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Life Imitates Art: Fossil Creek Park Unearths Mammoth Bones; Unveils Destination Playground in Fort Collins

By Rob Layton and Roger Sherman


On a blustery summer afternoon, a dozen children are climbing, swinging, and sliding at the Fossil Creek Park playground in Fort Collins, Colorado. Several whoop and giggle as they clamber up the back and hang off the tusks of a huge wooly mammoth. Preschoolers take turns on a slide built into the hillside, while older children twirl on vertical spinners and a disc that suggest the skeletons of extinct creatures. A few yards away, teenagers in black T-shirts and baggy low-slung pants, their arms outstretched for balance, grind off the metal edges of a concrete skatepark. Just beyond, in-line hockey players slap the puck against the rink walls.


Constructed of shotcrete, this custom designed wooly mammoth climbing structure is the playground's focal piece and represents the park's overall theme.

Completed in October 2003, the award-winning, $9.6 million, 100-acre Fossil Creek Park offers a prime example of what we call the "destination playground." Playgrounds are no longer just for toddlers, but places where the whole family spends a good part of the day playing, meeting friends, and picnicking. With public art and a choice of activities nearby, the destination playground draws from across the community and even the region. This particular day, for example, drew families from Boulder and Denver.

"Fossil Creek Park is an excellent example of how collaboration and partnering, from the initial design through the completion of construction, can produce spectacular results," says Craig Foreman, manager of park planning and development for the city.


This shows preliminary sketches of the playground. An important part of the master plan process was identifying an overall theme. During the design charrette, it was decided to follow a design theme of fossils and geology because of the park name.

Fossil Creek is the newest and largest community park in this city of 105,000. Our goal as collaborating landscape architects was to design a park that would meet citywide residents' needs and serve as an escape from the urban environment of single-family homes and apartment buildings bordering a busy arterial road. Fossil Creek Park features something for everyone, with two lighted ball fields, a roller-hockey rink, a fenced dog park, lighted tennis and basketball courts, multi-purpose fields, and an "urban obstacle" skateboard park. It also makes the most of its natural setting, with three lakes, wetlands, a grassy knoll, a pavilion, picnic shelters, and more than a mile of trails. What seems to delight kids of all ages the most are the park's creative play areas.


Fossil Creek Park's site plan features something for everyone, with two lighted ball fields, a roller-hockey rink, a fenced dog park, lighted tennis and basketball courts, multi-purpose fields, and an "urban obstacle" skateboard park. It also makes the most of its natural setting, with three lakes, wetlands, a grassy knoll, a pavilion, picnic shelters, and more than a mile of trails.

Design and Planning Evolution

Our landscape architecture and planning firms, BHA Design of Fort Collins, Colorado and Design Concepts of Lafayette, Colorado, had some history with the project. Design Concepts developed the first ideas for the park in the mid-980s, shortly after Fort Collins bought the land. BHA Design was hired in 1996 to update the master plan to support a funding initiative. In 1999, when funding became available to build the park, we formed a design team for the project. BHA Design lead the team that also included: The Larson Company of Tucson, Arizona; Artscapes, a Denver-based public art firm; and RB+B Architects of Fort Collins.

The site offered lots of potential. Situated at the confluence of Fossil and Mail creeks, it contained three large ponds and several acres of wetlands. A central knoll provided a significant topographic feature. The site also offered challenges: The banks of Fossil Creek were steep and eroded.


Tusk Gateway and Tusk Hut at the Adventure Island area. Willows, sumacs, and groves of cottonwoods create hiding places, and the muddy shoreline beckons little feet.

On a large part of the site, a flat reservoir bed was covered in salty sediments.

As it turns out one of the biggest challenges was developing a plan which served the needs of the greater community while minimizing impacts on the adjacent neighborhoods.


The Design

The design work began with a three-day collaborative design charette. Landscape architects, architects, artists, and staff from the city's park planning, transportation, stormwater, natural resources, engineering, and parks maintenance staffs focused on park layout and themes, as well as constraints for natural areas and stormwater management. With a preliminary plan and theme in mind, we sought citizen feedback through several community meetings and by posting the plan with comment sheets at libraries, city hall, and other public places. This master plan became the basis for the final design. Before construction began in September 2002, we held a one-day partnering session on site with the design team, the contractor and his subs, and city staff, to discuss the technical aspects of the plan in its actual context.

An important part of the master plan process was identifying an overall theme. During the design charette, we decided to follow a design theme of fossils and geology because of the park name. Fossil Creek itself is named for small fossils of ancient creatures found along the creek. The theme influenced the design of the entire park, from the park entrance sign, to the public art, to the architecture, to the design of the outdoor spaces. The design team decided to expand on the fossil theme and incorporate images of dinosaur skeletons, ancient sea creatures, and prehistoric human campsites.


