By Linda Cornett
Florissant (French for blossoming) is one of the richest lodes of fossilized animals, insects and plants in the world. About 35 million years ago, the lush region was buried by ash and lava spewed from surrounding volcanoes, preserving proof of the past. Beginning in the 1870s, curious tourists flocked to the region to marvel at the paleontological finds. Today, Florissant remains a tourist destination and the exploration continues.
The 6,000-acre Florissant monument, 35 miles west of Colorado Springs, has already offered up the minute (1,700 different species of fossilized insects), along with the massive (fossilized stumps of huge redwood trees up to 41 feet around) and bones of a brontothere, a rhinoceros-like creature that enjoyed the valley long before humans discovered it. The monument is a lofty 8,400 feet above sea level and is home to a variety of wildlife, including mountain lions, foxes, bears, elk, mule deer and coyotes.
Visitors usually start with the Visitor Center, where a 14-minute “Shadows of the Past” film explains the history of the park and rangers offer interpretive talks and guided tours during summer months. Plant and insect fossils are also displayed and an outdoor exhibit area offers larger fossils. Visitors are also invited into the working Fossil Lab most afternoons or can take a “Paleontology 101” course on how shale beds in the park are being excavated to add to the fossil collection. Special programs for children are also offered. Call 719-748-3253 the day of your visit to confirm activities.
Two self-guided walking tours offer an easy stroll into the far reaches of history: the half-mile Walk Through Time and one-mile Petrified Forest Trail lead to some of the largest petrified sequoias in the world. Another 14 miles of hiking trails show off the park’s scenic views, wildlife and plants.
Visitors can also find signs of human history in the Florissant Valley. There is evidence of Paleo Indians visiting the valley, and the valley was once a part of the traditional lands of the nomadic Ute people.
Signs of their habitation are subtle, most commonly found in what are called Culturally Modified Trees that were bent, scarred or even written on to record important events. The natives used trees for food, medicine or ceremonies like commemorating the death of an important person.
In the 1860s, the U.S. government offer of free land in the West brought European settlers to the region. The town of Florissant was settled in 1870, named after the town of Florissant, Mo., by homesick settler James Castello. Castello built a trading post, general store and post office in the sparsely populated valley. The Rev. David Long was first to lay his claim in what was then known as the Petrified Forest. He built a home with an attached school room for the children of the new settlers. Long’s wife was the teacher and the reverend took care of marriages, funerals and preaching.
The town grew quickly, drawing discouraged gold miners to try their hand at farming. Before long a sawmill and blacksmith were added to the economic mix. Medical care was provided by colorful herbalist and midwife Nancy Ann Roberts, known as Dirty Woman for her sharp tongue, lack of hygiene and ever-present corncob pipe.
Many of the farmers discovered that the free acreage they had received didn’t produce enough to sustain their families and moved on. One success story was that of single mother of four and widow Adeline Hornbek. The tireless woman not only ran a successful ranch but became secretary of the school board, ran Castello’s general store and encouraged community by holding socials at her home. Her homestead remains north of the Visitor Center.
By the 1920s, sightseers were being lured to the Petrified Forest, with concession stands and dude ranches vying for their dollars and luring visitors with the promise that they could find and return home with their own artifacts. That trade died out when Florissant became a national monument in 1969.
The threat of subdivisions in the valley mobilized the scientists who had also discovered the preserved wonders. Allied with locals, they lobbied Congress to put the area under federal protection. A team of innovative lawyers managed to secure an injunction to buy enough time for the government to act. Congress made Florissant a national monument and President Richard Nixon blessed the legislation.
Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument
15807 Teller County Road 1
Florissant, CO 80816