|The Petrified Forest Loop and a mineralized sequoia stump|
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|
|The Big Tree. No one knows how large the stump was before fossil hunters chipped away at it.|
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.