Exploring is kind of my thing and this last weekend was no different. This time a small road trip to meet the in-laws for Mother's Day led to the exploration of an ancient area full of what are known as Devonian Fossils. In fact, there are so many in this area that you are literally stepping right on them as you venture through this "valley" of a spillway. Even more exciting my trip didn't take me to a different state but was found in Coralville, not far from Iowa City.

Credit: Tom Drake
Credit: Tom Drake
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As a young boy, my room was filled with all things dinosaurs, so obviously this stop in Iowa has been on my to-do list for quite some time. I'm speaking about an absolutely beautiful and unique area known as the Devonian Fossil Gorge, where ancient history meets the explorers of today. The area where the fossils are found is actually part of the spillway for the Coralville Dam, another marvel (this time modern) that we also got to check out on the day.

Credit: Tom Drake A view from the informational entrance platform. The area is much bigger and continues to the left of this picture leading to the Iowa River.
Credit: Tom Drake
A view from the informational entrance platform. The area is much bigger and continues to the left of this picture leading to the Iowa River.
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First things first, the Devonian Fossil Gorge offers a unique glimpse into Earth's ancient history. According to scientists, this fossilized sea floor ecosystem dates back over 375 million years to the Devonian period. The Gorge is basically an outdoor museum where visitors can explore well-preserved fossils of ancient marine life, making it a fascinating destination for both casual visitors and avid geologists.

Credit: Tom Drake This is the fossil of a Colonial Coral, with my son's hand for size reference. We found several of these larger fossils on our walk through the gorge.
Credit: Tom Drake This is the fossil of a Colonial Coral, with my son's hand for size reference. We found several of these larger fossils on our walk through the gorge.
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The Gorge was dramatically revealed by the devastating floods of 1993. When floodwaters topped the emergency spillway at the Coralville Dam, they eroded and displaced the landscape, uncovering a treasure trove of fossils.

Credit: Tom Drake The view in the gorge.
Credit: Tom Drake
The view in the gorge.
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This natural event exposed an ancient world that had been hidden beneath the surface, allowing us to step back in time and witness the remnants of a prehistoric marine ecosystem.

Credit: Tom Drake This fossil seemed different from all the others. We thought it might be petrified tree bark. Now zooming in, I think it is more Colonial Coral.
Credit: Tom Drake This fossil seemed different from all the others. We thought it might be petrified tree bark. Now zooming in, I think it is more Colonial Coral.
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Visitors to the Devonian Fossil Gorge can discover a wide variety of fossils embedded in the limestone. Common finds include crinoids, which resemble sea lilies and have long, segmented stems that are often found disarticulated.

Credit: Tom Drake Another view from the top of the gorge.
Credit: Tom Drake
Another view from the top of the gorge.
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The glittering calcite in the limestone, which makes up these fossils, adds a sparkling touch to the rock surfaces.

Credit: Tom Drake This is an example of a Brachiopod.
Credit: Tom Drake
This is an example of a Brachiopod.
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Bryozoans, brachiopods, and occasional molds of mollusk shells like clams and snails are also prevalent.

Credit: Tom Drake Another Brachiopod surrounded by various horn coral and crinoid fossils.
Credit: Tom Drake
Another Brachiopod is surrounded by various horn coral, fenestrate lacy bryozoan and crinoid fossils.
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The site features tracks and trails made by soft-bodied worms and other ancient creatures, as well as rarer fossils like trilobites and conularid shells.

Credit: Tom Drake A couple of mallards made the reeds in the gorge their home.
Credit: Tom Drake
A couple of mallards made the reeds in the gorge their home.
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The Gorge is particularly popular with families and school groups, as it provides an educational and interactive experience. Illustrated maps and numbered markers guide visitors through the site, explaining the various fossils and geological features in an accessible way. This makes the Gorge an excellent day trip destination where kids and family can learn about Earth's history while enjoying some hands-on exploration.

Credit: Tom Drake Tadpoles were in every single pool of the gorge.
Credit: Tom Drake
Tadpoles were in every single pool of the gorge.
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Not to mention the area is teaming with local wildlife. Loads of soon-to-be frogs or toads were found in abundance as tadpoles filled all the small water pools.

Credit: Tom Drake This shiny green bug didn't stick around long, but boy was it vibrant.
Credit: Tom Drake
This shiny green bug didn't stick around long, but boy was it vibrant.
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Insects, ducks, and tiny mammals scurry from rock to tree. It really is a very unique feature for the state of Iowa.

Credit: Tom Drake Most likely the culprit for the many "frog babies."
Credit: Tom Drake
Most likely the culprit for the many "frog babies."
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Adjacent to the Gorge is the Coralville Dam, a structure completed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1958 primarily for flood control. The dam has a maximum discharge capacity of 20,000 cubic feet per second, and its reservoir can hold over 15 billion gallons of water, enough to supply Iowa City and Coralville for over five years.

Visiting the dam provides an opportunity to learn about its engineering and the crucial role it played in both the floods of 1993 and the creation of the Devonian Fossil Gorge.

Credit: Tom Drake Trekking out the bottom of the gorge towards the Iowa River.
Credit: Tom Drake
Trekking out the bottom of the gorge towards the Iowa River.
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Overall, the Devonian Fossil Gorge is a captivating destination, by combining natural history, education, and outdoor adventure. It offers a connection to Iowa's ancient marine past, making it a must-visit for anyone interested in geology, fossils, or simply enjoying a unique family outing. Bonus, the sheer power of the Coralville Dam is an experience in itself. That's another Iowa trip well worth it and checked off.

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