Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument in central Colorado protects one of the richest and most diverse fossil deposits in the world where a prehistoric redwood forest and lake were buried and preserved by ancient volcanic eruptions.
Petrified stumps of massive redwood trees still stand as testimony on the site, and the fossils of plants and insects found there provide a fascinating glimpse at a lush ecosystem and climate very different from the ones that exist today. Because the park is not large (~3.5 by 4 miles), it can be explored in a few hours to a half-day. I combined my visit to the Monument with scenic driving on the Frontier Pathways Byway and the Gold Belt Tour, and a stop at Garden of the Gods. This area is near Pike’s Peak as well and you can see lovely views of it from the park.
Florissant Fossil beds is located about 35 miles west of Colorado Springs. Take US Highway 24 to the town of Florissant, then travel 2 miles south on Teller County Road 1 to the Visitor Center (follow signs). These are paved roads suitable for passenger cars. The nearest airport is at Colorado Springs (COS). There is no public transportation to the monument.
Summer is the best time to go because the weather is agreeable and there are more programs offered. The park is open 8:00am to 6:00pm in the summer (9:00am to 5:00pm the rest of the year). There is a small admission fee for adults age 16 or older, or they accept NPS access passes.
What to See and Do
The park has a modern Visitor Center with designated accessible parking and ramped and/or level entrances. It contains a theatre showing a short, informative film about the area, educational exhibits (including displays of fossils found at the site), a gift shop, and accessible restrooms and drinking fountain. Admission is collected at an information desk staffed by helpful rangers. Maps of the park’s 15 miles of hiking trails are available there, and most start at the Visitor Center. An outdoor exhibit area behind the Visitor Center has two shelters covering petrified redwood tree stumps and an accessible amphitheater where some of the ranger-led activities are conducted.
The 1/2 mile Ponderosa Loop Trail begins in this area and is an easy, accessible trail through a forest of ponderosa pines, aspen, douglas fir and spruce trees. The Petrified Forest Loop (1 mile) also departs from this area and passes numerous petrified tree stumps. It is not fully accessible due to grades, but some wheelchair users may be able to negotiate portions of it – particularly the section of the trail that leads through the meadow north of the Visitor Center. Between June 1st and Labor Day, a variety of ranger-led tours and programs are offered several times per day. The schedule varies; inquire about these at the Visitor Center, check the calendar on the NPS website, or call (719) 748-3253. For example, on the day I visited, a ranger had set up 3 telescopes on the patio behind the Visitor Center and helped me to view the sun. On summer afternoons the Hornbek Homestead built in 1878 is usually open and staffed by a ranger. It’s located in the northern section of the monument adjacent to Teller County Road 1, about a mile north of the Visitor Center. The best way for people using wheelchairs to reach this historic site is by car.
Where to Sleep and Eat
There is no lodging, camping or food service at this National Monument. A shady picnic area is located outside the Visitor Center. Food is available at Florissant (2 miles), Divide (9 miles), or Woodland Park (16 miles). Hotels are located at Cripple Creek (16 miles), Woodland Park (16 miles), and Colorado Springs (35 miles). Camping is available at Cripple Creek (16 miles), Mueller State Park (12 miles), Eleven Mile State Park (20 miles), and at numerous campgrounds in the nearby Pike National Forest.
Important Things to Know
The park elevation is 8400′, so be alert for signs of altitude sickness and drink lots of water. The sun is intense at this altitude; go prepared for exposure and wear a hat, sunscreen and sunglasses. Storms are common on summer afternoons – stay alert and seek shelter from dangerous lightning. Pets are only allowed in the parking lot and picnic area and must be leashed. Removing any natural or cultural feature (fossils, rocks, flowers, artifacts, etc.) from the Monument is prohibited.