One of the world’s most famous fossil sites is Canada’s Burgess Shale, which contains a large assortment of ancient and amazingly well-preserved (often soft-bodied) marine fossils. Originally discovered at high altitude in the mountains of British Columbia’s Yoho National Park in 1909, the Burgess Shale was one of the important reasons for the designation of the region as a UNESCO World Heritage site. There are two Burgess Shale sites in Yoho National Park you can visit, both long hikes with significant altitude gain. One is to Mount Stephen and the other to Walcott Quarry.
Recently a sister site has been discovered further south in Kootenay National Park, about 25 miles (40 km) south of the original site. That find was discovered in 2012 and is providing extremely rich fossil deposits; it may prove even more informative than the original sites in Yoho. Already thousands of museum quality specimens have been found, representing 55 taxa many of which are new to science. Most are of small invertebrates, many with no exoskeleton, although the oldest described vertebrate fossil in the world was found right here.
Alberta has the richest deposits of Jurassic era dinosaur fossils in the world (circa 200 million years ago), but those found in the Burgess Shale are older and rarer. They are thought to date back about 500 million years and are perhaps some of the earliest complex life forms on Earth. Many are small and quite bizarre looking, but the environment of the shale formation helped preserve them. Here is an example, courtesy of Parks Canada….
To see more of these odd-looking marine creatures, I recommend a look at this gallery. If you would like to learn more about the Burgess Shale, I’d suggest visiting the Royal Ontario Museum’s website.
The Hike to the Stanley Glacier Basin
All of the Burgess Shale fossil discovery trips in the Rocky Mountains are hosted by Parks Canada and it is mandatory that you have a park warden or official geologist accompany you. This is to provide expert interpretation of the site, as well as to keep precise location of the key finds a secret to help preserve the fossil deposits from theft (it is illegal to collect any of these fossils).
I was one of 10 people on an August weekend morning to take the tour of the Burgess Shale deposits in the Stanley Glacier basin. Stanley Glacier has long been one of my favorite hikes in the Rockies, but to learn about the fossils was something I was quite excited about. The hike is about three miles each way, with an altitude gain of 1100 ft (depending on how close to the Glacier you go), which my wobbly knees and I can still manage. You can learn more about the hike at this link.
In addition to the park warden, we were greeted by a misty often rainy morning. While I prefer dry sunny days, the mist was lovely and added a lot of beauty to the already magnificent landscape.
The Stanley Glacier is a hanging glacier in a hanging valley, the valley having been carved during the last great Ice Age. The layer containing the actual Burgess Shale is high on the cliff-side, in a dark band, and itself is not accessible without climbing gear and permits. But because of the glacier’s activity, it’s fairly easy to find fossils in the moraine field of the glacier.
The Warden shared rare Burgess Shale fossils from a locked chest at the site, some of which you can see in the photos below. As late afternoon arrived, the sky cleared considerably and we were rewarded with some nice views of the Stanley Glacier as we returned to the trail-head. If you have an interest in geology or natural discovery in general, the hike is highly recommended. If you want a greater physical challenge, then I’d recommend the hikes to the fossil beds in Yoho National Park.
(Click on thumbnails to enlarge, right arrow to advance slide show)