Florissant Fossil Beds
Description: "If I could put up a billboard," says Jeff Wolin, a ranger at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, "it would have a big arrow and say: 'Your closest national park unit is just up the hill.'" Residents of Colorado Springs are an hour's drive from this federally protected site, spanning nearly 6,000 acres in Teller County. The monument's main attractions are the petrified redwood tree stumps, among the largest in the world. They span up to 14 feet wide, no longer vibrant in color as they were long ago, but still imposing and now more bizarre in their white-gray states. The mountain valley keeps evidence of the Eocene period, a time when lakes and volcanoes dominated the now-grassy landscape. Ash preserved the insects and plants currently exhibited at the monument. Other than the fossils, visitors come for peaceful hikes on trails totaling about 14 miles through meadows and hills of pine and aspen. Views include Pikes Peak and massive granite formations. Rangers host night sky programs, taking advantage of the stars that glimmer over the site.
Activities: Hiking, horseback riding, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, guided tours, fossil exhibits
Wildlife: Rare sightings of pronghorn, elk, mule deer and black bears, with more common mammals being red foxes, squirrels, rabbits, chipmunks and bats; common birds include Cooper's hawks, red-tailed hawks, nighthawks, crows, Steller's jays, blue jays, rosy finches; occasional garter snakes
Fun fact: "Florissant" means "flowering" in French.
Address: 15807 County Road 1, Florissant, 80816
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Labor Day to Memorial Day)
Directions: Heading west on U.S. 24, go 35 miles to Florissant. Signs point to the visitor center.
SETH BOSTER, THE GAZETTE