Our Day at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument (Colorado)

Chadd giving some scale to a petrified redwood stump
Chadd giving some scale to a petrified redwood stump

A summer vacation in Colorado presents opportunities to explore destinations beyond the ski hill by opening roads often impassable due to snow. Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument is one such location.

The easy drive from Denver, Colorado Springs or Breckenridge rewards travelers willing to leave the beaten path with a unique geological wonderland and scenery to match. On our drive in from Breckenridge I was able to mentally remove the roads, wire and farms from this Eden and imagine what it must have looked like 250 years ago: bison, elk, pronghorn, bobcat, grizzly and black bears, birds in unimaginable numbers congregating in these grasslands.

When you read “fossil,” don’t think triceratops. The star attractions at Florissant are stumps of long-ago petrified redwood trees.

What to do once you’re there

Ranger led tours from the modern Visitor’s Center circle the one mile “Petrified Forest Loop” explaining how a volcanic eruption millions of years ago created the conditions which petrified the redwoods and left fossil imprints of fish, insects and plants. Park service employees and trail markers also explain how “relic hunters” in the 19th and early 20th century carted off much of the petrified wood. Sadly, only a small percentage of the petrified wood which once rested on the site remains.

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If you look closely, you can see the blades of two saws that were broken off in attempts to divide up the stump before this became a protected site

A variety of easy hiking trails and interpretive talks – including occasional stargazing events –provide visitors a comprehensive understanding of what makes Florissant’s geology and paleobotany unique in the world. Entrance fees are $5 per adult.

Kristi and I took the ranger tour around the Petrified Forest Loop and then hiked the 2.7 mile Sawmill Trail through a more secluded area of the grounds. We were fortunate to visit the park on an absolutely gorgeous August day with clear blue skies and temps in the 80s.

After much effort, Kristi finally got a shot of a Stellar's Jay
After much effort, Kristi finally got a shot of a Stellar’s Jay

Wildlife viewing is not a calling card for Florissant although elk are common and the bird watching is fair. Black bear, bobcat, badger and mountain lion are found in the area, but exceptionally rare to see.

The beauty of the non-“Parks”

The Florissant Fossil Beds exemplify the great secret of our National Parks System: the greatness of the non-“Parks.”

Within the National Park Service exist 58 national parks.  These are the biggies we’ve all heard of: Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Everglades, Grand Canyon.  The greater National Parks System, however, contains over 400 units.  These are the national monuments, like Florissant, national battlefields, military parks, historic sites, historical parks, scenic rivers and trails.  These locations tell the complete story of America from its politics, society, economy, environment, geology and every other imaginable subject area.  They are no less important that the big “Parks” despite receiving a fraction of the attention.

Wherever you live or travel and whatever your interests, there are sure to be numerous national park units for you to discover and enjoy. Visiting national park units has long been a hobby of mine and I’ve taken in close to 100 from coast to coast and border to border.

Among my favorites are the Korean War Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC, Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park just outside Atlanta and the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic site in Atlanta, Minuteman and the Boston Historical Parks, Mount Rushmore and the chilling Andersonville National Historic Site and Prisoner of War Museum in Andersonville, GA.

I could go on and on. Every visit to any national park service unit rewarded me with not only a great afternoon, but a deeper understanding of our nation.

That goes for the Florissant Fossil Beds as well.

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