The Racehorse landslide fossil fields

By Dave Tucker   June 10, 2016 with occasional updates by readers.

Eocene leaf fossil at Racehorse landslide fossil fields.

ACCESS UPDATE

The final access road to Racehorse Landslide has been “put to bed” by the DNR. There is now a big barrier at the start of the branch road leading to the start of the way trail to the landslide, and there are several steep, deep trenches along the road where culverts have been removed. This change adds one mile each way to the hiking distance, but the trip is not difficult: 1.5 miles one way , with 800 feet of elevation gain. Two friends and I recently did trail work, and the way trail is easy to follow. The landslide area is grown up with lots of young trees, rocks are weathering away, but there are still fossils to see for folks who ascend to the ridge overlooking the slide, and good scenic views. According to reader ‘Rob’, who visited on visited 7-23-2016,  there are 17 large ditches where culverts were removed. “Those guys must be paid per ditch. Bicycle was no help with all the ditches. The area has grown in allot compared to these photos. Fossils are plentiful and fun fun fun to find. The view from the boulders above the dead tree landmark is worth the hike up(follow main trail past big dead tree).”

May 7, 2016 by ‘Arlyn’: There is a red gate across the road about 2 miles from the Racehorse Creek intersection so access requires road walking. The gate is there by Sierra Pacific. I called yesterday and was told that this gate is locked all the time now, unless open for a special event, a logging operation or for some hunting seasons. Walking, horseback and bicycles are ok for entrance.

The Field Trip

Plentiful Eocene plant fossils can be found in Chuckanut formation rubble left by the Racehorse Creek landslide (see that field trip here). This is a great place to take kids for the thrill of the hunt. It requires only a few minutes of walking on a boot-beaten track through fireweed of a clearcut. The landslide occurred January 7, 2009. The site is on DNR property; collecting plant fossils is permitted, but it is illegal to take any vertebrate fossils from the site (almost none have been found in the Chuckanut, in any case). Such finds would be extremely important to paleontologists. If you find any animal fossils, please photograph them and email to me.

You can contact me at this cleverly disguised email address which only a human bean can read:

tuckerd ‘at’ geol ‘dot’ wwu ‘dot’ edu. Someone told me this keeps spammers out of my inbox.

The ‘fossil fields’ are in full sun, so take appropriate protection, and water. It can be quite hot and bright in the glare of the summer sun.

Map to fossil fields (based on Google Earth). Click to enlarge images.

The trail leaves the blocked off road and heads toward the prominent dead tree at center. Click to enlarge.

How to get there:(with thanks to Kimberly Kerr for a February, 2014 update).

  1.       Drive the 542 Mount Baker Highway East from I-5 in Bellingham 17 miles to the junction with Mosquito Lake Road.
  2.      Turn south (right). Cross the North Fork Nooksack River and turn left on North Fork Road. This paved road eventually becomes gravel. You will notice some big blocks and hummocky terrain along the road at about 2.2 miles, the hallmarks of landslides. These are the deposit of a large prehistoric landslide that reached the Nooksack, dwarfing the 2009 slide. The hillsides above have slid multiple times since the end of the last glacial period, and the mountain itself is called ‘Slide Mountain’.
  3.  After 4.1 miles, turn right at a major junction immediately before the bridge across Racehorse Creek (UTM E563652 N5414815). NOTE: UTM coordinates given are zone 10, NAD 27 datum to correspond with USGS topographic maps. Set your odometer to 0.0 here. 
  4. Turn right on this gravel logging road, and head up the hill. At about 0.2 mile, you may note a trailhead on the left marked by large rocks, with parking on the right. This side trip goes through the woods a couple of hundred yards to the rubble-choked course of Racehorse Creek. A short hike out this trail reveals effects of the January 2009 debris flows. Prior to the debris flows, Racehorse Creek was closely hemmed in with trees and brush. Now it is a wide, vegetation free gravel bar. You can walk up stream a few hundred yards to the lovely multi-tiered water fall. Believe it or not, kayakers go over the falls! But, we digress.
  5. Continue up the road beyond the trailhead. You will pass a few side roads, but stay on the main line. May 2016: LOCKED GATE 2 miles from the junction at point 4 above. It is a 3.7 mile road walk to Point 8.
  6. Turn sharp left at 5.1 miles (UTM E563745 N5413464). This left turn is just after a white ’1′ painted on a tall tree on the right, in a clump of woods. The road switchbacks up into a big clear-cut, where you remain for the rest of the trip. 
  7. The road ends at a fork 5.7 miles from Mosquito Lake Road; it is a 100 yard hike up the left road to the access trail. There are some deep ditches and mounds of gravel to block off the road.
  8. Walk up the blocked road to the next switchback swinging to the right, next to a high pile of logs.  Here is where you take a path into the clear-cut (UTM E564451 N5413353). The elevation is approximately 1450′, and there is a nice view out to Kendall and the North Fork from here. 
  9. Walk the path, which can be brushy, toward a tall dead tree, killed by the debris flow. You should start to find leaf fossils in the vicinity of this tree, up and down hill. Brush is reclaiming the area.
  10. Head up or down the slope from where the trail comes out, but you won’t have to go far. The landslide is becoming overgrown, but still plenty of exposed fossil-bearing rocks.

