Tag Archives: national monument

Surprises out west: Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument

Last week, I traveled through eastern Colorado, hitting Pike’s Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park, and the Great Sand Dunes. But the biggest surprise was a tiny national monument in central Colorado—Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. Florissant Fossil Beds has provided fossils to the scientific community for over 100 years; an estimated 40,000-50,000 specimens of some 1500 species. As a visitor, you learn about how the fossils at Florissant formed and the era from which they came. The visitor center is full of great science and amazing fossils. A fossil learning lab is open from 1PM to 3PM. The most impressive part, though, are the massive petrified redwood stumps. The largest is 41 feet in circumference and about 10 feet high.

Scientists started coming to Florissant to document fossils in the 1870s. Unfortunately, tourists flocked to the site as well, fascinated by the redwood stumps and petrified wood. Once upon a time, petrified wood littered the landscape. Now, visitors take in the big stumps alone. The biggest stump has two blades still embedded in it, remnant of when someone tried to chop it up to sell pieces out east. Two tourist companies staked out the site and competed bitterly over traffic. One left nails at the other’s entrance; they also literally got into a shooting match.

Federal protection came very late for Florissant. Despite calls for conservation going back at least to the 1890s, it took until the 1969 for the site to gain national monument status. Before that, people wanted to divide the site up for houses. Environmentalists faced down bulldozers. Standing in the empty fields of Florissant, over an hour west of Colorado Springs and really in the middle of nowhere, it was hard to imagine why the area needed more houses. By contrast, Petrified Forest National Park gained National Monument status in 1906. When you visit Arizona’s Petrified Forest, they will tell you how much petrified wood has left the park through tourism—Petrified Forest is still littered with petrified wood while Florissant is not.

I learned a lot about fossils and fossil formation at Florissant Fossil Beds. I marveled at the great tree trunks, wondering how many more must lay still buried around me. But I think I was most struck by the story of conservation at Florissant Fossil Beds. The monument covers the fight to preserve Florissant, but it can’t editorialize. Florissant is a microcosm of when capitalism and general human interest don’t align. Many of our national lands tell the story of where the human interests won. Florissant tells a story where that interest emerged on top at the very last possible moment; I felt wistful wondering how many marvels wandered away with all the care of a tourist buying a souvenir shot glass.

If you find yourself in central Colorado, stop by Florissant for a visit. The stumps are truly other-worldly. I learned a lot about fossils. And I took a pleasant hike through an alpine meadow in the shadow of Pike’s Peak. The park implores us to imagine what the meadow was like 30 million years ago when the valley was in the flow path of a volcano. I also found myself imagining the place as a virgin bed of paleontology 150 years ago.

IMG_2833

41 foot circumference petrified tree stump

IMG_2831

Pike’s Peak!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

El Morro National Monument

El Morro National Monument is a tiny park tucked in remote western New Mexico. For this reason, it is one of the least visited National Monuments in the west. Ironically, El Morro is a park because it was once a travel hub—a source of year-round drinkable water amongst miles of dry scrub. Over many centuries, visitors came to the oasis and left their mark. Ruins of a 700 year old pueblo sit on the mesa top. Around the base, there are petroglyphs, signatures of conquistadors, and marks of early Americans traveling west. El Morro was scouted for the railroad, but it went 25 miles north. Now El Morro is a quiet place, a sandstone guestbook with centuries of entries.

Don Juan de Oñate

Don Juan de Oñate was the first Spanish colonial governor of New Mexico from 1598 to 1610. He founded the city of Santa Fe in 1610, eleven years before the Pilgrims first Thanksgiving. This carving at El Morro took place on an expedition to the Gulf of California.

Oñate is sometimes called the last conquistador. After the Acoma indians refused to give the Spaniards more food in the winter of 1598, a scuffle erupted that killed 11 Spaniards. Oñate’s retaliation killed 800 Acoma. Oñate enslaved the remaining population; men over 25 had their right foot amputated. Oñate was recalled to Mexico City for cruelty. He resigned his post in 1610 after the founding of Santa Fe. He was banished from New Mexico, although cleared of charges. Acoma Pueblo was rebuilt, and is one of the longest continually occupied places in the country.

