Monday, January 28, 2013

Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument

Thirty-four million years ago a series of 'strato-volcanoes' roared to life is what is now central Colorado.  These volcanoes, called the Guffey Volcano center would create a rich and abundant record of the plant and animal life forms that made the area their home in those long distance times.

When the Guffey Volcano center erupted, a series of lahars and ash falls covered the land in an impenetrable layer of mud and ash.  Preserved within this ash and mud were the remains of giant redwood trees that covered the area in this epoch.  Over time the tops of the trees that remained above the mud decayed and fell away.  The stumps that were covered in the mud and ash eventually petrified.

As the eruptions from the Guffey Volcano center progressed the makeup of the land changed.  Originally a thick redwood forest, the land was eventually transformed into a large but somewhat shallow lake.  The lake formed when a stream was blocked by one of the lahars or pyroclastic flows from the volcanoes.  Over time, the life that made the lake it's home would die and fall to the bottom of the lake forming a thick mat of organic matter.  As more volcanic eruptions occurred, these thick mats were covered over by ash and eventually the organic matter turned into a fossilized record of everything that had lived in the area.

In the late 1800's the area that is now the National Monument was privately owned and people by the hundreds and thousands came to the area to exploit the cache of petrified wood and fossils.  Over time much of the rich geological record was carried off into private ownership.  What remained was only preserved through the efforts of locals who ran tourist businesses that were dependent upon the fossil beds.

In 1969 after a long and protracted battle with local landowners and businesses, the federal government was able to purchase the area that made up the fossil beds and turn it into the Fossil Beds National Monument.  (On a political note: Imagine the Federal Government trying to buy up land like this today.  Fat chance that would ever happen with all the vitriol against the government that is out there today.)

The Florissant Fossil Beds is one of the National Monuments in Colorado that Zack and I had yet to visit.  This past week, I decided we needed to get out of the house and get into the outdoors.  Given we have never been to the Florissant Fossil Beds I decided this would be our objective for the weekend.

We got up early Saturday morning but we didn't get going right away as I was scheduled to have a work meeting and I didn't want to be out of cell range.  As it turned out it didn't matter as the meeting got cancelled since the person who scheduled it was involved another meeting that took precedence.

To reach the Florissant Fossil Beds our trip would take us south on I-25 to Colorado Springs.  From the Springs we would journey on Highway 24 through Woodlawn Park to the small town of Florissant.  Once in Florissant we would head south on Teller County Road 1 to reach the National Monument.

The journey was uneventful except for an exceedingly long breakfast at a small restaurant in Woodlawn Park.  I wasn't sure what the deal was there, the staff was just really slow!  I don't think we will go back to that restaurant again.  I don't want to give them bad press so I am not mentioning their name.

Arriving at the Visitor Center of the National Monument, we went inside to pay the entrance fee and get the scoop on the monument.  I expected to use this visit as my opportunity to purchase my 2013 National Park Pass.  However, I only had my debit and credit cards with me as I rarely carry any cash these days.  Unfortunately the visitors center is not equipped to take debit or credit cards.  Oops!!  Despite the fact that I didn't have any cash to pay for our visit, the staff on duty said no problem we could still visit, we just couldn't buy our 2013 National Park Pass.

It was obvious from walking into the Visit Center, that this National Monument doesn't get a lot of visitors.  According to the most recent figures I could find, it receives about 60,000 visitors per year.  The staff on duty (a US Park Ranger and some one who wasn't wearing a Ranger's uniform) were exceeding friendly and explained anything and everything we wanted to know about the monument and the extent of it's natural treasures.  We were the only people in the visitor center and we got to take our time looking at everything.

Finishing our viewing of the exhibits in the visitor center we journeyed out on to the trails.  The first trail we took was the Petrified Forest Loop.  This mile long trail provides the best access to the visible petrified trees that remain in the park.  There are apparently a number of other petrified trees that remain buried, but for now the Park Services has decided to leave them underground for preservation purposes.  Some of the exposed petrified trees are absolutely massive.  The largest one is 41 feet in diameter!!  Dear god it was massive!

Right outside of the visitor center is an amphitheater that is framed on either side by two massive petrified stumps.  The first is that of a single massive tree and it looks to be at least 35 feet is diameter.  The second is a group of 3 stumps.  These stumps, similar to many modern day redwood trees had all grown out from one central core.  It was a truly impressive artifact!

Walking the length of the Petrified Forest Loop we saw numerous other examples of the massive petrified stumps and also people's stupid attempts to remove these massive objects.  On one of the very largest stumps, appropriately named "The Big Stump", there are at least 3 different rusted steel saw blades embedded in the top of the stump.  These remain as evidence of the amount of ruin caused by fortune seekers in the 1800's and early 1900's.

(Zack by one of the petrified stumps at the visitor center.)

(Zack by the appropriately name "Big Stump.)

The Petrified Forest Loop eventually brings you back to the visitor center and it was from there that we started out into the wilderness of this wonderful place.  The staff in the visitors center had recommended that we hike the Boulder Creek Trail to it's furthest point because of the dramatic scenery found there.  We set off towards the Boulder Creek Trail with the silence of the monument ringing in our ears.

