Discovered in 1909, this UNESCO World Heritage site changed scientists' views on the evolution of life on Earth when Charles Walcott found the fossils of animals dating back 505 million years.
Access to Walcott Quarry and Mount Stephen Fossil Beds, a related site, is restricted to hikers guided by The Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation and Parks Canada. I booked about six weeks in advance to secure places for four of us on a group hike for twelve people with the Geoscience Foundation.
You need to be physically quite fit and acclimatised to the higher altitude of the Rockies to enjoy this eleven-hour hike as it is a 21km round trip with an 825m height elevation. Basically you are trekking uphill for more than half that time to reach the fossil site and some sections are very steep. Our group ranged from teenagers to a couple in their sixties and we all managed it relatively easily. The pace is set by the guide – in our case, Thomas, a geochemist – and it is quite fast. There was a volunteer at the end of the group to encourage stragglers and Thomas did stop once in a while so everyone could catch up.
Along the way we stopped several times so that Thomas could tell us about the creatures and plant life found in the Burgess Shale beds and the history of life on Earth. He chose a particularly scenic spot to stop for lunch. One of the most memorable parts of the hike for me were the spectacular views of Emerald Lake and the surrounding mountain ranges.
Once at the site we were encouraged to search for fossils among the loose stones lying around. Many fossils were originally removed and found their way into various museum collections but there are plenty more to excite the avid fossil-hunter. We found a beautifully-preserved example of a trilobite (that looks like a giant bug), some sort of plant and various other life forms. There is also a collection of particularly good examples kept in a locked cabinet on the site, which visitors are allowed to examine. Thomas talked us through the various fossils, explaining what they were and their significance in evolutionary terms.
The collection of fossils is strictly prohibited and we were all asked to leave our rucksacks to one side before entering the site. There is also a camera on a tall pole watching over visitors to deter thieves.
We spent about an hour at the Walcott Quarry before heading back down the mountainside. The group split up for the descent. We decided to follow the Foundation's volunteer guide who was a bit too quick for us.
One of the trilobite fossils we found at Walcott Quarry
We stayed with her, nevertheless, and made it down in two and a half hours.
Luckily for us the weather was perfect for such a strenuous hike – dry and sunny but not too hot. When you book, the Geoscience Foundation emails you details of exactly where and when to meet (8am usually at the gas station parking lot at the Trans-Canada Highway and Field access road intersection), what to wear and what to bring. The latter includes your own lunch, at least two litres of drinking water and wet weather gear. They also send you a waiver form to sign. The starting point for the hike is Takakkaw Falls, a short drive from the meeting point.
Burgess Shale guided hikes run three to five days a week from the middle of July to the middle of September and sell out quickly, so book early to avoid disappointment.