Views from atop the climbing wall and landslide entry provide visibility of the whole playground.


Connected to the perimeter trail by two bridges--one of them a concrete fabrication of a huge log--Adventure Island features a dome-shaped "tusk hut" designed from discoveries of prehistoric human settlements in North America.

The Tar Pits

To evoke local natural history, we designed, as a focus for the park, an "adventure" playground with a life-size wooly mammoth structure that kids could climb on.

A serendipitous discovery confirmed this playground design and reflected the region's history with amazing accuracy.

We had discussed the idea of a "tar pits" play area and a "dino dig," a place for kids to dig and discover fossils near the creek. We couldn't put the playground near Fossil Creek, however, because of a protected buffer zone. So we incorporated the tar pits and dino dig into the playground, with the wooly mammoth appearing to get stuck in a tar pit, and the dino dig becoming a climbing wall with sculpted fossils.

We selected a site on the east side of the park, conveniently adjacent to South Lemay for parking. The playground and a climbing wall were carved out of a knoll in the middle of the site, creating the feeling of being in a paleontologic dig. We designed the wall to look like it had just been excavated, revealing fossils of footprints and vertebrae that form the toeholds and handgrips for climbers. On one side of the climbing surface are steps and a slide; on the other is a sandstone-block retaining wall for seating and climbing, with a viewing platform/picnic shelter above it.


There are plenty of opportunities for adventure or relaxation. Preschoolers take turns on a slide built into the hillside, while older children twirl on vertical spinners and a disc that suggest the skeletons of extinct creatures.

When playground construction began in September 2002, the project entered the realm of the surreal. While excavating the area for the wooly mammoth sculpture, the construction crew unearthed bones of the real thing! The city called Colorado State University archeology professor Larry Todd, who brought in students to help excavate bones over the next month while construction of the rest of the park continued around it. The tar pits area became a real archaeological dig as the bones of a giant mastodon and other prehistoric creatures were removed. Buried under 15 feet of soil were a mammoth rib and vertebrae, as well as bones from birds, rodents, and other animals at least 30,000 years old. Mammoths lived in Colorado from 100,000 years to as recently as 11,000 years ago. Amazingly, the archeologists didn't think the mammoth find was that extraordinary. The archaeologists believe that the bones were carried to this site during a major flood occurring thousands of years ago. The flood left the bones scattered and were not considered as significant as an intact skeleton. They were surprised and more excited about finding wolf's teeth and remains of other small mammals. The archeology team carefully excavated all the specimens, which are being preserved by Colorado State University.


Kompan Galaxy play equipment with in-line rink in the background.

Augmenting the mammoth play sculpture are Kompan "Galaxy" series play equipment, including vertical-pole "spinners," sliding hand grips on monkey-bar-like structures, and a spinning disc that children can cling to and jump off of. These are designed to challenge kids physically and intellectually, and offer opportunities for socialization.

The playground is a part of a popular play area for various ages and interests. From benches on the playground edges, parents can keep an eye on their older children skating in the rink and flipping skateboards as they hop from level to level. The proximity of different play areas means that each age group has choices. The playground is dominated by children up to middle-school-age during the day. But at dusk, older kids spill over from the skatepark to climb the wooly mammoth and play on the equipment.


Across a lake, an interactive water feature was designed around a theme of the "watering hole" . A grotto features waterfall columns, with cascades flowing down into a series of runnels that snakes around the water's edge. Children can splash and play in the "stream" of recycling water.

Creative Features

Located on a spit of land between two of the lakes, Adventure Island offers an intriguing departure from traditional component-based playgrounds. We wanted an unstructured play area in which kids could dig in the dirt, find bugs, splash in the water and build things with twigs. Adventure Island provides a place for children and their families to explore and discover things for themselves.

Connected to the perimeter trail by two bridges--one of them a concrete fabrication of a huge log--Adventure Island features a dome-shaped "tusk hut" designed from discoveries of prehistoric human settlements in North America. Willows, sumacs, and groves of cottonwoods create hiding places, and the muddy shoreline beckons little feet. As the plants grow, we envision a kind of jungle-paradise with narrow paths winding through it.


Climbing wall with sculpted fossils provide hand and footholds to ascend to the shelter above. On one side of the climbing surface are steps and a slide; on the other is a sandstone-block retaining wall for seating and climbing, with a viewing platform/picnic shelter above it.

Across a lake, an interactive water feature was designed around a theme of the "watering hole." A grotto features waterfall columns, with cascades flowing down into a series of runnels that snakes around the water's edge. Children can splash and play in the "stream" of recycling water. A fun place to play, this water feature was far less expensive than building a pool. (A future construction phase will include a swimming pool and recreation center in the park.)

