By John H. Ostdick
A climber scales one of the formations in Garden of the Gods. Technical climbers are allowed by permit only
Photos by the author
Fossil-rich Central Colorado offers another rocks-for-brains odyssey
The Earth beneath us is constantly, incrementally changing, even if our gnat-like attention span seldom notices until it slaps us across the face with a big event.
Perhaps it comes from decades of hiking, or associating with geologists, but the evolving Earth’s past fascinates me. Traveling with my personal geologists, whether it is brother Jim or dear friends Stan and Trish Ballard, often provides compelling insights into the terra firma about me. I endearingly call them my Rocks for Brains touring pals.
Whether I’m walking the canyons of Death Valley in the fall, hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail, or gazing at the wonders of Yosemite Valley with Jim; or exploring lush Vermont or the crevices of Texas with the Ballards, I have access to as much (or as little, as the mood dictates) information as I wish about the ground we’re traipsing about on.
A National Park Service ranger discusses some of the rich wonders of the Florissant Fossil Beds
Stan and Trish own a summer cabin in the fossil-rich Colorado town of Florissant (incorporated in July 1891), 35 miles west of Colorado Springs on the flanks of Pikes Peak and within easy access to the Gold Belt Scenic Drive that includes the historic gold-rush towns of Cripple Creek and Victor. Since fleeing from the summer heat to Colorado is practically part of a Texan’s genetic makeup, accepting an invitation to their hummingbird-thick repose in the Florissant hills seems a perfect evolutionary step.
Navigating the nearby trails of the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument provides a refresher course in just how amazing our Earth is.
Eocene lake deposits here preserve a spectacular fauna and flora, ranging from microscopic ants to redwood stumps several feet in diameter. The ponderosa pine, spruce, fir, and aspen that thrive here today stand modestly against their predecessors — vast giant sequoias that were scissored and petrified by massive mudflows 34 million years ago. It’s almost unfathomable standing in front of “Big Stump,” at 12 feet high and 38 feet around, one of the largest petrified redwood stumps on the grounds, that it is 750 years old and once stood more than 230 feet tall when the mudflow buried its base.
The lava flows damned a stream in the prehistoric valley, forming a series of lakes in which fine sediments and ash accumulated and preserved a plethora of insects and plants. These beds have yielded more than 50,000 museum specimens from fossils of more than 1,700 species. The finds range from a perfectly preserved Palaeovespa, an ancient wasp, whose form has changed little in 34 million years, to female wolf spiders, to golden rain tree leaves (the tree no longer lives on the North American continent).
The Roots of This Curiosity
A painter tries to capture some of the past ages in the Garden of the Gods rocks
Many years ago on an elegant late-November morning about a mile deep into a Fall Canyon hike in Death Valley, my geologist brother Jim offered up a simple statement that resonates whenever I am out and about in nature’s playground: “The Earth is dynamic, continually changing and evolving.”
At that time of year, we had the canyon to ourselves. No other humans. No birds. No sign of animals, such as the fox that flashed his red eyes at our campsite the night before. The only disruption in the deadened force enveloping us is an occasional rock dislodged by our scuffling boots. The eerie quiet is the direct result of the annual six-month interval of searing temperatures (between 100 and 120 degrees) that broils and flattens everything in its wake here. While the crisp air was invigorating, my city brain worked overtime, manufacturing fill noise to cope with a deafening silence.
The mountains bordering Death Valley represent the divisions of geological time, relating the story of ongoing changes in the Earth’s crust — vast periods of erosion and deposition, contortion, and tilting — alternate shifting, uplifting, and lowering along faults, generating intense heat and pressure that changed the very nature of some rocks. In recent geological time, powerful forces of water, wind, and gravity have left their heavy handprints on the Valley as well.
Ubehebe Crater, Death Valley
In the Valley, the air is so clear distances are telescoped. Alluvial fans, steep, rocky slopes draped beside the surrounding mountains, result from intermittent streams created by bursts of infrequent rains, and resemble a series of ruffled Earth-tone bedspreads cast across the horizon.