Amazingly, people still honor Oñate. El Paso erected a 34 foot statue of him in 2007. Española, New Mexico has an Oñate monument with a bronze statue. In 1998, the 400th anniversary of his arrival in New Mexico, someone removed the statue’s right foot and left the note “fair is fair.” The foot was replaced, but the seam is still visible. Oñate deserves his place in the history books, but multi-million dollar statues seem unnecessary.

Standing in the presence of his carving reminds one of the vast history of New Mexico. The Salinas Pueblo Missions were a generation old at this point, to say nothing of the indian cultures they encountered. We think of the west as new, but this was all before the Pilgrims dined.

160424-el-morro-added-9995

A bit hard to read, but at the end of the first line are the letters “don ju” and at the beginning of the second “de oñate”. This was carved in 1605.

The Camel Corps

In addition to tragedy, the west is full of quirky, charming history, and the US Camel Corps is one of those bits. Desert animals like camels must have seemed ideal for the deserts of New Mexico. 25 camels traveled through El Morro in 1857.

The US gained the territory of New Mexico after the Mexican American War in 1848. (If you ever want an eye-popping historical read, take a look at the list of Mexican heads of state from 1821 to 1848. I thought US history from Jackson to Lincoln was chaotic, but wow. It makes telenovelas look plausible. It’s amazing the US didn’t take more land from Mexico considering the utter disarray of their government.)  Several early expeditions took place, mostly with the goal of figuring out what to do with New Mexico.

The camels went to Camp Verde in Texas, which was taken by the Confederates at the beginning of the Civil War. Some of the animals were sold at auction, some went to zoos, some went to circuses, and some escaped. Camel sightings were reported in the west until the early 1900s. This charming postcard memorializes the Camel Corps’ visit to El Morro.

FullSizeRender 2


The walls of El Morro are full of inscriptions, tiny slices in the lives of people who altered the west, for better and for worse. Though they are just gouges in sandstone, it is humbling to stand and look at the names and know what extraordinary efforts those people took to reach this oasis. And I consider it a bit inconvenient because it’s 2 hours from Albuquerque. We who pass through are still altering the west, though we are warned not to do it by carving El Morro. If you really must, they have a sacrificial chunk of sandstone by the visitor’s center.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A four day weekend goes a ways out west

You can do a lot in a four day weekend in the west. We visited White Sands National Monument, Chiricahua National Monument, the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum, Saguaro National Park, and Petrified Forest National Park.

The pictures can say more than me. And I’m already a day late on this post! When I updated my operating system, my entire photo preview collection got eaten. Poor computer has been slaving around the clock since I discovered that yesterday. No data lost, but lots of work for compy and about 300 gigs of disc space that’s in limbo. Remember to back up your libraries!

National Monuments in New Mexico

Of the 117 designated national monuments in the United States, 14 of them are in New Mexico, second only to Arizona.  When I moved here in June, I dreamt of Arches National Park and the Grand Canyon and the mountains of Colorado. But I am learning what wonders my own state contains. All are 5 hours or less from Albuquerque, and 8 of them are among the 20 least visited national monuments in the country.

The national monuments here vary wildly. There’s anthropology at the Gila Cliff Dwellings in the mountainous southwest (discovered by a man shirking jury duty). There’s a 17th century Spanish Mission at Salinas Pueblo Missions in the eastern grasslands. There are miles of white gypsum dunes at White Sands, which also doubles as a bombing range.  There’s Petroglyph National Monument on the west of Albuquerque, with canyons full of ancient drawings.

The western landscape expands your vocabulary. You can see a slot canyon and hoodoos, or oddly-shaped rock columns 75 feet in height, at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks. In addition to the lava fields and caves of El Malpais, you can check out the tinajas, dents that hold water after rain and bloom sporadically with life, in the sandstone bluffs. Anywhere you find sandstone you might find tafoni, or small and intricate erosion patterns.

So I’m slowing traveling to the national monuments of New Mexico, camera in hand. I’ve visited Petroglyphs, Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks, and El Malpais.

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks

Tent Rocks is named for its rocks that resemble tents, which tower 75 feet. The excellent “slot canyon trail” takes you through a slot canyon, by the hoodoos, and to a viewpoint overlooking the hoodoos; the viewpoint also provides panoramas of New Mexico scrub and the Valles Caldera. The other trail, the Cave Loop Trail, is an easy enough walk but not very interesting. Tent Rocks is a fairly small and recently established national monument. It’s easy to reach from Albuquerque and Santa Fe, with good quality roads.

