From Fossil Bed to Mountain Peak

Wednesday, May 4th, 2016

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve Campground

 Site #67,  6:48 a.m. – 37 degrees

The sun was just beginning to stretch her glow across the dunes as we broke camp and made coffee. It was a still morning, a few songbirds and snoring neighbors the only sounds in the campground. We crept quietly out of the park and settled in for our drive into the Rockies.





Thanks Sand Dunes!

A brief jaunt on CO Hwy 150 brought us through the San Luis State Park and Wildlife Area and pointed us straight for the snowcapped mountains. We coasted through the valley of Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the southernmost sub-range of the Rocky Mountains and breathed a collective sigh. There’s just something about being in the mountains that feels clear, open, bright, and good. We just feel better the deeper we travel into the mountains.


A beautiful morning in the Sangre de Cristos Mountains.

The feeling I get being near open water is about the only comparable emotion for me. Growing up on Lake Michigan in the land of the Great Lakes, I can always feel the openness of the water near me.  Even when I can’t see it, I can feel its presence. And when I am before open water, I feel it simultaneously open to me and envelop me, like the embrace of an old friend. The mountains too seem to welcome us back; the peaks, valleys, and tree-covered slopes beckoning us on as if to say “Come in! Come in! Where have you been?” We mused over our reunion with the mountains and pointed out important roadside declarations.





Nobody ever asks why the rooster crossed, do they?


The highway curved through the Pike and San Isabel National Forests as we came closer to our destination, Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. Home to one of the most diverse fossil deposits in the world, this monument protects the world’s largest (by diameter) petrified redwood trees stumps as well as an extensive variety of plant, animal, and insect fossils. In the visitor center we were greeted by several very enthusiastic park rangers who were anxious to discuss any questions we had about the park. With little to offer up other than inquiries about hiking since we hadn’t actually been IN the park yet, they nodded fervently and pointed us toward the main trail.


The 1 mile long Petrified Forest Loop is a self-guided interpretive trail that led us through the beds of the ancient Lake Florissant. We inspected several giant petrified redwood stumps as we approached the world’s only known petrified trio of redwood trees.




Redwood Trio


Big Stump

“Big Stump” is the colorful remains of what is estimated to have been a 230 foot tall, 750 year old redwood tree when the volcanic mudflow buried its base. It was uncovered in 1800 by local residents. Behind the stump, you can see the ancient grey mudstone from the volcanic flow.


According to the park’s excellent interpretive signage, many of the fossils that would help to establish Florissant’s reputation as an excellent fossil site were collected in the late 1800’s by homesteader and pioneer Charlotte Hill. She is credited by paleontologists for finding many of Florissant’s first known fossil species.



Tree stump shells filled with petrified slivers.

As we made our way back toward the visitor center, a school bus pulled into the parking lot and out tumbled a grade school class, laden with backpacks, lunch bags, and notebooks. In addition to their own interpretive talks, another responsibility of park rangers is to teach groups of students. Sometimes in the classroom, but more often at the park site, rangers attempt to engage future park advocates of all ages.

Again, we were looking at the rangers with different eyes on this trip, observing them like we had started training; how often do they guide school groups? Will we be doing that at Mount Rushmore? This arrival of young minds also meant that the park that was virtually empty a few moments ago was suddenly full and busy.


Before the school bus.

We rounded back to the gift shop in search of our traditional patch to commemorate a new park. Finding none available for purchase, we were informed that if we made a donation to the “Friends of Florissant Fossil Beds” in turn we would receive a patch. Done! We were glad to know that the money exchanged for the patch would go directly to protecting the park. The patch featured an image of a wasp-like insect called a Crane Fly, honoring one of their best and most recognizable fossils found at the site.