Recently, my brother told me that he sees himself “among other things, as a student of Earth and planetary sciences,” adding that “there is still a lot for me to learn.” (Jim earned a Master’s degree in geology and just recently retired after teaching high school Earth Sciences in California for many years.)
When Jim is in Yosemite Valley, for example, he sees “processes and puzzles.”
“I use the fundamental principles I first learned in school to interpret how landscapes formed and how they are changing,” he says. “Sitting on top of Half Dome with your legs dangling from the edge or, better yet, standing on Clouds’ Rest looking down on Half Dome, gives you an advantageous perspective to get this done. No matter how much you learn, though, those places are so thrilling just to see and smell and hear and touch, the science stuff is just a little bit of extra fun.”
Over the years, I’ve tried to join in the fun as much as I can.
The Pull of Man Meets the Force of Nature
Geological upheaval along a natural fault line created the red rock formations of the Garden of the Gods. Erosion has done the rest
That native curiosity and scientific knowledge — and a good sense of humor — also make Trish and Stan stimulating travel mates. The front porch of their Florissant cabin provides a blood pressure leveler each morning and evening, as the sound of hummingbirds, mountain chickadees, stellar blue jays, and nuthatches flitting about creates a rhythm that is both stimulating and calming at the same time.
To the north and east, the Rocky Mountains loom over the Florissant Valley. To the west, undulating native grasses cover expanses of high meadows. During the summer months, they are painted by thousands of wild flowers. To the south, Pike’s Peak holds court.
Humanity has struggled to survive here for a much shorter time than its counterparts in nature. Adjacent to the Fossil Beds, the 1878 Hornbeck Homestead preserves the pioneer life of Adeline Hornbeck and her three children after her husband deserted them. This homestead involved the first claim in the valley under the “head of household” act (it was most unusual for women to be landowners in the West at this time).
A swarm of settlers answered the “Free Land to the West” call in the 1860s, according to the Colorado Historical Society. The Homesteaders Act of 1862 stated that “any citizen, or person with intention of becoming a citizen, who was the head of a family and over twenty-one years of age, could become possessed of 160 acres of the surveyed public domain after five years of continuous residence on his tract and the payment of a small registration fee.”
That Act brought the first settlers to the Florissant Valley. To keep their 160 acres, settlers had to build a home equipped with a door and at least one window, live on, work, and make improvements to the property for five consecutive years. If these criteria were met, the U.S. Government granted the settlers the land, as long as it was properly surveyed.
Geological upheaval along a natural fault line created the red rock formations of the Garden of the Gods. Erosion has done the rest
Standing next to the main cabin at the Hornbeck Homestead, it’s easy to understand the isolation that she must have felt here (the National Park Service has operated the site since 1973).
Colorado City, on the west side of Colorado Springs, was founded in 1859. Florissant became the first settlement west of Colorado City on the Ute Pass Road when James Castello established the small town on Twin Creek in 1870 (he originally came from Florissant, Missouri.)
When Colorado became a state, there were about 70 pioneers living in the Florissant area. By the 1880 census, there were 200 men, women and children living here. Florissant was part of El Paso County until Teller County was carved out in 1899. The 2010 Census put the town’s year-round population at 104, although that number swells a bit in the summer.
Today, the drive from Colorado City to Florissant takes about 45 minutes, unless runoff from heavy rains slows or closes traffic on US 24 near Woodland Park. Until the Colorado Midland Railroad was completed, it was a two-day journey for the trip from Old Colorado City up the steep, single-lane Ute Pass Wagon Road to Florissant. The Colorado Midland created the first economic boom in Florissant when the standard-gauge tracks were laid up the mountain in 1886.
