Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument: Colorado’s Petrified Past

visitor center

(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Colorado’s mountains hide many secrets, from crystal lakes to amazing rock formations. However, to a paleontologist, Colorado’s greatest secret lies just below the surface. The state has a very rich diversity of fossils, from Ice Age mastodons to Jurassic dinosaurs. In fact, the most complete Stegosaurus skeleton ever found was discovered in Morrison, Colorado, and in 1982, it became the official State Dinosaur. Fossils are what bring visitors to the small town of Florissant, Colorado, roughly two hours from Colorado Springs.

fossilized rock

(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument is famous, not for dinosaur fossils, but for the large diversity of fossilized plants, insects, and trees. Every year, some 60,000 visitors flock to the park, and the Petrified Forest is the most popular attraction. While tourism brings revenue, this isn’t the park’s only purpose, and paleontologists still visit the site to study the distant past.

Redwood Area

(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The park’s history began approximately 34 million years ago, when the area was a lake environment, surrounded by redwood forest. The fossils preserved in the site owe their existence to algae blooms caused by eruptions from the Thirtymile volcanic field to the northwest. These algae blooms covered the fossils in mats of algae, preventing decay and allowing fossilization to occur. This is how relatively delicate structures, such as leaves and insect bodies, were able to fossilize. In addition to plants and insects, a number of vertebrates have also been found, offering insights into the ancient ecosystem that once existed.

leaves

(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Plant specimens range from microscopic pollen to the famous petrified redwoods. The Petrified Forest contains some 30 preserved stumps, which are among the largest stumps in the world. Some of these trees are between 500 to 700 years old and were nearly 200 feet tall at the time of their death. Flowering plants dominate the fossil record, but fossilized fruits, seeds, flowers, and conifers have also been found.

insect

(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In addition to plants, a large number of invertebrates have also been discovered. Arthropods seem to be most numerous, with over 1,500 species of spiders and insects identified thus far. Spiders represent the majority of the arachnid fossils discovered, although several harvestmen specimens have also been unearthed. Interestingly, the spiders were found not with legs curled, as is typical, but with legs fully extended, indicating warm or acidic water conditions. Insects discovered include dragonflies, mayflies, cicadas, grasshoppers, crickets, butterflies, bees, and wasps. In addition to insects, several mollusk species have been identified, with snails being the most abundant. Examples of aquatic and terrestrial insects and mollusks have been discovered, offering clues to the prehistoric ecology of the Florissant region.

While insects and plants dominate the fossil record, some vertebrates have been found. A number of fish species lived in the ancient lake, though these were largely bottom feeders like catfish and bowfins. Birds are also present, to include a cuckoo, rollers, and shorebirds. Some 19th century literature describes additional species, but due to a lack of information, they cannot be identified. Other vertebrates include ancient horses, as well as several animals related to ancient camels. Unfortunately, only the jaws and teeth of these animals have been uncovered–paleontologists have yet to find complete skeletons. Unlike Dinosaur National Monument, the Florissant Fossil Beds do not contain dinosaur fossils, as the site formed only 35 million years ago.

In the late 1800s, the region was mapped by geologists. Soon after, paleontologists arrived to study the fossilized flora and fauna. The largely shale composition of the area makes fossil hunting relatively easy, and collectors took their toll on the area, removing over half of the fossilized wood in the Petrified Forest. It would take another century for the site to gain government protection, when it was officially declared a National Monument in 1969.

The Florissant Fossil Beds give a glimpse into Colorado’s ancient history, and though no monsters may be found here, it is as unique, fascinating, and beautiful as Colorado itself.

Directions to Florissant Fossil Beds

From Denver:

Take 1-25 SOUTH to Exit 141
Turn RIGHT onto US 24 West/Cimarron St.
After 24 miles:
Turn LEFT onto CR 42
Turn RIGHT onto CR 1

From Colorado Springs:

Take 1-25 to Exit 141
Head WEST on US 24 West/Cimarron St.
After 24 miles:
Turn LEFT onto CR 42
Turn RIGHT onto CR 1

From Pueblo:

Take 1-25 NORTH to Exit 141
Turn LEFT onto US 24 West/Cimarron St.
After 24 miles:
Turn LEFT onto CR 42
Turn RIGHT onto CR 1

NOTE: Improvements to the US 24/Cimarron Street exit may be in progress at time of visit, so delays are possible.