Florissant FOSSIL BEDS NATIONAL MONUMENT - Before they were dug up, the plant and insect fossils in this Teller County valley were buried for 35 million years.
It took 44 years for Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument to get a new visitors center, barely a blip in time by comparison.
It's a big deal at the national monument, which since opening in 1969 had welcomed visitors with a cramped, rustic cabin that wouldn't be fit to house a restroom at most National Park Service properties. Officials will hold a weekend of events, starting Friday, celebrating the completion of the $3 million project.
"We haven't had exhibits. We've just had temporary exhibits," lead interpretive ranger Jeff Wolin said.
The valley west of Pikes Peak was once a tropical lake, the insects, plants and trees preserved for all time by ash and mud from an ancient volcano. Its verdant meadows, fossil displays and massive redwood stumps attract 65,000 visitors each year. Until recently, it took a lot of imagination to picture the past. The old visitors center, in a decaying 1924 cabin, measured only 96 square feet, enough room for a book shop, tiny movie theater and a couple of cases of fossils.
The new center is 876 square feet, with kid-friendly exhibits on par with those in modern museums. There are interactive dioramas with buttons, a large fake redwood tree and wallpaper with scenes from the Cenozoic Era, all attempting to tell the story of what this valley was like then and the climate change that replaced the tropical forest with ponderosa pines, as well as the role the 50,000 fossils recovered here have played in our understanding of pre-historic North America.
Work on the center began in early 2012, surviving federal budget cuts because it was deemed ready to begin, Wolin said. The old building was demolished before construction began.
Along with the added space for exhibits, there is a larger movie theater, behind-the-scenes space for fossil storage and paleontological research, new restrooms and a patio looking out on the petrified redwood stumps.
They even have a cash register finally to let visitors use credit cards to buy books or pay the $3 entrance fee.
Wolin hopes the center will help provide "a much more immersive experience," especially for children and school groups. It's easy to get kids excited about Tyrannosaurus Rex, but stumps and insect fossils?
"We'll always have to have that factor, that we're not a dinosaur place, but we see a lot of youth here," Wolin said.
"This park belongs to the people and we feel like we've really brought all our standards up, in terms of providing for our visitors."