According to the Colorado Historical Society, the Florissant area enjoyed a building boom when cowboy Bob Womack discovered gold in 1890 at Poverty Gulch. Mount Pisgah, in what is now Cripple Creek, was reached by stage or wagon from Florissant. Mining men needed supplies. Gold ore had to be taken down the mountain. Florissant was the chief railroad point for business to and from Cripple Creek. Those going to the mining district came up to Florissant by the Colorado Midland and then by stage or wagon to Cripple Creek until 1894 when the Florence & Cripple Creek Railroad was completed. Florissant’s residents numbered about 300 during this time.
Canyon, Death Valley.
I borrow and zoom through the Ballards’ copy of Cripple Creek Days (Doubleday, 1958), written by local Mabel Barbee Lee, whose father was an early prospector. She grew up in the mining camps of Cripple Creek, and witnessed both their excitement and devastation. Her words illuminate much about the remnants I see of the area’s glory days.
There Is Gold of Other Sorts in Them Thar Hills
Stan allows that his favorite things about Florissant are “the quiet, the crystal clear sky at night that allows for unparalleled star gazing, and, of course, the great scenery when in a waist-deep trout stream.”
We savor each of these things during our visit. Our heady days of clear, cool air and star-crazy nights flow easily, as we pick our way through the mining towns of Victor, the birthplace of the famous travel writer Lowell Thomas, where roughly 500 underground gold mines still remain scattered about, and Cripple Creek, which today wallows in kind of a sad casino cloud.
“The Rockies, from the Garden of the Gods west to the mesas of the far western slope, provide an incredible outdoor laboratory,” Stan says. “The Garden of the Gods is not only beautiful, it also tells the story of the uplift of the Rockies. Cripple Creek, in the roof of the Front Range, is a great intersection of really interesting geology and economics. You can read in the western slope nearly the entire geologic history of the western United States. Driving in the Rockies is a life-threatening situation, if only because it is difficult for me to stay on the road while gawking at the geology.”
Gold was discovered in Poverty Gulch, six miles northwest of Victor, in 1890. The most productive mines were later discovered on or near Battle Mountain. Victor was established on its southern slopes in 1893. According to Victor historical accounts, more than $800 million worth of gold was removed from the 6-mile Gold Camp between 1891 and 1961, when the last of the underground mines closed (those values were based on prices of the period, when gold was capped at $22.50 to $35 an ounce; it’s mind-boggling to think of that haul when valued at 21st Century gold prices).
Light shows, footsteps from the overhead rooms, a Christmas moose toy with a mind of its own, and apparitions are all part of the lore of the Costello Street Coffee House in Florissant
During its gold-fever heyday, the town claimed 18,000 residents, making it the fourth-largest city in Colorado at the time. The latest Census figures put the population at about 450 residents.
During our visit, the town is very quiet, with only a handful of people wandering its streets. Two bikers roar through town. The whir of electric drills float intermittently out of the vehicle bays at the Jet Service building. A lone employee mans her station at the Lowell Thomas Museum. Victor Trading Co., housed in the space that once was the home of Star of the West Saloon, boasts that its Wall of Brooms is “World Famous.” Keeping with the town’s slogan — “The Whole Town is a Museum” — scattered mining artifacts are displayed on a downtown lot. Mineshaft cars serve as downtown planters.
Surveying the Garden of the Gods
The next day, we slip into Colorado Springs for a glorious visit to the 5,100-plus-square-mile Garden of the Gods National Landmark, contemplating its tortured red rock formations that geological upheaval exposed along a natural fault line millions of years ago.
Mining artifacts are displayed on a downtown lot in Victor. Between 1891 and 1961, more than $800 million worth of gold was removed from the 6-mile area around Victor
“Hidden in the rocks here, I try and visualize the scope and size of the Ancestral Rockies,” Stan explains. “In the tilted attitude of the rocks, I struggle with the forces needed to uplift the Rockies that we see today, and try to reconcile the life span of a mountain range with life span of more ephemeral things.”
This incredibly special place had the good fortune of coming into the hand of Charles Elliott Perkins, the head of the Burlington Railroad, who appreciated its unique features and determined that its magnificent beauty should be shared.
