The nearest national monument to Colorado Springs asks you to imagine a tropical place that existed 34 million years ago.
A forest beside the sea is depicted in displays at Florissant Fossil Beds’ visitor center. Windows reveal this place now: open meadows bordered by woods of pine and aspen, backdropped by hills, mostly dry but for streams that run in years of heavy rain.
Long gone is the ecosystem of the late Eocene era. But to aid your imagination, walk out the back door and behold the monument’s centerpieces.
Massive tree stumps rest in their protected places, white and petrified by the deep time that’s passed since a volcanic eruption slowly changed the area. As wide as 13 feet and soaring to heights of 250 feet, redwoods once dominated the land.
Their still-imposing remains draw visitors to the Teller County countryside, though not many. On our most recent visit, a perfect Saturday afternoon, we had the trail all to ourselves. This was the Boulder Creek Trail, a nearly 3-mile loop recommended by the front desk, with the option of several other loops along the way.
Start through the open fields, your eyes drawn to Crystal Peak in the distance, appearing like a pyramid. Signs along the gravel path will point the way to Boulder Creek, with one enticing spur being the mile-long trail to the 1878 Hornbeck homestead. Stay left for the slight descent into a wavy valley, where you might spot some of the park’s wildlife: elk or mule deer and big birds in the sky, including red-tailed hawks. At your shoulder, Pikes Peak looms in view for a while. Then you drop slightly again to a pile of granite boulders demanding a fun scramble. The creek runs here, hence the name of the trail, which thins and climbs into the forest, reaching high points before descending again.
Signs direct you back to the visitor center. But for more adventure, catch the Sawmill Trail, an extra 2 1/2 miles that the park calls “a good example of Colorado’s montane life zone” — more woods and stream-fed valleys frequented by more mammals. For more of those ancient stumps, including “the Big Stump,” take the mile-long Petrified Forest Loop, also starting near the visitor center.
High-altitude seekers might not be satisfied. But the monument makes for a fine family outing, and outdoor lovers everywhere can appreciate this preservation of natural history and the solitude along with it.
Trip log: 2.9 miles round trip (loop), 340 feet elevation gain, 8,602 feet max
Getting there: Go west on U.S. 24, through Woodland Park and Divide to Florissant. Turn left at Teller County 1, going south about 2 miles to the entrance on the right.
FYI: $7 entrance fee per person. Hiking only. Dogs not allowed on trails.
SETH BOSTER, THE GAZETTE