Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Florrisant Fossil Beds National Monument and the gold fields

The Petrified Forest Loop and a mineralized sequoia stump
On our second day in Colorado Springs, Kali and I headed into the high country (8,500 feet) west of the city.  We drove through Woodland Park (the name sounds much nicer than the reality of the urban sprawl blight characteristic of this small city) and then further west to the crossroads town (don't blink!) of Florissant.  Here, we turned south to visit Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument.

The national monument was created in 1969 to save what was left of a fantastically productive fossil deposit that had been systematically pillaged by fossil hunters beginning as soon as the area was settled in the 1870s.

The Florissant valley experienced two fossil-forming episodes.  During the first, 35 million years ago, a lahar swept down the flanks of a volcano situated about 15 miles away and buried the standing sequoia forest in 15 feet of volcanic mud.  The mud killed the trees, which rotted away above the level of the mud, but the entombed stumps were mineralized and preserved as petrified wood.

In the second episode a few million years later, a landslide from the volcano blocked the stream that drained the valley.  The water in the creek backed up behind the landslide dam to form shallow, warm, and "soupy" Lake Florissant on top of the former sequoia forest.  Over millions of years, plants and animals that fell into the lake sank to the anoxic bottom and were incorporated into the sediments that later became shale.  While the petrified tree trunks were impressive, the fossils of the invertebrates from the shale were what really impressed Kali and me.  Fragile insects were preserved in truly exquisite detail.  The Visitor Center at the national monument has some of the best fossils on display.
The bed of fossil Lake Florissant, looking northward
Kali and I accompanied Ranger Ray on a guided tour of the 1-mile Petrified Forest Loop Trail to learn the history of the site and enjoy the partially excavated sequoia stumps.  We thought about hiking some of the other 13 miles of trails in the park, but decided that (1) it was hot and exposed and (2) most of the park is located on the lake bed of fossil Lake Florissant, so it's fairly flat and most of the park is visible from the county highway that divides it north-south anyway.  We decided to move on.
The Big Tree. No one knows how large the stump was before fossil hunters chipped away at it.
Oh, and I turned 62 in May, so I was eligible to buy a Senior Pass to the national parks and national wildlife refuges that will give Kali and me free access for the rest of our lives.  It was $10 - what an incredible deal.   

After Florissant, we continued to drive south to Cripple Creek, Colorado, a former gold mining town that's down on its luck.  Apparently, more gold has been mined from the hills surrounding Cripple Creek than in any other single location on earth, but the current gold rush has mostly passed Cripple Creek by.  Now, the town is full of Victorian storefronts that have been converted into casinos.  With the exception a a few restaurants and souvenir stores, every building in town is part of a casino complex - and there must be a dozen casinos in a town that looks like it has a population of about 1,000.  We didn't even get out of the car.

We continued five miles on to the town of Victor, Colorado, to see the Second Annual Gem and Mineral Show.  Victor bills itself as the "City of Mines" and it's not kidding.  There are mine tailings and mine workings everywhere, and there's a gigantic working gold mine right on the edge of town. Downtown is downtrodden, shabby and sad, with the same Victorian area buildings as Cripple Creek but without the casino glitz.  We looked over the (small) rock show and stopped in a few stores before having a hamburger lunch at the Elks Lodge - a grand old building gradually (or perhaps not so gradually) crumbling apart.

From Victor, we headed back north.  I wanted to do a hike I'd read about in a trails book.  We turned off the main, paved state highway onto a decent gravel forest service road.  Kali always gets upset when we drive narrow, gravel forest service roads and she's suspicious of the hikes, so she became increasingly unhappy as we meandered through the forest.  By the time we reached the trailhead, Kali was in a truly bad mood, and, to top it off, it had started to drizzle.  We sat in the car for a while, trying to decide if the rain was going to be a serious impediment to our hike.  Finally, we decided that we didn't want to risk getting soaked and we "threw in the towel."  I instantly got in a bad mood, too - petulant for having been subverted and denied a hike I had been looking forward to.  We drove the 1.25 hours back to Colorado Springs in grim silence - each the offended party.


Mark P said...

Leah and I have been in that area before. I have actually been in more of it than Leah, back before we were married. I think we'll have to put the fossil beds on our to-do list.

The pictures of Garden of the Gods were very nice. Leah and I went there last fall but we had to stay in the car because it was raining. I have some photos of my parents on horseback there from the 1940's when my father was stationed at Camp Carson, as it was known there.

You and Kali sound a little like me and Leah. I'm more into hiking than she is, and we sometimes have those moments of disagreement that leave us both peeved.

Scott said...

Mark: Thanks for your compliment about the images. I remember your trip last summer when you got rained-out so often. I hate to tell you this, but Kali and I did the drive through the Garden after we walked through the trails and found that driving was much, much less satisfactory than walking.

This is the third summer in a row that we've visited Colorado, and this was the rainiest of the three, by far. We got rain every afternoon. As Kali said, "I thought that Colorado was supposed to enjoy 300 sunny days each year!"

Don't make a special trip for the Florissant Fossil Beds, but spend 2-3 hours there if you're in the vicinity.

My Colorado map still shows "Fort Carson Military Reservation" south of Colorado Springs. I think you posted the image of your Dad on horseback at Garden of the Gods a few months ago, didn't you?

packrat said...

A thoroughly-enjoyable read for today's post, Scott. Very informative, too. I'm still smiling about "Ranger Ray."


Scott said...

Packrat: Ranger Ray told us that he was from Missoula, Montana and had just been discharged from the Army, where he had been serving as a sergeant. He clearly was a "country boy" who had a few syntax problems when he spoke, but he clearly enjoyed his job and was good at it.