Walk Through Time

The Petrified Forest Loop crosses the ancient bed of Lake Florissant, where volcanic ash mixed with water to preserve trees, plants and insects.

Joshua Hardin

If a tree fell in the forest 34 million years ago and no one was there to hear it, did it make a sound?The petrified trees at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument keep a stony silence. It wasn’t always so quiet here: The volcanic blasts that entombed the huge redwoods likely made a phenomenal din.

In the human era, the discovery of petrified trees and tiny insect fossils here in Teller County made considerably less noise than the headline-grabbing finds of dinosaur bones elsewhere. 

Reverberating through the ages at Florissant are stories of groundbreaking science, artifact smuggling and a courtroom drama that preserved this remarkable place as a national monument. Park visitors can travel epochs of time in more than 15 miles of trails, and if they listen hard enough, it almost seems they can hear the ancient redwoods telling their stories.

Redwoods in Colorado?

The Geologic Trail is a moderate, one-mile climb ascending above the remnants of a massive pyroclastic flow to a scenic overlook of the Florissant Valley. 
Standing on the granite outcrops at trail’s end, it takes imagination to picture the golden, grassy meadows of south-central Colorado and the evergreen-covered foothills west of Pikes Peak as they looked 34 million years ago during in the Eocene Epoch. Back then, the scene looked like a hotter version of today’s Pacific Northwest: a warm-temperate forest filled with towering redwoods, broad-leafed beech trees, ferns and cattail marshes.

The forest’s inhabitants had the misfortune of living 15 miles northeast of the active Guffey Volcano Complex. Explosive eruptions, similar to Mount St. Helens in 1980, mixed ash and water into mudflows called lahars that engulfed birds, fish and small mammals in stream deposits. Later eruptions dammed a stream to fill Lake Florissant, where fossils of brush-footed Persephone butterflies and tsetse flies – like those found only in Africa today – collected in its bottom sediments. While the silica-rich ash doomed the forest’s residents to untimely deaths, it also stored impressions of their bodies for later human discovery.

“When the mountains are overthrown and the seas uplifted, the universe at Florissant flings itself against a gnat and preserves it,” geologist Arthur C. Peale described the fossilization process after an 1873 tour.

“Some fossils fuel your car. Some fuel your imagination,” Jeff Wolin, the park’s lead interpreter, said. Modern travelers on Highway 1 between Florissant and Cripple Creek are rewarded for stopping in the monument to satisfy roadside curiosity. Looks of awestruck surprise and whispers of, “I didn’t know this was here,” are reactions rangers see the most from Florissant’s 70,000 yearly visitors.

The Hornbek Nature Trail, a moderate hike of 3.8 miles, crosses the former Florissant lakebed where sightings of living wildlife, like elk or pronghorn, are more common than those of fossilized creatures.

Pioneers named the wildflower-filled Florissant Valley after the French word for “flowering.” Visitors frequently confuse the word Florissant with fluorescent and mistakenly expect to see glow-in-the-dark fossils. However, they can explore historic buildings on the trail linking the park’s visitor center to the homestead of pioneer Adeline Hornbek. 

Hornbek, a single mother of four, moved her family to the valley in 1878 and homesteaded 160 acres. She built a large log house and augmented her property with nine outbuildings. Homesteaders like Hornbek and neighbor Charlotte Hill began unearthing fossils while doing their chores. When Hill showed a stunning Persephone butterfly fossil to the pioneer scientists of the Hayden Survey, scores of researchers descended on the area to dig fossils to send back to sponsoring museums from San Francisco to London. More than 20 different museums worldwide have Florissant pieces in their collections.

The acquisition of specimens continued unabated for nearly a century. A single paleontologist, Samuel Scudder, collected 8,000 insect fossils now housed at Harvard University. Tourists carted away souvenirs for their personal stashes. In 1956, Walt Disney bought a fossilized redwood stump from a Florissant landowner as an anniversary gift for his wife, Lillian, which she later donated to Disneyland’s Frontierland attraction. Millions view it annually.


For the rest of the story see the January/February 2018 issue of Colorado Life.


Add your comment: