One of the favorite things that Michael and I enjoy doing on our adventures is to stop at as many National Park Service sites as we can.  These carefully preserved sites, along with the modern Visitors Centers and pathway narratives, give us a lot of insight about how the Southwest evolved, and how the First Americans evolved with the area.  Recently, we discovered a somewhat unique National Park, the Florissant Fossil Beds, located on the eastern slopes of Pike’s Peak on Colorado.  At an altitude of about 8,500 feet, the air is thin and it is really important to stay hydrated.

The Florissant Fossil Beds are one of the richest sources for ancient fossils in the world.  A combination of shale and sedimentary formations through the valley, capped by the lava flows from the Guffey Volcanic complex, sealed and protected the fossils.  Many plants and animals were preserved here over 34 million years ago by this extraordinary combination of events, and were fairly undisturbed by man or nature until the late 1800’s.  The fossil beds were initially excavated (with fossils currently found in dozens of US and UK museums), but as a result of five decades of advocacy have fallen under the protection of the National Park Service, preserving the historical record.

The Visitor Center is a great place to start, providing museum-quality displays and interpretations of the very small fossils.  These are not large dinosaur-type bones, but tiny plants and insects from the Eocene era.  By contrast, dinosaurs roamed the earth until the global extinction-level event some 65 million years ago, and the Florissant Fossil beds are from a more recent 34 million years ago.  The Eocene era (55-34 million years ago) gave way to the cooler Oligocene era, leading to the start of small mammals.  Finding fossil remains of bees, spiders, beetles, dragonflies, butterflies, leaves, and even significant stands of petrified Ponderosa Pine trunks (some of them are thirty or forty feet in diameter) is amazing.

The Park is laid out with a series of walking trails, some of which are short and wheelchair accessible, and some of which require fairly dedicated hikers.  In total, there are roughly 14 miles of trails in the park.  There is ample signage along the way, educating and informing us of what we are seeing.  The trails are generally gravel and well-marked, so enjoy a hike through the valley.  Watch for lots of critters – we saw Abert’s squirrels scampering about, and lots of birds flitting through the pines.  You may come across the occasional elk, coyote, porcupine, or other wild animals – just remember that this is their home and they are not tame pets.  Also, this is a National Park, so no souvenir hunting along the paths.

Another part of the Florissant Fossil Beds is the preserved site of the Hornbek homestead.  This 1878 compound was built by an early Colorado pioneer, Adeline Hornbek, who moved with her husband and four children as part of the westward Anglo migration.  Her husband passed away, and she managed to raise her children on a working cattle ranch through determination and grit.  The story of Adeline is fascinating, and it was easy for me to put myself in her pioneer shoes and marvel at the daily struggles she had not only to survive, but to thrive.

The Rangers are enthusiastic about explaining the history and significance of the Florissant Fossil Beds, and give a number of scheduled programs and hikes during the day.  Weather permitting, they are open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.  It is well worth the drive out to Florissant for a wonderful day-trip. We certainly enjoyed the drive as well as the stop at the National Park, and hope you do as well.

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