The trail was gentle with some rolling ups and downs until you come out into long series of meadows that skirt the route of a stream.  Due to the arid nature of the environment this stream only flows periodically - when there is enough water in the environment.  Given the recent cold weather, there is a lot of ice built up in pools in the some of the meadows.  Progressing up through the meadows we eventually came to the very farthest reaches of the trail.  At this point the meadows gave way to a dramatic landscape of boulders that had potentially come from the Guffey Volcano Center in it's last eruption.  Given my proclivity to do stupid things I just had to climb up on the snow and ice covered boulders.  It really wasn't that dangerous but it did allow me to get a great view down the entire set of meadows.

(Zack on the trail.) 

(Frozen pond/swampy area in one of the meadows.  In the summer this area is probably is as dry as a desert.)

(These boulders could be part of the outflow from the "Guffey Volcano Center".)

While hanging out in the boulders, I had Zack just listen.  It was amazing as we heard nothing.  NOTHING at all.  There was no sound at all - no airplanes, no cars, literally nothing.  The only thing that would break the deep penetrating silence that filled the air was the infrequent cry of a bird or the chitter of a squirrel.  The silence was so deafening that it actually seemed to hurt our ears after a bit.

The trail back to the visitor center lead us through a vibrant forest of Ponderosa Pine mixed with some Aspen.  We didn't encounter one single person on these trails - it was fantastic.  Arriving back at the Visitor Center we went inside to thank the staff for all of their information and ideas and then it was back to the car for the return journey.

Given my overall lack of knowledge about this part of Colorado, I decided to take another way home.  Instead of just taking the quickest route back to Highway 24 we decided to continue on Teller Country Road 1 and go through the gambling town of Cripple Creek.

Now one of Colorado's gambling towns (the others being Blackhawk and Central City) Cripple Creek started off as a gold rush town back in the 1890's.  The Cripple Creek Gold Rush was one of the last seen in Colorado.  This area had been avoided by prospectors as a result of a hoax perpetrated in 1884.  The hoax, dubbed the Mount Pisgah hoax, occurred when an unscrupulous speculator seeded an ore sample with gold.  This of course caused the anticipated gold miner stampede and the associated profits for those who ran the stores, railroads and other infrastructure around Cripple Creek.  Exposed as a hoax, prospectors had a hard time believing tales of gold when it really was found in the area in 1890.

Today Cripple Creek draws it's income from another type of gold - gambling.  Driving down Main Street of this small town you can see the impact that gambling has had.  Every old store front has now been turned into a casino.  Unlike the mass commercialization that has taken place in Blackhawk, Cripple Creek seems to retain the mom and pop gambling culture that first sprang up when gambling was legalized in 3 Colorado mountain towns (Blackhawk, Central City and Cripple Creek) in 1991.  All of the casinos are relatively small and there are no big name casinos like Ameristar or the Riveria as in Blackhawk.  (Blackhawk is the closest of the gambling towns to Denver.  As a result of it's closeness to the large Denver metro area, Blackhawk has benefited the most from the 1991 gamble law.  Central City which is only 2 miles further from Denver than  Blackhawk hasn't had the same kind of success because everyone stops in Blackhawk and never goes further up the hill to Central City.)

After driving through Cripple Creek and deciding there wasn't any reason to stop as I wasn't going gambling we continued up the mountain and back towards Highway 24.  Reaching Highway 24 we headed east back towards Woodlawn Park and Colorado Springs.  We did a quick stop in Woodlawn Park for lunch at Sonic and then made our way home.

It was a great day of exploration as I am very happy we visited this wonderful National Monument and saw a part of the state that we had never experienced.  Though the drive was lengthy Zack and I engaged in some really good and meaningful conversation, which is something I don't often get from him.  Of course, I facilitated things a little bit by not allowing him to bring his Nintendo 3DS with him and not allowing him to listen to music on his iPhone.  So he had to talk to me or face a massive amount of boredom.  Sometimes it takes a little bit of work, but I can get through to that teenage brain of his!

The rest of our weekend was good.  Saturday night Lisa and I went to the Nuggets game.  It wasn't much of game as a rout.  The Nuggets beat the snot out of the Sacramento Kings.  We had a good time watching the game, eating some bad for you stadium food, drinking a beer and talking.  It made for an exclamation point on an overall good day!

Sunday has been all about getting work done and getting ready for the coming week.  Zack had his friend James over for a little bit and I went shopping and ran errands.  Now as Sunday evening winds down it finds us hanging out in the basement with a warm fire burning in the wood burning stove.  We almost don't need the fire as today in Denver it was mild and beautiful.  We took the dogs out for a walk this afternoon and it seemed the whole neighborhood was out walking.  It was nice to see people and catch up with many neighbors and friends along our walk.

We hope everyone has had a great weekend and is eagerly looking forward to the  work week ahead.  Alright - I guess I am pushing the envelope a little bit with that statement! :-)

Thanks and peace to all! ~ J.

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