Parks Canada

Home > Parks Canada > Protect

Learn

The Burgess Shale in Yoho National Park is a place of natural wonder and historic significance. Situated on the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains, waves of mountains now stand where oceans once rippled with life leaving ancient fossil treasures. Learn more about this protected place and be inspired by its stories.


View of Burgess Shale fossil bed approach.

The Burgess Shale is a seabed in the sky located at 2336 m. (7662 ft.) in Yoho National Park. Yoho is a Cree expression meaning awe or wonder.

Photo: © John Niddrie, Parks Canada

Back to top

The discovery of fossils

In 1907, Charles Walcott, a New York palaeontologist and head of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, came to the high slopes of Mount Stephen, British Columbia located in Yoho National Park to examine the "stone bugs" that railway workers, surveyors and others had come across while working on the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1880s. The stone bugs turned out to be fossils dating back more than 505 million years. In 1909, he explored another ridge and discovered what became known as the Walcott Quarry.

Go to the History section of this site for more information on the history of the Burgess Shale, and to the Fossil Gallery and Virtual Sea Odyssey sections to see images of fossils and digital animations.

Archival picture of early land surveyors in Field.

Land surveyors (above) and railway workers in the 1880s were among those who came across "stone bugs" while exploring the areas near the early Field, BC townsite.

Photo: © Yoho National Park archives

Back to top

An impressive collection

Between 1909 and 1925 (two years before he died) Walcott returned to the Burgess Shale every summer. Here, often accompanied by his wife and children, he quarried giant rock slabs from the quarry site and moved them down the steep slopes to the field camp below where he would unearth their fossil treasures. In total, Walcott shipped 65,000 specimens on 30,000 rock slabs to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. His finds generated interest around the world at a time when tourism to the Canadian Rockies, thanks to the railway, was increasing.

A detailed account of Walcott's work can be found in Discoveries

Hanging rock slab in the Yoho Visitor Centre with imbedded fossils.

Walcott shipped thousands of rock slabs containing fossils, similar to this slab on display in the Yoho Visitor Centre, to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

Photo: © Omar McDadi, Parks Canada

Back to top

The creation of Yoho National Park

In 1885, the challenging construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway across Canada was completed. Rail brought travellers to experience the Rocky Mountains and led to the creation of Banff National Park, Canada's first national park, around the rail siding of Banff.  

Just a year later, the creation of adjacent Yoho National Park began with the establishment of the 26 sq km Mount Stephen Dominion Reserve around the small railway community of Field, British Columbia, located below Kicking Horse Pass and the continental divide. In 1901, the protected area was renamed "Yoho", a Cree expression of awe and wonder that reflects the natural magnificence of the waterfalls, glaciers, and towering peaks around the Kicking Horse Valley.

Today, Yoho National Park is 1,313 km² (507 mi²) in size and is part of a growing family of national parks, marine conservation areas, and World Heritage Sites across the country managed by Parks Canada.

Archival image of an early railway engine in Field.

The railway across Canada was completed in 1885 and brought visitors to communities including Field, BC (above) and Lake Louise, AB in the Canadian Rockies.

Photo: © Yoho National Park archives

Back to top

UNESCO World Heritage Site recognition

In 1980, UNESCO designated the Burgess Shale a World Heritage Site, a collection of some of the planet's most outstanding properties and places including the Pyramids in Egypt and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

In 1984, the Burgess Shale became part of the much larger Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site which comprises Banff, Jasper, Kootenay and Yoho national parks and British Columbia's Mount Robson, Mount Assiniboine and Hamber provincial parks. This designation specifically recognizes the Burgess Shale for containing significant information about the earth's evolution

Visitors on a Parks Canada guided hike stop and listen along the trail.

During guided hikes visitors can learn about the area's UNESCO designation, geology, local animals and plants, cultural history and scientific details about Burgess Shale fossils.

Photo: © Roger Hostin, Parks Canada

Back to top

Did you know?

  • Of the millions of animals on earth today (including insects, spiders, fish, mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians) about 95 per cent of them can trace their origin to the Burgess Shale.
  • Some Burgess Shale animals showed signs of handedness. Scientists believe that they were among some of the first right- and left-handed creatures on the planet.
  • A picture of Mount Burgess in Field, BC was featured for 17 years on the Canadian $10 bill.
Hikers make their way up to the Burgess Shale fossil beds.

About 3000 people visit the Burgess Shale annually.

Photo: © John Niddrie, Parks Canada

Back to top

Classroom resources

Bring nature, science and history to life for your students with a variety of classroom resources about the Burgess Shale and national parks available from the Parks Canada Teachers' Corner. Here you will find fact sheets, activities and lesson plans.

Go to the Resources section for more information

Parks Canada - Teacher Resource Centre

A stage shot of a Parks Canada theatre performance with a participating audience member.

Children of all ages are fascinated by the stories and science of the Burgess Shale.

Photo: © Chris Siddall, Parks Canada

Back to top