Although he originally purchased 240 acres in the Garden of the Gods to build a summer home, he decided to leave it in its natural state. He added to the property, and opened it to the public but had not officially made arrangements for it to become a public park before his death in 1907. Two years later, Perkins’ children followed his wishes and donated the 480 acres to the City of Colorado Springs, requiring that “it shall remain free to the public, where no intoxicating liquors shall be manufactured, sold, or dispensed, where no building or structure shall be erected except those necessary to properly care for, protect, and maintain the area as a public park.”
The 1,200-square-mile Yosemite National Park is a testament to the strength of granite, the power of glaciers, and the tranquility of California’s High Sierra
Park literature explains the park’s lofty but fitting name as follows: “It was August of 1859, when two surveyors started out from Denver City to begin a town site, soon to be called Colorado City. While exploring nearby locations, they came upon a beautiful area of sandstone formations. M.S. Beach, who related this incident, suggested that it would be a ‘capital place for a beer garden’ when the country grew up. His companion, Rufus Cable, a ‘young and poetic man’, exclaimed, ‘Beer Garden! Why it is a fit place for the Gods to assemble. We will call it the Garden of the Gods.’ It has been so called ever since.”
Investigating a Ghost Story
Of course, we cannot leave Florissant without delving into a bit of local manmade mystery.
The Costello Street Coffee House serves up sandwiches and pies, and a little ghostly lore. The building has gained attention for reported apparitions that date back to its owners in the late 1800’s, James and Catherine Costello, who both died in the house, as did two of their grandchildren. Stories abound about sounds of footsteps, shadowy visions, and practical jokes played on the staff.
The Costello Street Coffee House in Florissant is full of ghost stories and down-to-earth pies
Light shows, footsteps from the overhead rooms, a Christmas moose toy with a mind of its own, and other apparitions are all part of the lore here.
“Before we bought this place I didn’t necessarily believe or not believe (in ghosts), but I do believe there are a lot of things I don’t know about so I try to keep an open mind,” current owner Dale Thompson says during a brief break from serving customers.
Thompson explains that a stuffed moose they put out at Christmas time at times seems to have a mind of its own — or the will of a spirit here, depending on your perspective. “It has a button you push, and it sings,” he says. “Every once in a while, a customer will walk up and the moose will sing for no apparent reason. You can say, yeah it has a short in it or something, but the timing of it randomly going off when a customer walks up makes you wonder.
The Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument offers 14 miles of trails
“One of the funniest things that happened — we’ve not seen anything vicious or involving anger — concerned some self-published books we purchased from a local author who specializes in ghost books, haunted buildings in Cripple Creek and things like that,” Thompson said, explaining that he stacked the spiral-backed books on his office floor. While he was working, the books suddenly fell over. Thinking that he had stacked them crooked, he then put them up against the wall with the bindings alternating. “About three minutes later that pile of books went whump across the floor. It struck me funny. I thought, ‘Are you jealous, or what?’”
We see no signs of paranormal activity, but the tea is savory and the ethereal Fruits of the Forest berry pie are rock steady.
IF YOU GO:
The Perkins family gave much of the present Garden of the Gods to the city of Colorado Springs for preservation as a free public park
For information about cabin rentals in the Florissant area, visit:
When completed in 1878, Adeline Hornbeck’s four-bedroom log homestead house was the first in the valley to have more than one story. It has nearly a dozen glass-paned windows
Victor, whose city’s slogan is “The Whole Town is a Museum,” was established in 1893. In its heyday, the Victor area claimed a population of 18,000, making it the fourth-largest city in Colorado at the time. The City Hall dates to 1900
Victor Trading Co., housed in the space that was once the home of Star of the West saloon, boasts that its wall of brooms is “World Famous.”
The Victor Trading Co. & Manufacturing Works offers handmade goods produced with tools from Victor’s heydays in the 1900s, including a wide assortment of brooms