The patch will go on the National Parks tapestry we started after our first National Parks trip in 2012. Throughout the year, we often admire the patches, reminisce about our adventures, and speculate about which park patch will be next. What will be our next new park? With all of the uncertainty a few months ago as to whether or not we would even be able to get to any parks this year, we never would have guessed that the next few tapestry patches would feature a bathtub from Hot Springs N.P. in Arkansas, a canyon from Rio Grande Del Norte N.M. in New Mexico, and a fossil of a Crane Fly from Florissant Fossil Beds N.M. in Colorado. The diversity of the sites within the National Park system is amazing: an often overlooked and underappreciated effect of the park system.


Future home of a bathtub, canyon, and Crane Fly.

As we continue to explore and learn about the different types of NPS park units, we are repeatedly reminded of the unique variety of places encompassed in National Park System. Our heritage, history, and culture, our favorite scenic vistas and natural champions, the wild creatures we love and habitat they need is maintained throughout the more than 400 sites in the National Park System. There are rivers, lakes, glaciers, ships, homes, fossils, grasslands, lakeshores, bears, birds, swamps, petrified trees, caves, bats, canyons, cacti, craters, hoodoos, ancient ruins, trails, mountains, bridges, even huge sculptures of presidents!

The variety of designations in the National Park System units can be dizzying, but that also means that there are a multitude of ways a place can earn the status of a NPS unit. Made up of “24 Federal laws and portions of laws that pertain to the preservation of the Nation’s cultural heritage,” the Park and Historic Preservation Laws explains the legal defense that allowed this massively diverse group of places to become an ever-growing National Park System.

Take a look at this sweet map. (It takes a while to load, so be patient.  You could keep reading while it loads…) Published in 2016, almost every site is on here.  Which NPS site is closest to you? I don’t just mean places that are designated National Parks; there are more than 15 types of National Park units.  You many not realize it, but you might be near one now! Or perhaps there is a place you didn’t know was protected that you would like to learn more about.

When you start to realize how many types of NPS units there are out there, how they became part of the system is always an interesting story. Most parks outline their story somewhere in their visitor center or museum, but the legal paper trail for each unit can be found online with some digging.


Rocky Mountain road sign or legal paper trail?

These legal paper trails are comprised of everything from petitions and scientific studies to miles of legal verbage that would eventually become the text of preservation Acts. These Acts provide the building blocks for the park system. Do you know the creation story of your favorite National Park?  How about the one near you?   Using Florissant Fossil Beds as an example, following a long history of Native American inhabitants, homesteaders and settlers arrived in the 1800s, which led to a variety of enterprising individuals attempting to benefit from or help protect what became known as “the Rosetta Stone of paleontology.”


A petrified redwood stump in Florissant still yet to be fully excavated and studied.

In the 1960s, the value of this piece of land came into question. Should the land be preserved for future generations to study, or should it be subdivide for houses? Scientists and a devoted group of concerned citizen advocates called Defenders of Florissant won the legislative battle to protect the fossil beds.   As a result of the petitions of these supporters, U.S. Congress and President Richard Nixon granted Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument status on August 20th, 1969. The creation story of Florissant is a great reminder of the great power of the people working together, no matter how big a task may seem.


From fossil beds and battlefields, to rivers and lakeshores, to former homes of presidents and Native American pipestone quarries, the diversity of the National Park System is fascinating. The St. Croix River that flows along the Wisconsin Minnesota state line is protected by The Wild and Scenic Rivers act of 1968 as well as the Historic Sites act of 1935 for the abundance of archeologically significant finds along the river documenting 10,000 years of human activity.

The National Trails System Act of 1968 made it possible to protect some of our most well-known trails including Pacific Crest Trail, the Appalachian Trail, the Ice Age Trail, and the Oregon Trail, to name a few.  To think that the entire time I was a Wilderness Instructor I was hiking in a National Park unit!


I don’t even know how many miles of this trail I have hiked.

Another way that places can be protected as National Monuments is through The American Antiquities Act (which has garnered some controversy of late). The American Antiquities Act, which was signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 gives the president the ability to proclaim protection of parcels of land and “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments.”

