Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument

Florissantlily042Stroll on the wide paths of Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument and step back in time—far back. Florissant includes not only the brief history of humans, but also the history of all creatures that galloped, slithered, lumbered or flew on this earth before us. You’re on the graves of millions of ancient mammals, fish, insects and reptiles. On any summer day, fields of wildflowers and the gentle hiking trails lure nature lovers. Except for the stump of an ancient sequoia, and a few fossils in the visitor center, many unearthed specimens now lodge in universities or museums. But most reside underfoot.

An illustrated brochure at the visitor center explains the layers of fossil beds over millions of years. A volcano spewed ash so powdery fine that layers of shale encased the dead and dying, layer after layer, million years after million years. Here you’ll find the fossils of ancient tsetse flies, the same malaria-spreading insect that now lives in Africa. The ancestors of a rhino, tapir, butterfly and birds are discovered. So are extinct species like the beardog, mammut (mastodon) and a gazelle-camel called Stenomylus. A zebra horse galloped among the trees we would recognize today: willow, alder, birch and elm. And, in the earliest epochs, palm trees and crocodiles enjoyed balmy temperatures.

Florissantpenstemon025Many of these fossils remain secure in nature’s underground vaults. Scientists unearth only enough to study the layers of soil slowly, painstakingly. But before the site was declared a national treasure, souvenir hunters scraped and sifted the shale layers for fossil remains. Those who carted away fossils stripped layers of history and prompted a campaign that ended in 1969, when Florissant came under the protection of the national park system.

Few prehistoric creatures are on display, except for an artist’s rendering. And while children might thrill over a drawing of an ancient horse, what scientists find breathtaking about Florissant are the fossils of insects. So perishable are these tiny bodies that we might never know the vast spread of bees, butterflies, wasps and flies in prehistoric times if not for the sifting powder that blanketed their bodies in a lakebed. The fossils capture the delicate webbing of wings, antennae and outstretched legs. Many appear identical to what we have today. The ancient wolf spider looks curiously like a modern spider. All the while, few mammals bear any resemblance to their ancestors.

FlorissanthikerSeveral of the hikes, such as “A Walk through Time,” pass petrified stumps. They’re majestic in girth. But the beauty of Florissant is far more subtle than flashy. This is no theme park. The parking lot is small. Many children hover around the visitor center, race to the 38-foot circumference of Big Stump and run back to their vans, rarely staying more than an hour. For those with more leisurely schedules, hiking trails cover montane grassland, filled with showy wildflowers. Bird lovers can pick up a bird list at the center. Wildflower lovers will find a companion brochure listing the flowers according to color and season.

At the height of the season, in July, with sufficient rainfall, no wildflower is more spectacular than the mariposa, or sego lily (Calochortus gunnisonii). This delicate lily rises from a wiry stem. Mostly found in the North American West and Mexico, it’s the state flower of Utah, and sometimes separated from the Lilium family to be placed into a Calochortus family of its own. Move farther west and its colors change to cream, lavender, yellow or pink. On the Florissant trails, the mariposa lily stands out as a brilliant white, joining the bluish-lavender one-sided penstemon, Penstemon secundiflorus, along with asters, blue gentians, showy loco, harebell, wild roses, fairy trumpets, paintbrush, scarlet gaura, sunflowers, asters and more.

FlorissantmilkweedAt 8,400 feet, the Florissant mountain grassland includes ponderosa pine, spruce, fir and aspen among an abundance of grasses–mountain muhly, fescues, crested wheatgrass, blue grama, foxtail, Parry’s oatgrass, squirrel tail, tufted hairgrass, just to mention a few. The “Walk Through Time” trail leads to a platform with a list of plants and animals. Most date from 34 to 55 million years ago. Mammals were emerging with a rhino-like browser and a three-toed horse among the most prominent. Poplar, elm, hickory and sequoia grew alongside the extinct hollickwood, a member of the beech family. A rose, Rosa hillae, bloomed. The mayfly, crane fly, longhorn beetle and brush-footed butterfly thrived.

The longhorn beetle and brush-footed butterfly survive today, while the rhino and horse have long disappeared. Roses bloom, too, but now these are Rosa woodsii. And aspens represent the poplar family. You won’t find any sequoias other than the petrified remains. Instead, an alternative list of Florissant’s present day residents includes mountain lions, rufous hummingbirds, northern flickers, Abert’s squirrels, elks, golden eagles and Richardson’s ground squirrel. I suppose we’d have to add humans, too.

It’s impossible not to be impressed by how much humans have changed the earth during our brief appearance. Florissant’s time capsule dates to 30 million years after the dinosaurs and 33 million years before humans. Some survived, some became extinct, others moved on. A few observations are clear: nature rewarded diversity in both plants and animals. Here are the examples of myriad insects evolving with the explosion of flowering plants. Tropics gave way to grasslands and the variety of grasses supported mammal browsers. Climate changed to the benefit of some and the demise of others. To sweep all of civilization away in an hour, visit Florissant and cast your imagination back 50 million years.