Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, located in Teller County, Colorado, is a 6,000 acre dig site from the Eocene in what was once a prehistoric lake, famous for an abundance of well-preserved plant and insect fossils. The monument is attractive to tourists for its many and varied hiking trails, opportunities for horseback riding, and its prolific exhibits while contributing many educational opportunities to visitors and local schools.
The shape of the land today is the result of ancient stratovolcano eruptions in the thirty-nine Mile Volcanic Field, 25-30 km southwest of the monument. Materials from these eruptions led to preservation of fossils within shale and mudstone. There is a vast diversity of plants and insects from the Eocene era, including the ancestor to the modern sequoia and spiders, millipedes, and mollusk species, among others.
Evidence suggests the presence of Paleo Indian in the Florissant valley at one time. The Ute people are a tribal nation that is still extant in this location and traces its origins back before recorded history here, where they have a connection to the land. In the late 1800s, settlers and homesteaders entered the valley along with scientists. The valley hosted quarries and tourism for decades after that. In the 1870s, Adeline Hornbek claimed land in this area per the Homestead Act. She became the owner of a successful and prosperous ranch along with her four children, defying traditional gender roles and working with grit and determination.
In 1969, scientists realized the site’s great significance. Many developers were ready to begin developing the area, putting the fossil beds at risk, and groups of scientists and lawyers engaged in a pitched legal battle to preserve the area. In late 1969, conservationists won, and Congress and President Nixon declared the area a national monument, thereby protecting the land from development and preserving the paleontological significance. In 2009, the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument entered into a partnership with the Peruvian Fossil Forest, a fellow paleontological site from the Eocene, to be recognized as sister sites for sharing of findings and exploring climate change and migrations across the prehistoric globe.
There are innumerable attractions at the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. Visitors will find it hard to experience everything in one day and may need to take two to experience the whole thing. Ample opportunities for hiking and viewing exhibits abound, and there are exhibits out in the field, and frequently changing events with new learning opportunities.
All permanent exhibits in the monument can be divided up between outdoor and indoor. Outdoor exhibits and attractions will be out across the monument, while indoor attractions will be inside the Visitor Center.
- Visitor Center – The starting point for anyone visiting the national monument. Here visitors can talk with a ranger, receive their orientation packets, and schedule and plan tours and read about the monument’s history.
- Film – The film, “Shadows of the Past,” is an orientation film that takes 14 minutes to watch. It is payed every 20 minutes on the hour or can be viewed by request.
- Exhibits – The Visitor’s Center has several rotating indoor exhibits displaying insects, palaeoflora, geological history, excavation, and more.
- Hiking Trails – There are 14 different hiking trails available in Florissant Fossil Beds. Certain trails are available for horseback. At certain times of year, rangers can take tourists on a snowshoe tour or cross-country skiing.
- Petrified Forest – A 1-mile loop and one of the well-known attractions of the site.
- Geologic Trail – One mile long and one way and crosses pyroclastic flows and prehistoric lakes to showcase the geologic history of the area.
- Ponderosa Loop – A half mile, wheelchair accessible self-guided trail passing through the forest with many different trees.
- Hornbek Wildlife Loop – This trail is 3.8 miles long and takes visitors to Hornbek Homestead across meadows covering the prehistoric Lake Florissant.
- Sawmill Trail – A 2.7-mile trail passing through the Colorado Montane Life Zone. Many pines, first, and spruces fill the meadows and visitors can see elk and streams in the shade. The smaller Hans Loop is extended from the Sawmill Trail.
- Boulder Creek Trail – A 2.8-mile trail crossing many ecosystems, through meadows and streams, and past a giant boulder formation.
- Shootin’ Star Trail – A one way, 1.6-mile trail crossing stream, following an old road, and travelling through meadows and the ponderosa forest. Former ranch activity can be seen here, from the now dismantled historic Shootin’ Star Ranch.