Since its inception, 16 presidents have designated 145 monuments including  Grand Canyon National Park by President Theodore Roosevelt, Sieur de Monts, which eventually became Acadia National Park by President Woodrow Wilson, Great Sand Dunes Park and Preserve by President Herbert Hoover, Pearl Harbor memorial and home of the USS Arizona World War II Valor in the Pacific N.M. by President George W. Bush, and most recently Bears Ears and Gold Butte by President Barack Obama; one of twenty-six places he has protected by use of the American Antiquities Act, the most of any president to date.


Can you imagine the GRAND CANYON not being a National Park?!

Even before all of these protective acts were created to preserve all of these places, it was still the act of one person, our president, in the form of an approval of legislation that would protect what would eventually become our first national park. In 1872, Abraham Lincoln signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act, taking the first step toward what we know today as the National Park System.


From the American Antiquities Act to combined acts of advocates of these special places, the National Park System is made possible by action. Protect the places you love. Speak out about places that are not protected and need to be. The call to action and NPS centennial goal is to “connect with and create the next generation of park visitors, supporters, and advocates.” Which park could you challenge yourself to visit this year? Or next year? How could you help support one of these 400+ places in which you find value? Is there a place that you believe is important and should be protected? The next park could start with you.


We continued on our drive through the heart of the Colorado. It had turned out to be a beautiful sunny day, the contours of the mountain peaks bold against bright blue skies. Since we left Hot Springs several days ago, we have not had access to showers and it had been even longer since we were able to do any laundry. The car had also become somewhat unruly.

With the addition of all the items we are bringing along to set up our apartment at Mount Rushmore, like a printer, kitchen items, Derrick’s guitar amp, some books, tools, and several months worth of clothing options, along with our standard camping and roadtrip items, plus other oddly shaped articles like a hula hoop, banjo, and guitar, we had filled every available nook and cranny in our car.


Note the strategically placed hula hoop.  It really ties the car together.

Our next stop was on the doorstep of Rocky Mountain National Park, in the small town to Estes Park. We have stayed in this town several times, and each time at a lodging option provided by Lazy R Cottages. A variety of options, many including hot tubs, porches, and convenient locations makes it an establishment we continue to patronize. While still at the Sand Dunes, I called ahead to see if our favorite unit was available. It was! I booked it and we knew exactly where we were headed.


It is a second floor unit with a porch, hot tub, laundry facilities, hot showers, comfortable beds, a kitchen, internet access, and enough room to reorganize supplies and spread out our gear. The unit is located near downtown Estes Park, which is a convenient for shopping, eating, and very often elk and deer watching. We have watched many elk, deer, and even a bear pass by from the vantage point of the second floor porch. You can even see a few mountain peaks in the distance.


View from the porch soon after our arrival.


View from the porch toward the mountains.


When possible, it’s very nice to recombobulate ourselves during our trips before heading back into to camping/car mode for an extended period of time. We settled in and started on our on the road housekeeping routine: laundry, charging electronics, checking email, spreading out our tent and/or sleeping gear to dry/air out, and making some food to fortify our cooler for the next few days. (Baked chicken breasts and toasted pinenut spinach pasta salad are both items that are much less challenging to make in a kitchen than on the trail.)

We made tacos for dinner in honor of Cinco De Mayo, and enjoyed them on the porch to the sound of water rushing along the nearby Estes Park Riverwalk.. After dark we took a walk along the river before returning to cap the night off with a relaxing soak in the hot tub.

Tomorrow we would check out and head into Rocky Mountain National Park. Still being spring, we’re not sure if the mountain pass between the east and west side of the park will even be open for travel yet. If the pass is not open, our plan is to camp at Moraine Campground on the east side (the Estes Park side) of the park. Hopefully there will be a site available for us.




2 thoughts on “From Fossil Bed to Mountain Peak

  1. BONANZA! Beautiful photos that capture your amazing story! Can’t wait for the next installment.

  2. Breathtaking to see how you’ve captured the vast masterpiece of our Creator and the peaceful beauty that we can draw from….and the smiles a rooster crossing the road brings! Thanks again for sharing all of your travels😃🌈🌅. Look forward to more!

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