Approximately 34 million years ago, there was a lake environment in the Florissant Valley of Colorado. The whole area was part of the Laramide Orogeny, which also formed the areas that now make up Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado National Monument, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
About 20 miles southwest of the Florissant Valley were several stratovolcanoes that erupted periodically. Like Mount St. Helens in Washington state, these eruptions created large lahars, or mud flows, that would flow at high speeds down the valley. One of the lahars flowed down into the lake in the valley, covering the flora and fauna in layers of mud, thereby creating a favorable environment for fossilization.
Florissant Fossil Beds contains thousands of fossils, with large numbers of invertebrates represented. They include spiders, millipedes and bees, as well as clams and other mollusks. Plant fossils include fruits, seeds, and cones, as well as 130 types of pollen. I am amazed that you can tell one type of pollen from another when looking at a fossil!
And then, of course, there are the Redwood trees, part of the Sequoia family. The redwoods that existed in the Florissant Valley are genetically distinct from the modern Redwoods in California. But they are similar enough that it allows researchers to determine what the climate was like in Colorado at the time.
In the late 19th century, the fossils had been discovered, and researchers and tourists alike were flocking to the Florissant Valley to cart them off, especially large pieces of Redwood stumps. At one point, two tourist lodges provided accommodations to tourists in the valley. One of these lodges is actually the current Visitor’s Center. The Park Service acquired the property after legal wrangling that pitted the Park Service and several scientists and citizens, who wanted the area protected, against landowners who profited handsomely from operating their concessions in the area.
The monument was signed in law on August 20, 1969 by President Richard Nixon. It protect 5,998 acres of land, and now the park receives approximately 61,289 visitors.
We were going to visit next!