In 1873 Dr AC Peale, as part of the USGS Hayden expedition, was on his way to survey and map the South Park area, when he reputedly discovered these ancient lake deposits, which were buried by the dust and ash from a series of volcanic eruptions. Located 17 miles north of Cripple Creek, the site has since been recognized as one of the greatest collections of Eocene fossils (34 million years old) on the planet, though unfortunately most of it lies beneath your feet.
The excellent visitor center does contain a small sampling of some of the 50,000 fossils that have been excavated (which includes the only fossilized tsetse flies in existence), but the only thing you can really see in the open are a series of spectacular petrified sequoia stumps.
Although the sights, apart from the petrified stumps, are pretty underwhelming, the location itself is quite beautiful and a great place for a hike. The gorgeous swatch of high country features dozens of wildflower-freckled meadows, boulder-crusted hills and views of the back of Pikes Peak. The park has 15 miles of trails through open meadows and rolling hills. The most accessible trails include the Ponderosa Loop (0.5 miles) and the 1-mile Petrified Forest Loop. The latter leads to several petrified stumps, including the remains of a truly giant sequoia measuring 38ft in circumference.
Signs of mule deer and elk are often seen along the southeastern segment of the Hornbeck Wildlife Loop (4 miles), which crosses the highway in front of the visitor center. After a mile it intersects the Shootin’ Star Trail (1.2 miles), which leads to the Barksdale Picnic area, near Lower Twin Rock Rd. Between late June and mid-August visitors make special trips to Florissant (French for ‘blooming’) for ranger-guided walks held at 10:30am on Friday. Admire, but don’t pick.
Another sight on the Hornbeck Wildlife Loop is Hornbeck House, a 160-acre homestead settled by Adeline Hornbeck in 1878 with her four children. The outbuildings include a bunkhouse, carriage shed, barn and root cellar. All have been restored or rebuilt by the NPS.
No overnight stays are allowed in the monument. The nearest accommodations are in Lake George (4 miles west) and Woodland Park (15 miles east). Both towns are located on US Hwy 24. Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument is also an easy day trip from Cripple Creek, Colorado Springs or Cañon City.