- Twin Rock Trail – At 2.3 miles and one way, this trail combines with Shootin’ Star Trail or Hornbek Wildlife Loop to create a quiet circuit through open meadows, groves, willows, and near ponds.
- Historic Hornbek Homestead – The Hornbek Homestead is a homesteading exhibit that teaches visitors to the park about the lives of homesteaders in the 1800s. The exhibit allows visitors to see the life of Adeline Hornbek and how she built her homestead from the ground up with her family.
- Outdoor Exhibit – A small viewing area looking out over the Petrified Woods, with exhibits demonstrating geology and fossil interpretations.
As a national park dedicated to the preservation and excavation of one of the densest collections of well-preserved Eocene in North America, Florissant Fossil Beds is focused on education and awareness. There are many educational opportunities for visitors to the monument and visitor center. These range from the ability to schedule field trips with rangers to specific educational exhibits and programs.
Fossil Learning Lab – The Fossil Learning Lab is located inside a yurt in the picnic area and opens regularly. Students will be able to learn from rangers and staff about how insects and leaf fossils are found and excavated. Stations are set up for families to learn about many of the fossils that have been found at the Florissant site, and an interactive exhibit that will allow students to excavate their own pieces of fossil hands-on.
Geologist in the Park Program – There are different internships available at Florissant Fossil Beds through the Geologist in the Park Program. Internships provide students opportunities to move on to graduate school or pursue careers within the National Park Service.
- Interpretive Intern – Providing information about fossil resources and history, interpretive interns will eventually learn to create programs for all ages to present learning materials in a productive manner. Interpretive interns will also conduct tours and hikes, work in the visitor center, and contact visitors who are out on the trails.
- Paleontology Intern – Paleontology interns will assist rangers and scientists in current and active dig sites. They will learn the process of search, research, excavation, inventory, and monitoring and identifying.
Self-Guided Research – Visitors who are qualified to excavate dig sites can submit applications to conduct their own research at the park. The monument is fully equipped with everything necessary for scientists to perform their own excavations, conduct research and identification experiments, and view the monument’s private fossil collection.
Florissant Fossil Beds has an extensive event program for demonstrating all that the monument area and visitor’s center have to offer. Hikes and talks are scheduled several times a week and will focus on one or other specific aspect of the area. They may also be guided hikes across specific or several trails.
There are many weekly events that happen at the monument.
- Demonstration Excavation Site – An attraction that is only open during certain special events. Weekly and dependent on weather conditions, a geologist will hold a talk with visitors at the Demonstration Excavation Site in the Petrified Forest to teach about excavations, how they’re undertaken, and what goes into a fossil. Visitors will get to see and learn about current excavations.
- Art in the Park – A weekly event that invites local volunteer artists/visitors to sketch or water color scenes from the Florissant Fossil Beds. Part of ongoing environmental awareness and conservation efforts, Art in the Park seeks to improve preservation efforts by spreading art about the area.
- Night Sky Program – Every week, a ranger out in the wilderness of the monument, hours away from any local light pollution, will hold an hour-long presentation, and then turn visitors over to the quiet noise of the night and its sky. Out in the Florissant Fossil Beds Monument, it is possible to see a full sky of stars, bereft of city lights ruining visitors’ vision.
In addition, the Florissant Fossil Beds celebrates Junior Ranger Day, when Junior Rangers can come to the visitor’s center for a presentation, activities, a guided tour around the monument, and the opportunity to earn a Junior Ranger badge.
Dining and Shopping
The Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument hosts a modest bookstore inside the visitor’s center. Here, children’s books, activity books, research books, and other stories and resources are available for perusal and purchase. Near the monument, in Woodland Park, Cripple Creek, and Colorado Springs, are several Colorado’s well-known Bed and Breakfast locations for visitors to grab a bite and take a load off before undergoing some of the more arduous hikes.
Teller County, CO, Phone: 719-748-3253
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