Stroll through Colorado’s rocky redwoods at Florissant Fossil Beds

Volunteer Kathy Gayload talks about a piece of redwood fossil at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. The park features petrified redwood stumps, thousands of insect and plant fossils. The park located in Teller County, Colorado. April 10, 2018. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

FLORISSANT — California’s towering sequoias — those massive redwoods whose lumber graces my backyard deck — are enormous plants. They grow nearly as tall as a football gridiron is long and sport trunks nearing a first-and-10 in diameter. What better way to spend a sunny Sunday, I figured, than to stroll through Colorado’s own forest of hulky redwoods?

Our state’s grove of titanic trees, at least their petrified remains, stands in Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, about 35 miles west of Colorado Springs off U.S. 24.

While ponderosa pine cloak the slopes today, the climate and topography were much different 34 million or so years ago. Huge forests of sequoia blanketed the slopes of a nearby volcano complex. One day, the volcano blew its top and, like Mount St. Helens, sent rivers of ash and mud screaming down the slopes. Our redwoods became encased in 15 feet of muck.

The trees died. Trunks above the flow rotted away, as did the roots still buried in soil. All that remained were the stumps entombed in hardening rock. Mineral-laden water seeped into the plant’s cells, transforming this trapped timber into petrified wood.

The mile-long Petrified Forest Loop trail begins at the monument’s visitor center where canopies cover a cluster of fractured stumps. Before it became a national monument in 1969, the area was privately owned by a tourism entrepreneur who used dynamite to blast away the stump’s encapsulating rock. Cables hold the now fractured and crumbling stone together.

Rangers tell how a man arrived in 1956, hoping to buy some petrified wood from the site’s owner. He didn’t want just a piece; he wanted an entire tree. For $1,650, he was sold a 7-foot tall, five-ton stump. The buyer, it turns out, was Walt Disney, and the petrified plant can still be seen at California’s Disneyland.

Lea Stevenson of Welsh, Mont., takes a picture of a fossil redwood stump at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument on April 10. (Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post)

I continued down the trail, stopping at a fenced area around caprock. While one volcanic flow encased the redwoods, another formed a 12-mile-long lake in the area. With the help of diatomic algae, the remains of leaves, insects, fish and other animal life became entombed in the lake bottom residue. Paleontologists have been busy liberating fossils from this rock with scores of specimens displayed in the visitor center.

A quarter mile beyond, I reached “Big Stump.” Unlike those liberated by dynamite, this piece of our petrified past displays few cracks. It does, however, have sawblades rusting near its top.

There are several stories about how they got there. My favorite comes from a park ranger who claimed they’re from an attempt to carve off sections for display at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Apparently, nobody told the sawyers that the redwood they’d be slicing was petrified. They showed up with crosscut wood saws.

The trail continues past several partially exposed stumps, each surrounded by a small protective fence. Absent are any of the loose logs that once littered the valley. They’ve all been carted off by a century of souvenir hunters. Accounts as early as the 1890s bemoan how much of the original petrified forest had already disappeared.

It wasn’t the pillaging of petrified wood and fossils that propelled the monument’s formation. In the late ’60s, developers threatened to bulldoze the area into an A-frame housing subdivision. An angry group, Defenders of Florissant, formed and ultimately persuaded Congress to create Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument in 1969.

Near trail’s end, I reach a stump barely jutting from the ground. The lack of a restrictive fence allows me to examine the petrified wood up close. I gazed down at the layers of wood-grained rock, each distinctive ring representing a year’s growth.

Colorful hues hint at the rock’s mineral content. Cream-colored sections are rich in quartz. Iron oxides add rusty touches of red and organic materials have tinted sections with tones of brown and gray.

I wish my redwood deck at home was so attractive.

If you go

Except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day, Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument is open daily, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Labor Day through Nov. 30. A fee of $7 per adult (age 16-plus) covers admission with children 15 and younger free. Info: nps.gov/flfo/index.htm

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