limestones. The Rundle group was named for Mt. Rundle where it was first studied in 1953. The Mount Head is part of the top ~30 m layer of the Rundle group, but you don’t need to climb Mt. Rundle to find it.
Because the thrust sheets that make up the front ranges piled up the formations, the Mount Head repeats at least 5 times between the Continental Divide and the edge of the McConnell thrust (the big fault that forms most of the front ranges and sits at the base of Yamnuska). Highway 40 crosses the Mount Head, as does the Smith Dorrien-Spray Trail.
Which hikes are best for fossils?
Hikes that cross the Mount Head, from the westernmost thrusts to the easternmost ones, include (but are not limited to):
- Aster Lake (and coincidentally Fossil Falls) and Three Isle Lake set up by the Borgeau Thrust;
- Rummel, Chester, Headwall Lakes and James Walker Creek, all set up by the Sulphur Mountain Thrust. Those giant Elephant Rocks just above Chester Lake are Mount Head, and are full of fossils.
- Sparrowhawk Tarns, Galatea Creek, Grizzly Creek, Opal Ridge, Elpoca Creek, Elbow Lake, Rae Glacier, Ptarmigan Cirque and Arethusa Basin on the Rundle Thrust;
- The Mt. Wintour scramble on the Lewis Thrust;
- Pigeon Mountain, Skogan Pass, Old Baldy, Evan-Thomas Creek and Tombstone Pass on the McConnell Thrust.
On any of these hikes you can expect to encounter fossils. On top of that, Ben Gadd’s excellent “Canadian Rockies Geology Road Tours” book features a couple of stops on Hwy 40 to look at Mount Head fossils in roadside outcrops (including near the Eau Claire Campground), so you don’t even need to go for a walk if you don’t want to.
Our fave: Sparrowhawk Tarns
For sheer density of fossils and lots of space to find them, our favourite place to explore is Sparrowhawk Tarns. The photo at right is the Tarns basin as seen from the base of Read’s Tower. On the route up to the Tarns, smack dab in the middle of the trail, is the first obvious one: a coral called Canadiphyllum, pictured at the top of this page. Don’t trip on him!
Up in the basin itself, there are large expanses of rock with shell beds. These are so well preserved, you would swear they’re the kind of thing you would find on the beaches and sand dunes of K-Country (which we’ll write about on another page). The modern day equivalent of these shells would be Limpets.
You can find prehistoric worm burrows, like the ones pictured to the right, or fan coral remnants, pictured below. The fossils in the basin run the gamut from small burrows the size of your baby fingernail, to giant coral heads bigger than your arm.
What makes the Tarns so good for fossils?
Sparrowhawk Tarns is a great place to look
for fossils because the eastern side of the upper basin is a very large exposure of the Mount Head. Mt. Bogart is almost all Mount Head formation, and it’s eroding into the tarns basin, too, so you can actually find Mount Head scree full of fossils lying on uneroded Mount Head.
We would love to get up to the Tarns with a fossil expert and get identifications of these. Sparrowhawk Tarns has other things going for it, such as larches, pikas and marmots, so it really should be on your list of “places to go”. It’s readily accessible from the Sparrowhawk Day Use area on the Smith Dorrien-Spray Trail by a 5 km unofficial route that climbs about 600 m. The Tarns themselves, for which the basin is named, have more water in the spring and almost dry up in the fall. But we like the colours up there in the fall.
Collecting fossils in any of the Provincial Parks or recreation areas is illegal, by the way. Look. Take pictures. But leave the rocks and fossils there for others to discover, too.
Find out about other special places and things in K-Country here!