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Escape Plan DC: The Prehistoric District

Take a day in and around Washington, D.C. to seek out the ancient creatures of days gone by.

(Previous page, cover photo of Capitol Hill: Kārlis Dambrāns/text overlay and color change/CC BY 2.0)

Don’t get stuck in the city this weekend! This summer, Atlas Obscura and Zipcar have partnered up to bring you inspired day trips in and around major American metropolises. We guarantee there’s something right around the corner that will surprise and delight you.

Everyone knows Washington D.C. is full of fossils—the political kind that swill martinis at oak-paneled bars and swap war stories. But it’s also home to all kinds of actual, ancient fossils. Spend the day exploring the area’s prehistoric past.

Trip Highlights

  • Get a taste of the world’s oldest coffee tradition
  • Discover The District’s secret fossils, hidden in plain sight
  • Find your own ancient shark tooth
  • Dive into the best of dinosaur kitsch

Itinerary

Sidamo Coffee, Washington DC. (Photo: Timothy Vollmer/CC BY 2.0)

1 Rise and Grind 8:00AM

Sidamo Coffee, Washington D.C.

Start here, at this cozy neighborhood spot serving Ethiopian coffee they roast themselves. Every Sunday at 2pm they perform an Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony, a traditional way of making and serving coffee, billed as the oldest coffee tradition in the world.

Sidamo Coffee, 417 H St NE, Washington, DC 20002

Petrified wood from Arizona in the National Monument. (Photo: Vincent L Santucci/NPS Natural Resources/Public Domain)

2–4 A Different Kind of Fossil Hunt 9:00AM

National Mall Fossils, Washington D.C.

Yes, you’ve strolled the mall a million times. But you probably never clocked the hidden prehistoric history all around you. Many of the monuments around the mall are made with limestone and sandstones that contain fossils, such as “Indiana Limestone” which is very good at preserving marine invertebrates. Look closely and you’ll see these little guys embedded in many of the monuments, like ancient Jell-O salad. Pay special attention to the the Lincoln Memorial and Capitol Reflecting Pool, which are especially fossil-rich. The Washington Monument has been purposefully embedded with fossils, including three large chunks of petrified wood from Arizona.

Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC 20037; Capitol Reflecting Pool, Washington, DC 20016; Washington Monument, Washington, DC 20024

Lafayette Square. (Photo: AgnosticPreachersKid/CC BY-SA 3.0)

5 Look Closely 11:00AM

The Living Fossils of Lafayette Square, Washington D.C.

While doing construction near Lafayette Square, crews turned up an aged surprise: the fossils of four cypress trees believed to have been buried during the late Pleistocene epoch (126,000 to 9700 BCE). You can still see living examples planted just North of the White House in Lafayette Square, and these trees mark the long vanished boundary of an ancient swamp. In the heart of Lafayette Square you’ll find a statue of Andrew Jackson; but that’s not what we’re here for. Look beyond his rearing horse and you’ll see a Ginkgo biloba tree– a living fossil that closely resembles the ancient Ginkgo trees that emerged in the early Jurassic period 190 million years ago.

16th St. & Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20006

Dinosaur Land, Virginia. (Photo: Taber Andrew Bain/CC BY 2.0)

6 Walk with Dinosaurs 12:30PM

Dinosaur Land, White Post, VA

You want historically accurate? Get back in the car and drive to the Smithsonian. You want a statue of Gigantosaurus devouring a pterodactyl in midflight? Welcome to Dinosaur Land. This park has 50 dinosaur statues on offer, several of which depict (sometimes bloody) encounters between predators and prey. Not one to constrain itself, Dinosaur Land also has enormous shark, octopus and praying mantis statues, as well as a King Kong statue whose hand you can perch in for a photo. Hours change seasonally, check the website.

Dinosaur Land, 3848 Stonewall Jackson Hwy, White Post, VA 22663

The Frying Pan Restaurant (Photo: Courtesy The Frying Pan Restaurant)

7 Refuel 3:30PM

The Frying Pan, Lusby, MD.

Did someone say scrapple? Replenish yourself with chipped beef, grilled cheese with tomato soup, and other hearty plates at this local favorite. There’s more fossil-hunting to come.

The Frying Pan, 9895 H G Trueman Road, Lusby, MD 20657

Calvert Cliffs, Maryland. (Photo: Jen Muller/CC BY 2.0)

8 Treasure in the Sand 4:30PM

Calvert Cliffs, Lusby, MD

Look out for land sharks! Don’t worry, these guys are long dead. The grounds surrounding the massive, cinematic Calvert Cliffs on Maryland’s coastline were once home to enormous prehistoric sharks and other since expired sealife. The sandy beach of Calvert Cliffs State Park is open for amatuer fossil-hunting, and is home to over 600 species of treasures from about 10 to 20 million years ago. Sharks teeth, oyster shells, and the delicate spirals of preserved mollusks are common finds.

Calvert Cliffs, 10540 H G Trueman Rd, Lusby, MD 20657

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