Art and sculpture have been incorporated throughout, including a dramatic series of basalt columns standing in the largest of the three lakes. In keeping with the geologic theme, rocks of igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic origins embellish planting beds and other areas throughout the park.

On top of the knoll is a sunken "celestial garden," a grass-lined cauldron for sitting and viewing the night sky.


The park also features built-in concrete grandstands and dugouts for the two lighted ball fields. The roller-hockey rink and tennis courts were built on post-tensioned slabs, with one inch of asphalt on six inches of concrete strengthened by steel so the surfaces won't crack.

Safety Issues

Exciting features such as a climbing wall and a skatepark have inherent safety issues. All of the playground elements are designed to meet safety codes, from the distance and depth of the hand holds on the climbing walls, to the heights and depths of the sandstone retaining-wall blocks. A ramp that connects the top of the climbing wall and picnic shelter with the playground area provides alternative access for children and adults with disabilities.

Skateboarders skate at their own risk, which is part of the thrill. We included the local skateboarding community in the design process to create a street-course design that incorporates some of their favorite elements from public spaces around town that don't allow skateboarding. Alltec Skateparks of Placerville, Colorado, was careful to create a series of platforms, steps, and ramps that are similar to (and no more dangerous than) a municipal plaza.

Construction Challenges

Rising to the challenges of constructing this nearly $10 million park earned Fossil Creek Park the 2003 Silver Hard Hat Award for Outstanding Landscape Project from Colorado Construction magazine. Testaments to the challenges are the one-inch-thick book of construction drawings and three-inch-thick specification book. The first million dollars paid for moving several hundred thousand pounds of earth and installing utilities under the direction of Environmental Concerns of Loveland, Colorado. Clark Construction of Loveland, Colorado was awarded the contract to build the rest of the park improvements.


Soil-cement paving trail circles the lake. One major challenge was to try to restore the water quality of the lakes and relocate the 2.5 acres of wetlands that were in the middle of what are now soccer fields. Next to the reservoirs, these wetlands had become degraded salt flats.

One major challenge was to try to restore the water quality of the lakes and relocate the 2.5 acres of wetlands that were in the middle of what is now soccer fields. Next to the reservoirs, these wetlands had become degraded salt flats. Our mitigation plan specified wetlands areas along the perimeter of the lakes with native species such as willows and bulrushes. The lakes are meant for wildlife rather than recreation, though canoes and kayaks are allowed. Deep cuts in the lake bottoms allow for fish spawning--bass fishing from the lake pavilion is some of the best in the city.

Structures within the park include a maintenance center, an earth-sheltered restroom and concession building with a rooftop viewing deck, and several custom-designed shade and picnic shelters. The park also features built-in concrete grandstands and dugouts for the two lighted ball fields. The roller-hockey rink and tennis courts were built on post-tensioned slabs, with one inch of asphalt on six inches of concrete strengthened by steel so the surfaces won't crack.

The Larson Company of Tucson, Arizona, created custom structures for thematic features such as the mammoth, climbing wall, nautilus entry sign, shark-jaw gateway, water-feature rock formations, and Adventure Island elements such as the log bridge, tusk gateway, and tusk hut. Larson worked from a scale model and did the final sculpting of the mammoth and climbing wall, designing a pattern for the ersatz bones. Shotcrete, a sprayed-on concrete material, was used to create some of the themed elements.

Pavements include the standard asphalt and concrete, as well as crusher fines and soil-cement paving, which are more comfortable surfaces for walking and were intended to suggest the character of European parks with gravel walks. Soil cement paving is a mixture of soil with 7 percent concrete by volume, which is rototilled, wetted down, and rolled to make paths. This material looks natural, is stable enough to support small vehicles, and is more permeable than asphalt and concrete, which helps reduce stormwater runoff. To blend in with the environment, we sandblasted surfaces for a water-pattern effect and used colored stains for concrete.

Other construction challenges included the coordination of this project with the simultaneous re-alignment of South Lemay Avenue adjacent to the park, including the construction of a pedestrian underpass to connect the park to the regional trail system.


Rob Layton is a founder and principal of Design Concepts, a landscape architecture and community planning firm in Lafayette, Colo., which has designed more than 125 parks and received 17 awards. Roger Sherman is principal of BHA Design of Fort Collins, which is designing Spring Canyon Park, a new community park in southwest Fort Collins, and other parks in the region.

Shape of Things to Come

Fossil Creek Park is an example of collaborative and innovative design that includes public art, natural areas, and activities for all ages and abilities. With the destination playgrounds, park planners and landscape architects are creating a new type of facility that draws the community to socialize as well as recreate.

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November 17, 2019, 5:48 am PDT

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