Did you know parts of Colorado used to be the home of giant redwood trees, akin to those found in California? I have lived here since 1996 and certainly did not know this until we made a trip south to Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. The National Park Service wrote this description in their original master plan proposal for the monument in 1967:
The ancient lake beds of Florissant preserve more species of [terrestrial] fossils than any other known site in the world. The insect fossils are of primary significance. They represent the evolution and modernization of insects better than any other known site in America. In addition, the fossil plants, emphasized dramatically by the petrified tree stumps and the great variety of leaf fossils, add greatly to the primary values. Fossils of spiders, other invertebrates, fish, and birds also have been found at Florissant.
The beds have been a famous collecting ground by numerous scientists for nearly a century and continue to be of great value for paleontological research.
The present-day vegetation is one of pine-covered hills and grassy meadows. In good years the wildflower display in June and July may be spectacular and is an acknowledged tourist attraction.Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument Master Plan (1967)
We first visited this little National Monument in June of 2016 to get the Florissant Fossil Beds Junior Ranger badge to add to our son’s collection. It was quite a bit different in 2021 when we came for our daughter to get hers. I’ll relate both experiences here in case there are any lingering or returning restrictions.
The closest larger town is Colorado Springs which you’ll probably drive through if you’re coming from the east. The drive up isn’t bad, though, and offers a lot of beautiful scenery. If you have time, I recommend stopping in one of the small mountain towns in the surrounding area for lunch!
As of May of 2021, admission prices were $10 for ages 16 and up (15 and under are free). They also accept the normal national passes, including the fourth-grade pass which we used this time! Parking is free and is a short walk from the visitor center.
Florissant Fossil Beds Junior Ranger Book
I love the comic book-style design of this book (a few others in Colorado are like this as well)! You can pick up your copy from the rangers at the visitor center when you pay for entrance (during COVID, these were in a box on a table near the back door).
The book is well laid out and offers clear instructions. The number of tasks is split by age so it’s also easy for younger kids to complete as well. From 4 to 7 years old, 3 pages of tasks are required; from 8 to 10 years old, 5 pages are required; and from 11 years up, 7 pages are required. The activities are pretty standard and include tasks like bingo (which is easy to accomplish if you take the 1-mile Petrified Forest Loop trail), drawing a made-up map, dot-to-dot, drawings of found objects, a maze, word search, and lots of activities for older kids that have them answering questions related to the park.
The most challenging questions for older kids can easily be answered after visiting the exhibits at the visitor center or the Fossil Learning Lab located in the yurt near the parking lot (open from 1:30 to 3:30 [neither of these were open during COVID]). Our son really enjoyed this activity as it had him interacting with fossils. There was also a little sandbox area just outside where he dug up “fossils” and learned more about paleontology. The park also offers several ranger-led tours.
Florissant Fossil Beds Visitor Center and Trails
I highly recommend making sure you have enough time to go on the Petrified Forest Loop. A few fossilized tree stumps are just outside the visitor center, but more are on this trail. Signs on the loop expand on the history of the area, including dueling hotels that were built in the valley. You can also see where some enterprising individuals tried to saw off parts of one of the stumps in the 1800s to send to the World’s Fair. Their saw ended up breaking off and part of it still remains.
The visitor center offers an interactive exhibit area with displays of fossils and a film (this was closed during COVID). It also hosts the bookstore, however, during COVID, we were not allowed to enter it and had to have the woman working in the store get the items we wanted to buy and hand them to us.
After finishing the book, we headed back to the visitor center where our son repeated the oath and received his badge. During COVID, the badges were in another box near the box of Junior Ranger books by the back door, so we just grabbed one when we picked up the book and gave it to our daughter after she completed the tasks. She was also not able to say the oath here, which was disappointing for her. (Fortunately, she did get to say it at Fort Laramie.) If you want to offer your child the full experience with the oath, the Grand Canyon rangers have a video here.
After you get the badge, take a trip down to the Hornbek Homestead on the other side of the park. The story of a widow coming out to this desolate place with her three children in the 1870s and building it into a thriving ranch was very inspiring to me. Ironically, when we visited in 2016, this was closed due to an overabundance of prairie dogs in the area. When we visited again in 2021, it was open but the buildings were closed because of COVID. There were still a lot of prairie dogs and they are cute but don’t get too close – they do bite! Here’s a virtual tour in case you miss out on this part.
Overall, this is a neat little park that is off the beaten path, but I think worth the visit!