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The Hills Are Alive--With Fragments of Past

Guided hikes and class field trips can lead you to spots rich in such fossils as shells, starfish and sand dollars.


Strange as it seems, you don't have to go to the beach to find shells, sand dollars and other marine treasures.

The hills are loaded with them. Miles from water, these fossils are remnants of a time millions of years ago when the San Fernando Valley, Ventura County and much of Southern California was underwater.

But don't think you can head for hills and stumble across a 50-million-year-old starfish. It's not that easy. Help, however, is all around for anyone wanting to learn more about fossil hunting.

Rock clubs in the Valley and Ventura County sometimes take field trips to fossil-rich spots. There are classes for adults and children that plunk them down in the dirt of the Santa Monica Mountains in search of ancient sea shells.

This weekend there is even a guided hike for those interested in learning something about the geology of these mountains. And, of course, museums are nearby in Los Angeles.

For beginners, it's wise to hook up with experienced rock hounds like those you'll find in rock clubs in Canoga Park, Reseda and Thousand Oaks. Although not all members are into fossils, some have an amazing amount of local lore to share.

"If you don't know where you're going and what you're looking for, you won't have very good success," said Cheryl Council, president of the Conejo Gem & Mineral Club in Thousand Oaks. Even if you find something, it will take an experienced eye to identify it and offer advice on cleaning it.

Her club, which includes about 60 or 70 families, is trying to infuse its ranks with younger members. Its youth group has attracted a couple dozen rock hounds, and among them are Council's two teenagers who have been at it for six years.

"You find your first one and you kind of get hooked," she said.

Before grabbing a hammer and chisel, the novice needs to learn the basics. The rules about collecting on public land are confusing: some agencies prohibit it while others allow some casual collecting of certain types. On private land, the owner's permission is needed. Some good spots are just obscure road cuts or washes; for most, a map is necessary.


And forget dinosaur fossils. It's highly unlikely any of these will be found around here. When these guys thrived 200 million to 65 million years ago, Ventura County and the Valley were, for the most part, under the sea. But underwater forces started creating mountain ranges, gradually pushing the area up out of the water. It surfaced, along with much of Southern California, only to be covered again by water, finally emerging as we see it today during the last few million years.

Paleontologist John Alderson covers all this in a two-day class he teaches through Learning Tree University on the Chatsworth Campus. The evening lecture on March 29 is followed by a four-hour outing March 30 in Topanga Canyon.

Narrow, winding Old Topanga Canyon Road is one of the most popular spots around. Although property ownership is unclear, the road-cuts along here have attracted fossil hunters since the turn of the century. On weekends, cars pull over and families rummage through the rocky debris that has slid down the sandstone cliff next to the road. Turritella shells, shaped like a corkscrew, are easy pickings here.

According to Alderson, the area is rich with marine fossils--more than 100 species including clams, snails, crabs, sand dollars, shark teeth, fish scales and whale bone, estimated to be 16 million to 17 million years old.

During the outing he leads, he explains how the fossils end up in the sedimentary rock layers. The area, probably a shallow-water bay at one time, was under water until 2 million or 3 million years ago.

The Agoura Hills-based Wilderness Institute leads fossil hunting outings in Topanga Canyon, and Alderson will direct one for adults in June. On March 30 and May 25 naturalist John Hughes will do two-hour digs with kids, explaining the geology of the area and helping to identify finds.

"Most of the fossils are in the Santa Monica Mountains--it's full of fossils, there are places by the side of the road," said Alderson, who also leads groups on geology and paleontology trips throughout Southern California.

Experienced fossil hunters will say that the best time to look is after a rain. Water erodes the dirt in canyons, washes and road-cuts, where fossils might be nestled just below the surface.

Those heading for the Santa Monica Mountains must be aware that collecting is prohibited on state and national parkland. But learning is always encouraged, and those interested in knowing more about the fossils and the geologic upheaval that put them here should know about the two outings scheduled this Saturday in the mountains.

At Point Mugu State Park, geologist George Roberts will lead a hike into La Jolla Canyon, identifying rock formations along the way. The other is a jaunt with geologist Greg Sweel into Malibu Creek State Park, where the nature center there has fossilized fish on display.

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