As the Parks Service passes its 100-year anniversary, large and established parks like Yellowstone NP have been extremely popular. However, it’s also a great time to consider a quick trip to newer, less busy fixtures like Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. This park is in the heart of Colorado, and easily visited in a single day!
This monument was established less than 50 years ago – in 1969, by ol’ Richard “tricky Dick” Nixon – and… what a great move on his part! It’s great to see this area preserved in all it’s beauty and historical significance.
And, yes… there be fossils here! The fossils here aren’t quite as ancient as the dinosaurs. However, they’re still very cool for kids, for the kid-at-heart, or just for the inquisitive-minded among us.
Florissant Fossil Beds NM covers a fairly small area, but offers lots to see, do, and learn — all within a single-day trip. You’re sure to find a few things of interest, just as we did.
In a half-day visit, we explored:
- The scientific importance of the area – you can really get into the “-ology” of the place (geology and paleontology).
- The human history of natives / homesteaders / tourists and entrepreneurs.
- Petrified wood stumps – these have always been a huge draw for tourists of the area going back to the 1920s.
- Hiking through fantastic views of nature and the unique ecosystem.
Seasonal Advice for Visiting Florissant Fossil Beds
We visited the park in the late-Spring / early-Summer season and highly recommend you do the same. It’s a great time of year to capture the natural beauty of this former floodplain. The idea of any modern-day flooding is ancient history, although Florrisant Fossil Beds used to see volcanoes, lakes of ash, and mudflows! There’s nothing quite so intense now, but… a passing thunderstorm? Well, that’s pretty common this time of year.
For this reason, we recommend arriving earlier in the day if you want to conquer all the hiking trails. Most showers and thunderstorms happen in the afternoon/evening. The weather did have a slight impact on our trip, so let’s discuss…
We arrived at the Fossil Beds around noon after a relatively quick 2 hour drive from Denver. The park is roughly 35 miles west off I-25 and Colorado Springs. During the summer, thunderstorms are pretty common in the late afternoon within the Rocky Mountain region. If you don’t arrive in the AM, you might find the same situation we did… namely, a lot of wind, rain, and lightning!
Shortly after we pulled in, park rangers were advising everyone to “stay indoors” based on the weather radar. There’s actually plenty to do inside the recently-built Visitor Center, and we suggest you make this your first stop.
The Visitor Center is an eco-friendly “green” building, equipped with solar panels and running entirely off-grid. Here, you can catch a good glimpse of the prehistoric fossils that are found throughout the area. You can also get some solid insights into the scientific significance of the Fossil Beds.
The Visitor Center
A few activities we’d suggest within the Visitor Center include:
Orientation Film – “Shadows of the Past” (14 minutes)
If the weather holds throughout your day, you’ll definitely want to get on the trails and explore the area. Personally, we especially enjoyed getting a bit of geological and human history backstory from the “Shadows of the Past” film. The film starts every 20 minutes on the hour in the summer.
Fossil Learning Lab – hands-on fossil searches!
Maybe a hands-on exploration of the fossilized imprints is more your speed?
You can touch actual fossils, and attempt to find them in shale samples provided by the park rangers. The rangers were more than happy to show you how they go about finding creatures in the rock! We weren’t lucky enough to find anything, but we did have fun while waiting for the storms to pass.
I hear they normally have the Fossil Learning Lab activity set up in the nearby yurt (the large round tent in picnic area outside the Visitor Center). For our visit, this lab was squeezed into one corner of the fossils/science exhibit, which worked pretty well to avoid the rain.
Talk to Park Rangers
The park rangers and staff are friendly, and they’re always ready with information. It’s a good idea to pick their brains for info and tips regarding the fossils. Some of the cooler fossilized finds are on display in the exhibit, along with info on how they formed. This is fun for the kids and… the geology/paleontology geeks. 😃
Also, show your support for the still underfunded Parks System by picking up a keepsake or by simply dropping a small donation into the “Friends of the Florissant Fossil Beds” jar. We snagged a nice zippered hoodie (one of my favorites, to this day) and a stick of buffalo jerky before heading back outside.
Picnic Lunches & A Ranger Talk
The picnic tables around the Visitor Center are great for throwing together a sandwich or whatever else you packed for the day. We had to wipe the table dry (well… drier, anyway) and still got some light, cooling post-storm drizzle – no biggie! If you’d like more shelter outside of the Visitor’s Center or the Yurt, there’s also a large covered amphitheater. This amphitheater is where the Ranger Talks are held.
In our experience Ranger Talks are always fantastic, and we get a lot out of them. Ranger programs often feature the park’s most enthusiastic and knowledgeable employees who speak from a personal love of history. You can expect a bunch of artifacts and photos to be passed up into the stadium-style seats. Overall, the talk is pretty interactive.
Another item of note in the amphitheater are two the petrified wood stumps. They flank the “stage” where the rangers speak. During some of the talks, you’ll get a history of how the stumps were formed! You can see these stumps in the picture above.
Hiking & Exploring Florissant Fossil Beds
After the ranger talk, we headed out onto the trails to explore – armed with in-depth knowledge of the area’s features, including:
- Petrified tree stumps: View the stumps along the 1/2 mile Ponderosa Loop Trail and/or the 1 mile self-guided Petrified Forest Loop.
- Hornbek Homestead: Old lady Hornbek claimed 160 acres of the area way back in the 1870s and built her home there. The homestead is often open for you to visit and explore.
- Indigenous plants and animals: We saw countless rabbits, squirrels, and chipmunks while hiking – also, signs of elk and mountain lions are common … keep your eyes peeled!
The trails offer some diverse walks: from fairly flat, open plains to more mountainous, wooded areas. Even with this diversity, all the hiking trails can be explored within a single day. So, that’s a nice bonus.
As the day gave way to evening and clearer skies, we opted to cross the highway across from the Visitor Center for some more remote hikes. You can enjoy multiple picturesque crossings of Grape Creek which meanders through the area.
We Hope You Go Visit!
Above all, take your time and make a day of it! The Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument is rich with history and variety — all packed into a small, easily-explored area. We’d love to go back ourselves and hit every trail and explore all the exhibits again.
In the meantime, maybe you’ll go in our place, learn something we didn’t, see an elk or… well, let’s hope you don’t see a mountain lion. Use the comments below to share your own experiences. Ask us any questions you might have, or anything else that crosses your mind!
Florissant Fossil Beds Quick Overview
Recommended Visit: 1-Day
Things to Do: Hiking, Fossil Learning Lab, Petrified Wood Stumps, and Ranger Talks
Location: Visitor’s Center Address — 15807 Teller County Road 1, Florissant, CO 80816 (~35 mi.from Co. Sprngs)
Camping Availability: Not in the park, but there is some around the area.
NPS Website: Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument
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