If you visit Tent Rocks in the summer, get there early. We went in July and arrived at 9 AM and it was hot at the end. Other than the summer heat and rain, Tent Rocks is a great year-round destination. It is fairly popular and gets bus tours on summer weekends.

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument in New Mexico, near Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

Sandstone hoodoos in Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument.

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument in New Mexico, near Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

Slot canyon.

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument in New Mexico, near Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument in New Mexico, near Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

El Malpais National Monument

El Malpais translates to “the bad country.” The park has two branches which follow lava fields, which you can see easily on the satellite image of the park. Highway 117 traces the eastern edge and features sandstone bluffs, the second-largest natural arch in New Mexico, and lava fields. Highway 53 traces the west and features volcanic caves and ice caves, although many of the best features are reached only by dirt road. This weekend, I visited the sights along highway 117.

The Sandstone Bluffs Overlook area is great. The light and bright sandstone really stands out against the black fields of lava below. To the north, you can see Mt. Taylor, an inactive volcano. Dents in the sandstone, tinajas, are common on the bluff tops. Though it hadn’t rained much before we went, some still contained water and one had ice at midday.

La Ventana arch, just off the road, is the next stop south. This time of year, the north-facing arch seemed to be in shadow all day. I plan to visit again in April or May, when the light might be better but before the crushing summer heat.

The last stop south is the Lava Falls Area, which features a 1 mile hike through Pahoehoe lava. This is smoother and easier underfoot than most of the lava in the park. The Lava Falls Area is only 3000 years old, extremely young in geological terms, and some of the youngest lava in the lower 48.

In mid November, crowds were no issue. We went on a nice November day and were quite comfortable, even with the altitude. In the Lava Falls Area, it was bordering on warm, with all that black stone everywhere. I suspect much of El Malpais would be unbearably hot in the summer. The dirt roads in the western part of the park are impassable with snow, so the best seasons for El Malpais are fall and late spring.

"A tinaja is a bedrock depression that fills with water during the summer monsoonal rains and when snowfall accumulates in the winter. These microhabitats spring to life when the baked-dry stone basins fill with seasonal water." -From the National Park Service El Malpais website. Sandstone Bluffs Overlook in El Malpais National Monument in western New Mexico.

A tinaja in the sandstone bluffs, looking north to Mount Taylor. Below to the left are the lava fields.

Sandstone formations at Sandstone Bluffs Overlook in El Malpais

Lava Falls Area at El Malpais National Monument in western New Mexico.

Lava Falls Area at El Malpais National Monument in western New Mexico. The lava here has several textures, but my favorite is this ropy, viscous one.

Petroglyph National Monument

Petroglyph National Monument is on the west side of Albuquerque. I realize only now that I didn’t bring my DSLR camera on this trip, but the picture below shows even a cell phone can capture the petroglyphs well. There are three sites in Petroglyph, all easy to reach. The most popular site, Boca Negra, requires some uphill hiking. The two canyons supposedly require less. Like El Malpais, the rock is black and volcanic (though older), and it gets hot in the summer.

In Petroglyphs, you can visit the Three Sisters volcanoes on the western mesa. These three cinder cones are remarkably small, but due to their position atop the mesa are visible from the whole city. Hiking the Three Sisters is still on my to-do list, but I suspect the views back toward the city and the Sandia Mountains are pretty great.

IMG_0837

Petroglyph at Boca Negra site

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument is between  Santa Fe and Albuquerque. It’s only about a 3 mile hike, with only 600 feet in elevation rise. If you want to visit Tent Rocks, arrive early, before the heat and the tour groups, and bring lots of water.

At Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, you hike through a limestone slot canyon. Up above, there are formations of the most unusual shapes– some are like tents, some are like upraised fists, and some are like petrified dunes. It[s a testament to the power of wind and water in the west. My sorest muscle after this hike was my neck– from craning at all the great scenery.

150725-kasha-katuwe-tentrocks-0001-2150725-kasha-katuwe-tentrocks-0003150725-kasha-katuwe-tentrocks-0004150725-kasha-katuwe-tentrocks-0006150725-kasha-katuwe-tentrocks-0005150725-kasha-katuwe-tentrocks-0002150725-kasha-katuwe-tentrocks-0001150725-kasha-katuwe-tentrocks-0007