Did you know Colorado was once home to giant redwood trees, similar to those found in California and Oregon? Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument is considered one of the world’s richest fossil deposits. It has yielded more than 50,000 museum fossil specimens from over 1,700 species including 1,500 insects, 150 plants and one of the world’s only known fossil records of the tsetse fly, now found only in equatorial Africa. Forever cast in paper-thin shale are records of Eocene Epoch life from 34 million years ago. When my cousins Nick and Mollie, along with their son Milo, suggested going to the national monument during a weekend stay at their cabin near Cripple Creek, I jumped at the chance to add another national park site to my list.
There are over 15 miles of hiking trails at Florissant Fossil Beds. We did the self-guided Petrified Forest Loop. This one-mile loop from the visitor center has the best views of the petrified redwood stumps. We went left from the visitor center to do Petrified Forest Loop clockwise. Our first stop was the “Stump Shelter” and amphitheater. I was fascinated by the petrified stumps right off the bat and was thankful there was a chatty ranger there to answer questions like how did the trees get fossilized and why just the stumps? He told us the stumps were encapsulated in mud and ash from mudslides from the massive volcanic eruption of the Guffrey Complex about 15 miles southwest of present-day Florissant Fossil Beds. The volcanic layer is called a lahar which is a mudflow from the slope of a volcano capable of moving at 150 miles per hour and carrying car-sized boulders. What you see is the part of the tree that was covered in mud and fossilized through a process call permineralization, where minerals are carried by water and fill the spaces within organic tissue of living organisms. Dissolved silica in the groundwater petrified the trees. The fossil stumps are proof Colorado once had a warm-temperate forest, instead of the cool-temperate highlands environment it has today. When you think of trees in Colorado, pines and aspens likely come to mind, not redwoods. The mean annual temperature was about 56°F at Florissant during the late Eocene Epoch, which is similar to San Francisco today. In the “Stump Shelter” my favorite was the Trio, three trunks that are part of the same tree. The stumps are huge. I imagined what the landscape filled with giant redwoods must have looked like 34 million years ago.
From the shelter we cross a meadow and headed into some ponderosa pines, where we were thankful for the shade. Even though the easy hike is only a mile, make sure you have on sunscreen and have some water as a good portion of the trail is in full sun.
We came up to the colorful “Big Stump.” It’s estimated this redwood tree was more than 230 feet tall and 500-1000 years old when the volcanic lahar layer buried its based in mud. There are rusty saw blades embedded near the top of Big Stump. Those are from a failed attempt to cut it into pieces to display at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, before the area was protected.
As we walked the rest of the loop through the meadow, I noticed the difference between the stumps protected by shelters and trees, and the ones fully exposed to weathering from the elements. I also found it interesting to see plants and flowers growing out of the ancient redwood stumps.
Before and after our hike at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, we spent a little time in Cripple Creek, founded as a gold mining camp in 1890 near the base of Pikes Peak. We strolled up and down the main street taking in the architecture while enjoying ice cream from the Rocky Mountain Canary General Store. We even found some of the roaming donkeys. Cripple Creek has an annual Donkey Derby Days in late July, a tradition that dates back to 1931. We found them grazing at the football field.
Author Jennifer Broome has traveled extensively across Colorado. Check out the Explore Colorado section for more places to visit in the Centennial State. For more ideas close to Cripple Creek, read blogs on Colorado Springs and The Broadmoor.