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On Walkabout at: The Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument – Petrified Forest Loop

Basic Trail Information

  • Name: Petrified Forest Loop
  • Where: Florissant National Monument, Colorado
  • Distance: 1.0 mile
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Time: 1 hour round-trip
  • More Info: Florissant Fossil Beds N.M. website

Google Terrain Map of the Petrified Forest Loop and Hornbek Homestead:

Narrative

I love visiting the various parks run by the National Park Service and one of the closest parks to Colorado Springs is the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument.  The park is only a 45 minute drive from Colorado Springs and the drive itself features beautiful mountain scenery all the way to the park, most notably of Pikes Peak.  The park is located just a short drive from the small village of Florissant, Colorado, which is located on Highway 24 to the west of Colorado Springs:


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The entrance to the park is easy to spot once this big red barn comes into view:

Across the road from this barn is the entrance to the park:

There is plenty of parking at the park’s visitor center where those who do not have a National Park Service membership card will need to purchase a day pass.  A day pass costs $3 per person.  More information about the park’s entrance fees can be read at this link.  Hours of operation for the park can be found at this link as well.  The visitor center is currently located in a trailer and really isn’t all that big.  This is due to the construction of a new visitor center that is supposed to be completed in about a year.  Though there isn’t much in the current visitor center the staff there like most NPS rangers I have interacted with in the past are top notch.  The park ranger we spoke with at the visitor center was super friendly and very informative about the park.  She also had us meet the park’s geologist who had a table set up where he was breaking open rocks to look for fossils.  It was very interesting to see actual fossils in the rocks as he was breaking them open.  So why does this park have so many fossils?  That is because 34 million years ago a volcanic eruption of Mt. Guffey located 15 miles to the southwest created a mudflow that covered the large lake where the park is located.  This mudflow caused over 1,700 different species, 1,500 insects, and 150 plants to be fossilized in the rock below the park.  The rock is composed of shale and within the shale layers very thin fossils of mostly small plant debris and insects can be found:

Here is a good example of a hill side where the shale layers can be seen:

Since the eruption happened 34 million years ago this was well after the extinction of the dinosaurs that happened 65 million years ago.  So in other words there are no dinosaur fossils at this park.  So for anyone looking to visit the park to see dinosaur fossils this will be a major disappointment.  Despite not having dinosaur fossils I thought this park was still quite interesting to visit.  The best way to see the fossilized wonders of this park is not by hanging out in the visitor center, but instead by getting out and hiking.  The best trail to do this on is the Petrified Forest Loop that is an easy hike for just about all ages, offers beautiful views of the surrounding alpine scenery, and features a number of the park’s best petrified redwood trees:

From the start of the trail here was the view of the backside of Pikes Peak (14,115 ft / 4,302 m):

Pikes Peak is not as impressive when viewed from here compared to Colorado Springs.  This is because of the difference in elevation.  Colorado Springs is just over 6,000 feet high in most areas which makes Pikes Peak appear to be quite huge as it is just below an 8,000 foot difference in elevation from the city.  Florissant however is 8,400 feet high and thus Pikes Peak is not quite as impressive.  The mountain also appears to be rounder when viewed from its backside compared to the highly eroded and craggy face seen from Colorado Springs.

Anyway here was the view that was in front me at the start of the Petrified Forest Loop:

This trail goes around the perimeter of what was once a lake that was once home to many plants, animals, and insects.  As I walked down the trail it was easy to imagine this meadow being a lake filled with life.  The day my family and I were walking on the trail there was little signs of life because of how cold it was.  For being winter time in the Colorado high country the weather was actually quite nice, but it was still 20 degrees outside during our walk.  So my wife, daughter, and I were wearing appropriate clothing for the walk.  We also had to be very careful walking on some areas of the trail because of the slippery ice:

Along the trail there are a number of very informative markers that explain not only the geology of the fossils in the park, but the recent history of the land as well.  For example it was interesting to read about the fierce competition between rival businesses to attract tourists to Florissant when it was not national park land.  The rivalry began in the 1920’s with the competing businesses doing everything they could to sabotage each other and one time the rivalry even led to gunshots:

Fortunately in 1973 the National Park Service was able to acquire the land and end the rivalry.  Anyway as we continued down the trail we spotted our first fossil, the stump of a giant redwood tree:

It is hard to believe, but Colorado once had redwoods just like the giant trees that currently call California home.  According to park’s geologist I spoke with back at the visitor center he said that Colorado’s climate was warmer and wetter 34 million years ago thus allowing the redwood to have enough warmth and moisture to grow to their incredible heights.  Now Colorado is far too dry for a redwood to effectively grow in.  Further down the trail was a more impressive stump:

Looking at the stump it was easy to imagine how the mudflow surrounded the redwood trees and slowly killed them leaving the stump to be fossilized in the mud while the upper portion of the tree rotted away into nothing.  Amazingly the rings of the redwood trees are still visible in the fossilized stumps and this is how scientists are able to exactly date when the volcanic eruption happened:

Here is a picture of another stump the trail went by:

Here is a view of the old lake bed as seen from the far side of the loop trail:

From here it was a short walk up a small hill to one of the largest and most well known fossils in the park known as “The Big Stump”:

This redwood tree was 230 feet tall and 750 years old when it was killed by the volcanic mudflow 34 million years ago:

Scientists are not sure how many redwood fossils were located around the old lake bed because before this land became a national park many of the redwood stumps were carved up and sold by collectors.  A close up look at The Big Stump shows how people in the past tried to use saws to break apart pieces of this stump:

Fortunately they were not able to cut through the very large fossil that is The Big Stump and it remains today for everyone visiting the park to see.  From the small hill that The Big Stump sits on we had a good view looking back at the Hornbek Homestead which we had stopped at to check out before coming to the visitor center:

From The Big Stump it was a pleasant walk along the west side of the old lake bed back to the visitor center:

Along the way we were treated to some nice views of Pikes Peak to the east:

The Petrified Forest Loop ends at large pavilion near the visitor center where a number of fossilized redwood stumps can be seen:

This grove of three redwood stumps that once grew together reminded me of the Cathedral Tree in Northern California’s redwood forest:

Conclusion

Overall, this hike was short, but very informative and offered plenty of good views of Pikes Peak.  The trail is not wheelchair accessible, but most people should have no problems with the trail.  My two year old walked most of the way around the trail with me carrying her over some of the icier areas.  For those looking for other hiking opportunities there are a few other trails that can be hiked in the park as well.  This link shows a map of these trails for those interested.  I plan on hiking some of these longer trails in the summer when it is not so cold.  The Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument is probably not worth a trip all by itself for most people visiting the Colorado Springs region, however if a visit to Cripple Creek is in your itinerary than I highly recommend taking the short and scenic drive from this historic gold mining community to visit this park.  You will not only learn about Colorado’s recent past at Cripple Creek, but also its ancient past at the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument.

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