[September 2020 Update: Purse State Park is now known as the Purse area within the Nanjemoy Wildlife Management Area in Charles County, MD. And since this post was first published in August 2015, it has grown greatly in popularity (if my stats are in indication, this post had a lot to do with that, which I’m not sure is a good or bad thing), and it’s not the hidden gem it once was. The small parking lot is now always full, cars are parked down the side of the road near the trailhead that leads to the beach, and many more people fill up the narrow stretch of sand along the river. It may not be a bad idea to check out some alternative places to find fossils around the area.]
You’ve got to love when a recommendation for a great adventure comes straight from an expert. I also appreciate when friends think of KFDC upon finding out about cool places to explore. Those two things combined are exactly what what brought us to Purse State Park (now the Purse Area of the Nanjemoy WMA) in Charles County, MD, a couple of weeks ago.
On a recent visit to the National Museum of Natural History, my friend Jody got into a conversation with a paleontologist about searching for fossilized shark teeth (a random obsession she and I share), and learned that Purse is known for yielding excellent fossil finds. Once she shared that information with me, it wasn’t long before we made a trip out there with our kids for a day of digging, swimming, picnicking, and exploring.
Purse State Park is just over an hour’s drive away from DC along a part of the Potomac River called Wades Bay, where woods meet water. There’s a very small parking lot across the street from the trail head that leads to the pretty and peaceful beach area about a quarter of a mile away.
A narrow strip of sand stretches along the shoreline, tree branches from the woods overhanging in a few spots. But the “jewels” of the locale are hidden among the piles of shells and small rocks at the water’s edge, where you’ll easily find fossils from sharks, fish, shells, even crocodiles, many of them over 30 million and some up to 60 million years old.
It’s important to check the tide table (search Potomac River/Liverpool Point, MD) when you plan a visit, since the already narrow strip of sand thins out even more at high tide. Not only is it easier to sift through the piles of shells and rocks, but the kids have space to play in the sand and spread out a bit. The water is also nice and shallow for swimming (yes, in the Potomac!) at that time.
Having those extra activities for the kids was ideal, since they did their fossil hunting in short spurts, though Sasha found one of the larger shark teeth of our stash. Jody and I, however, were crouched by the river for long stretches of time, plucking all kinds of fossils from handfuls of sand and shells. A small area at the end of a little stream trickling from the woods to the river was a boon for shark teeth of all sizes, dental plate fragments, shellfish molds, fossilized shells, and possibly part of a turtle shell (this website is great for helping identify fossils). We met an Arlington woman there who does a lot of fossil hunting, and she said Purse is by far one of the higher yielding spots for shark and occasionally crocodile teeth.
We both left with nice stashes of fossils, and back home I added our new findings to a collection in a mason jar, save for a few teeth that Sasha included in birthday cards for friends. And I have to confess: I’m already jonesing for a fossil hunting fix — it’s that addicting! — and the nerd in me really, really hopes to score a crocodile tooth next time.
Purse State Park (now the Purse Area in the Nanjemoy WMA) is located in Charles County in Nanjemoy, MD, according to GPS. It’s open sunrise to sunset, and admission is free. There are no concessions or facilities, so plan accordingly.