According to Western legend, an early fur trapper visiting the Florissant area in the mountains of central Colorado talked of a "petrified forest of petrified trees, full of petrified birds singing petrified songs." Today, Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument is internationally known for its collection of petrified insects. Even such delicate creatures as butterflies, trapped in rock for millions of years, are almost perfectly preserved, complete with antennae, legs, hairs, and wing patterns. The area also features petrified trees and plant fossils, revealing in stone a picture of life long ago.

Some 35 million years ago, the land was covered by a lake stretching 15 miles. Giant redwoods and other trees bordered the lake, while ferns and shrubs grew thick under the canopy of trees. In this warm, humid environment, many thousands of insects thrived.

Florissant Fossil Beds
©National Park Service
The Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, located in central Colorado, is
internationally known for its collection of petrified insects.

A nearby volcano erupted periodically, showering the area with tons of ash, which trapped plants, animals, and insects at the bottom of the lake. As the ash compacted, it transformed into shale and eventually turned the buried plant and animal life into fossils.

Since the area was discovered in the late 1800s, more than 1,100 species of dragonflies, beetles, ants, and other insects have been identified here, including all of the known New World butterflies. The fossils indicate that insects 35 million years ago were much like those today. Fossils of some of the insects and plants found at the monument are on display inside the visitor center.

A highlight of the nearly 6,000-acre monument is the Petrified Forest Loop Trail, which leads to "Big Stump," the remains of a giant sequoia 74 feet in circumference. If the tree were alive today, it would be nearly 300 feet tall.

Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument Information

Address: U.S. Hwy 24 and Teller County Road 1
Telephone: 719/748-3253
Hours of Operation: Open daily, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m; closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day
Admission: adults, $3; children under 16, free

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To learn more about national national monuments, memorials, and historic sites, and other travel destinations in North America, visit:

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Eric Peterson is a Denver-based freelance writer who has contributed to numerous guidebooks about the Western United States.