Once you reach the dead tree, start lookin’! Aug 2011 photo.

The entire field trip is on Washington State Department of Natural Resources timber lands. Total driving time from Bellingham is less than an hour. Please consider taking some pruners with you to help keep the trail open, especially where it leaves the road.

Racehorse landslide ferns- modern and ancient.

Note the large blocks of Chuckanut rocks along the trail, remnants of an ancient landslide that dwarfed the 2009 slide. Reach the open area of the landslide in about 100 yards, by a large, isolated Douglas fir (2011- now dead) use this tree as a landmark to find the trail back to the car. Start looking for fossils! Your predecessors may have left little stacks of fossils on logs for you to enjoy. You may have more success if you take the time to split the small rock slabs with a hammer and cold chisel. Head up or down the slope from where the trail comes out, but you won’t have to go far. The landslide is becoming overgrown, but still plenty of exposed fossil-bearing rocks.

Keep your fossils indoors when you get back home. These rocks tend to decompose into uninteresting little chips if they are repeatedly exposed to wet and dry conditions. Feel free to send me photos via the email address above. Please put ‘Chuckanut Fossils’ in the subject line. Perhaps I can help identify your finds; if you find something that is new to the Chuckanut fossil inventory, your photo could end up being a useful addition to science. With your permission, I’ll post selected photos on the Chuckanut Fossils page (under construction) of this website.

Visiting Korean earth science teachers hunt for fossils.

Learn more about the Chuckanut Formation, and the subtropical environment these fossil plants grew in, by going to this excerpt from a field guide by WWU paleontologist George Mustoe and colleagues.

Visit the North Fork Beer Shrine and Wedding Chapel (and Beer Museum) after your trip to the fossil field. The brew pub is east up Baker Highway from the junction with Mosquito Lake Road- 3.8 miles on the left at Markel Road. They have great pizza and other food, too.

Leaves of tree ferns (bottom left), Sassafras (center), and Taxodium (swamp cypress).

26 Responses

  1. We went here last weekend with three boys ages 10-12 and they had a blast “hunting” for fossils. Thanks for posting this!

  2. Wendy,
    I love it that kids can get to this place. They are just about guaranteed to find fossils.
    DT

  3. DT- We took our kids there (9-11) and had a great time. Excellent directions and great fauna!!

    Cheers

  4. Took a trip up to the creek last week. Had good amount of sun, had great time. WHAT a great place to find interest in geology.
    Does anyone know if the fossils at Racehorse Creek have ever been carbon dated.

    • Brad,
      The Racehorse fossils are in the Chuckanut Formation, which is known to be around 50 million years old (Eocene). The rocks can not be dated using radocarbon, as they are far too old for this method. The carbon-14 isotope can only be used for organic material less than about 62,000 years. After that amount of radioactive decay, there isn’t enough C14 left to detect. The rocks have been dated using isotopes of potassium and thorium, as well as the zircon track method.
      dt

  5. Thank you for the info. I wasn’t aware that there was that limit to testing the carbon. I think that I found some pieces of chalcedony.Could there be some around maybe replacing wood? The pieces are well rounded.
    Thank You
    Brad

    • The chalcedony pebbles are more likely weathering out of the glacial till that overlies the Chuckanut in these hills, especially if the stones are more than an inch or so across. Pebbles in the Chuckanut tend to be pretty small, as the sediment was deposited a long way from source areas far to the east.
      DT

  6. Thank you. They were big and that explains the variety of rocks such as pieces of granite.
    Another question:
    I see what look like modern fauna forms. Maple,palm,fern. The climate at the time is said to have been tropic(or sub-tropic). I am wondering if this area was physically where it is now In Washington State. Was the climate tropic because it was physically near the equator?
    Brad

  7. My lady and I checked it out on May 26th, we tried to follow the directions given, but found that if you drive to the dead end and park the trail is on the left where DNR left rolling mounds of dirt. It is a bit over grown, but the fossils were well worth the trip. Had a great time!

  8. Just hit it today, easy to find. Didn’t get too far up the trail with my son (3 years old) but still came home with a pile of great fossils. Even what looks like petrified wood!

  9. Does anyone know whether the gravel road (say, from the “right turn, 5.1 miles” marker on the map and on up the hill) was laid using rock taken from the immediate hillsides or hauled in from elsewhere? The reason I ask is the abundance of well-rounded river-like rocks, including some spectacular agates, at whose origin I’d love to go rockhounding. Thanks!

