Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument

Approximately 35 miles west of Colorado Springs on U.S. 24 is the small village of Florissant, which means “flowering” in French. It couldn’t be more aptly named -- every spring its hillsides virtually blaze with wildflowers. Just 2 miles south is one of the most spectacular, yet relatively unknown, fossil deposits in the world, Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. From Florissant, follow the signs along Teller County Road 1.

The fossils in this 6,000-acre National Park Service property are preserved in the rocks of ancient Lake Florissant, which existed 34 million years ago. Volcanic eruptions spanning half a million years trapped plants and animals under layers of ash and dust; the creatures were fossilized as the sediment settled and became shale.

The detailed impressions, first discovered in 1873, offer the most extensive record of its kind in the world. Scientists have removed thousands of specimens, including 1,100 separate species of insects. Dragonflies, beetles, and ants; more fossil butterflies than anywhere else in the world; plus spiders, fish, some mammals, and birds are all perfectly preserved from 34 to 35 million years ago. Leaves from willows, maples, and hickories; extinct relatives of birches, elms, and beeches; and needles of pines and sequoias are also plentiful. These fossil plants, markedly different from those living in the area today, show how the climate has changed over the centuries.

Mudflows also buried forests during this long period, petrifying the trees where they stood. Nature trails pass petrified tree stumps; one sequoia stump is 10 feet in diameter and 11 feet high. There’s a display of carbonized fossils at the visitor center, which also offers interpretive programs. An added attraction within the monument is the homestead of Adeline Hornbek, who pioneered the area with her children in 1878. The national monument also has over 14 miles of hiking trails.

Nearby, about 1/2 mile north of the monument, there’s superb fishing for German browns and cutthroats at Spinney Mountain Reservoir.

Admission to the monument is $3 per adult for a week and free for children 14 and under, making a visit here an incredibly affordable outing. It’s open from 8am to 6pm daily in summer and 9am to 5pm daily the rest of the year (closed Jan 1, Thanksgiving, and Dec 25). Contact Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, P.O. Box 185, Florissant, CO 80816 (tel. 719/748-3253; www.nps.gov/flfo).

Cripple Creek

This old mining town on the southwestern flank of Pikes Peak was known as the world’s greatest gold camp after the precious metal was first discovered here in 1890. During its heyday at the beginning of the 20th century, Cripple Creek (elevation 9,494 ft.) had a stock exchange, two opera houses, five daily newspapers, 16 churches, 19 schools, and 73 saloons, plus an elaborate streetcar system and a railroad depot that saw 18 arrivals and departures a day. By the time mining ceased in 1961, more than $800 million worth of ore had been taken from the surrounding hills.

Today Cripple Creek has several dozen limited-stakes gambling casinos, most lining Bennett Avenue. They cash in not only on the lure of gambling but on the nostalgia for the gambling houses that were once prominent throughout the Old West. Although gamblers must be at least 21 years old, some casinos offer special children’s areas, along with other family activities.

One of the town’s unique attractions is a herd of wild donkeys, descendants of the miners’ runaways, that roam freely through the hills and into the streets. The year’s biggest celebration, Donkey Derby Days in late June, culminates with a donkey race.

Although gambling takes place year-round, many of the historic attractions are open in summer only or have limited winter hours. Among those you’ll want to check out is the 1891 Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine, 1 mile north of Cripple Creek on Colo. 67 (tel. 719/689-2466; www.goldminetours.com). It offers visitors a rare chance to join hard-rock miners on a 1,050-foot underground descent into a genuine gold mine and take home a gold-ore specimen as a souvenir. Tours last about 40 minutes; temperatures in the mine are 45°F to 50°F (7°C–10°C), and jackets are provided. Admission is $15 for adults, $10 for children 3 through 12, and free for children 2 and under. The mine is open from early April to mid-September daily from 9am to 5pm with shorter hours the rest of the year (call ahead).

The Cripple Creek District Museum, at the east end of Bennett Avenue (tel. 719/689-2634; www.cripple-creek.org), includes three historic buildings packed with late-19th-century relics, including mining and railroad memorabilia. There’s a gold-ore exhibit, Victorian fashions and furniture, exhibits on local wildlife, historical photos, a fully restored Victorian-era flat, and an assay office where fire-testing of local ores took place. The museum is open daily from 10am to 5pm Memorial Day through September, and Saturday and Sunday from 10am to 4pm the rest of the year. Admission is $5 adults, $3 seniors, and $2.50 for children 12 and under. There is another museum, the Old Homestead Museum, covering the world’s oldest profession in a family-friendly tour for $4 adults and $3 kids and seniors.

The Cripple Creek & Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad Co., at the Midland Terminal Depot, east end of Bennett Avenue at 5th Street (tel. 719/689-2640; www.cripplecreekrailroad.com), takes visitors on a 4-mile narrated tour. The route runs past abandoned mines and over a reconstructed trestle to the ghost town of Anaconda, powered by a 15-ton “iron horse” steam locomotive. The train operates daily from mid-May to mid-October. The first train leaves the station at 10am and subsequent trains leave about every 40 minutes, until 5pm. Tickets are $12 for adults, $11 for seniors, $8 for children 3 to 12, and free for kids 2 and under.

Cripple Creek is 45 miles west of Colorado Springs; take U.S. 24 west and Colo. 67 south. For additional information, contact the Cripple Creek Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 430, Cripple Creek, CO 80813 (tel. 877/858-4653 or 719/689-3461; www.cripple-creek.co.us).

Nearby Scenic Drives -- When you leave Cripple Creek, two drives of particular beauty offer alternatives to Colo. 67. Neither is paved and both are narrow and winding, but both are usually acceptable for everyday vehicles under dry conditions. Each is roughly 30 miles long but requires about 90 minutes to negotiate. First, take Colo. 67 south out of Cripple Creek for 6 miles to the historic mining town of Victor, a delightful, picturesque destination.

The Gold Camp Road leads east from Victor to Colorado Springs via the North Cheyenne Cañon. Theodore Roosevelt said that this trip up the old Short Line Railroad bed had “scenery that bankrupts the English language.” The Phantom Canyon Road leads south from Victor to Florence, following another old narrow-gauge railroad bed known as the Gold Belt Line. A number of ghost towns and fossil areas mark this route.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.