Sunday, February 17, 2019

More than Fruits and Vegetables in Colorado’s Garden Park

It wasn’t gold in “them thar hills” that had university professors waging war near Cañon City, Colorado, in the late 1800s. Very little if any gold was found in the immediate area, but paleontologists battled over something they considered more valuable. Something that lay within the greenish-tinted sedimentary soil along ancient creek beds in the Garden Park area north of town.

The Marsh-Felch Quarry in Garden Park north of Canon City, CO.
Garden Park fossil discoveries of the 1870s and 1880s led to the famous “Bone Wars” between rival paleontologists, O.C. Marsh and E.D. Cope. Local rancher, Marshall P. Felch, spent years working and mapping the dig sites on behalf of Marsh for Yale University.

Early discoveries included the first complete skeleton of Allosaurus. The area continued to provide some of the most well-preserved Jurassic-period remains, and in 1886, Garden Park gave up its first magnificent stegosaurus skeleton.

However, long before professors sparred over the finds, local Ute tribes and early settlers had already come across the prehistoric bones. A few early merchandisers even sold fossils as souvenirs and oddities in curio shops.

I mention a curio shop in one of my three Cañon City historical novels, Romancing the Widow, set in 1888 during the height of the Bone Wars. Young widow Martha Stanton compares her life to the dusty fossil remains found in Garden Park, and even participates in some of the digs.

In the real world roughly fifty years later, another fossilized stegosaurus was discovered in 1937 by local high school teacher and Geology Club officer, Carl Kessler. That 23-foot long treasure stands today in Denver’s Museum of Nature and Science. Kessler’s find later inspired a student-driven campaign that resulted in the declaration of the stegosaurus as the Colorado State Fossil in 1982.
One of several education signage markers along the Marsh-Felch Quarry Trail.
Ten years later, that declaration was further solidified when the world’s most complete stegosaurus skeleton was excavated from the Garden Park area, skull included, and air-lifted via Chinook helicopter for further study and preservation.

Late-Jurassic fossils and flora from Garden Park are exhibited in major museums today such as those in New York City, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. Explorations continue by such entities as the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. In 1972, the area was placed on the National Natural Landmark registry by the National Park Service.

Tourists can visit the real site where my fictional heroine, Martha, explored, today known as the Marsh-Felch Quarry. The quarry is located off Garden Park Road (Red Canyon Road) and can be accessed via a self-guided, well-marked, quarter-mile hiking trail with informative exhibits along the path.

Colorful bluffs and unusual land forms around Cañon City have harbored prehistoric secrets for thousands of years, some of which have been unearthed as late as the 21st Century. Skyline Drive west of town offers not only a breathtaking vista of the surrounding area, but dinosaur footprints of an Ankylosaurus embedded in the jutting rock, discovered in 2001.
Can you see the four Ankylosaurus footprints in this photo?

A few miles west of there, up U.S. Highway 50, visitors can enjoy a stop at the Royal Gorge Dinosaur Experience with kid-friendly activities and spectacular exhibits.

Today, the Garden Park area provides livestock feed with pastures for grazing and hay fields for storing feed through the winter. In the late 1800s, fruits and vegetables grown in the park-like country above the fossil beds supplied food for the gold mining towns of Victor and Cripple Creek, roughly twenty miles up the road.

That road, however, changes names three times, from Garden Park, to Red Canyon, to Shelf Road. Adventurous types who continue driving north will discover that the final name was applied with good reason to the narrow, one-lane shelf that cuts into the gold country. Do not try it in a sports car or a vehicle pulling a trailer. Instead, drive west through Cañon City on U.S. Highway 50 until you reach Highway 9. It’s a longer, safer (and just as scenic) way to get to gold country!
Four Mile Creek in Garden Park during the fall.
All photographic images by the author.
For more on Colorado’s historic Garden Park area, visit Better yet, come see for yourself.

Young widow Martha Stanton returns to her parents’ parsonage in Cañon City, bereft of love and deprived of hope. As dry and lifeless as the fossils she once collected during the city’s infamous “bone wars,” she resigns herself to a dull existence—until she crosses paths with an old flame and a darkly mysterious stranger.
Colorado Ranger Haskell Jacobs is on a mission. And the flame-haired beauty in black who steps off the train isn’t what he’s looking for. Or is she? As drawn as he is to her fiery spirit, Haskell learns that she has connections to the horse thief he’s hunting. Entanglement with a preacher’s daughter is the last thing he needs—and the one thing he can’t avoid.

Bestselling author and winner of the Will Rogers Gold Medallion for Inspirational Western Fiction, Davalynn Spencer writes heart-tugging romance with a Western flair, both contemporary and historical. Connect with her at


  1. Very interesting. Thanks for the post!

  2. This is a very interesting post. Have to share with my son, who still today at 33 loves everything about dinosaurs. Thanks. quilting dash lady at comcast dot net

  3. This is absolutely fascinating! I have always enjoyed reading about great finds like those you've mentioned. I love Colorado and wish we could have visited Garden Park the various times we were there, but we never found the time. Thanks for such great information.

    1. You are most welcome, Martha. Glad you enjoyed it.

  4. Sounds like an interesting story. I have visited Colorado but not in that area. I didn't know about the dinosaur bones there.

    1. Thank you. Maybe you can make another trip sometime and stop in at our Regional Museum and History Center. Plus the Dinosaur Experience!