    • Daniel,
      I’m going to guess that the rounded rock was hauled in from a quarry. I’m unaware of any quarries in Racehorse area. There is one down in the valley- if you go straight and cross the bridge over Racehorse Creek, you’ll eventually come to a large gravel quarry, less than 2 miles from the bridge. Stay left all junctions. I think it is an active quarry, so access may be a problem, and no guarantees it is the source of the road rock. You can go out on the Noksack gravel bars at many places and look at, and collect, all the river rock you can carry.
      Dave

  10. During my recent visit to WA, I decided to find this location for some collecting. On our first day (8/27/14) we never made it to the slide before dark, sidetracked on the way by other great finds in small exposures among the weeds along the gravel road heading uphill (somehow our tiny low clearance Kia Rio rental car just barely made it up the initial steep incline, spinning tires all the way, probably would have been a different story if wet!). We returned on Sept 1 to finally locate the slide area, and a short distance (a mile or two) up the hill (above the junction before the Racehorce Creek bridge) there was this time a metal gate closed, with a sign indicating private logging company property/authorized personnel only. Not sure if this was just a temporary thing to limit traffic in the area that day (it was Labor Day). That was quite frustrating, but we made some additional good finds in a small roadside exposure in a clearing along the road just before the gate.

    Adam

  11. Just got back. The road was in good condition and my small Honda made it all the way up, despite the misty rain. The trail was clear but for a few small fallen trees. The area is much more grown up now than in the pictures. I would definitely take some pruners or a large blade next time. Lots of giant chunks of shale all around. It would be worthwhile to bring a shovel and quality chisel to explore some of the large chunks that are shallowly emersed in the loose soil. There are enormous finds just laying around above the soil, I can only imagine the monster fossils that lay beneath!

  12. Made a Thanksgiving day trip up to try and find some fossils. Found the locked gate, two miles up from where the instructions tell you to zero your odo. Gate was labeled “Sierra Pacific Industries”.

    Didn’t want to do the multiple mile round trip hike with young kids, so we found a shale boulder by the side of the road, broke that up to find some cool leaf fossils.

  13. As of February 9, 2016:

    Gates are now open and the approach roads in good shape easily passable in any vehicle with more than an inch or two of road clearance (i.e., not suitable for your Maserati). North Fork road is potholed but mostly mud-free to the junction before the Racehorse Creek bridge; the spur leading uphill to the right is also solid, absent the potholes. 100 yds. after taking the left across from the obvious ‘1’ painted on a tree the road is thoroughly blocked–deep ditch, large boulders, felled trees. Parking for ten cars or so.

    20 minute leisurely walk up the rest of that logging road, clambering in and out of a dozen fresh trenches, no more than a week or two old. Obvious footpath to the left next to a pile of stumps and slash (described above as a “high pile of logs”); a few survey flags in yellow and blue. A machete would be handy, and probably more so in the spring.

    Thanks for the website and all the information!

  14. I was there last weekend. There is a red gate across the road about 2 miles from the RacehorseCreek intersection so I could not get to this site. The gate is there by Sierra Pacific. I called yesterday and was told that this gate is locked all the time now, unless open for a special event, a logging operation or for some hunting seasons. Walking, horseback and bicycles are ok for entrance. My next trip will be to walk to the falls and then past there to where the slide comes down into the creek and see what I can find . Found some interesting things in the creek bed itself.

  15. Visited 7-23-2016
    The hike in is exhausting. they put 17 large ditches and a road block in the road before you leave the road for the 100yd hike. Those guys must be paid per ditch. I brought by bicycle but it was no help with all the ditches. The area has gown in allot compared to these photos. Fossils are plentiful and fun fun fun to find. The view from the boulders above the dead tree landmark is worth the hike up(follow main trail past big dead tree).

  16. was the red gate open? when i was there in June it was locked

    • Gates may be left open but are subject to sudden closure. I once spent the night in my car on the wrong side of a locked gate. If you go through a gate, good idea to leave a note that you have done so. Or park outside if hours of opening are not posted and go for the extra exercise. Dave

  17. We took our two-year-old paleontology enthusiast out hunting this morning. The gate is still locked, or at least was when we arrived, but just 1.1 miles past it we found a small slide with loads of leaf fossils. Thank you for the tips!

  18. I was there on 7/2/2017. The road up to the gate has had some new culverts added and fresh gravel up the steeper parts of the road closest to the red gate. If you do not have true four wheel drive do not waste your time. It’s very slippery and almost impossible to get traction to get up the hills. It will just thrash you around. The road is already starting to get washboarded. We drove up some of the other roads and found a few out crops of rock that when we investigated and started breaking the soft shale away we were able to see some plant leaves, but they were not great samples. Most were layered over each other and not very defined. We brought some home, but again they were nothing really great.

  19. Has anyone been up there in 2017, thinking of going up this summer.

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