“I came here last year and found these canyons, and they felt like the heart of the world to me. I’m going to stay and promote this place because it should be a National Park.” ~John Otto, 1907
We generally drag our feet when our travels are coming to an end. Not that we’re so opposed to heading back to Indiana, it’s more like hating to see a good thing coming to an end. We’ve discovered in our more recent trips that when facing that fateful ending, it helps to add a couple (or more) interesting stops along our way home. Something to look forward to. A new place to check out. A way of putting off the inevitable. Call it what you will . . . it seems to help soften that return drive. This time around, we had barely begun our road trip when this little side excursion popped up—a short, but sweet interlude on our homeward journey.
It was a national monument, no less. On this, of all trips, our commemorative national parks tour . . . it would be impossible to resist. A mere stone’s throw from I-70—surely it was preordained. Only an hour’s drive out of Moab, we had just crossed over into Colorado when we took the highway exit and made a turn towards the south. Colorado National Monument. looming high above the landscape would be very hard to miss.
Even as national monuments go, this one is hardly well-known. Maybe it’s in the name—being vague and not too descriptive. Perhaps a guarded secret, with the nearby town of Grand Junction thinking it more like their private backyard preserve. As does the small town of Fruita, located at the park’s westside entrance. If it wasn’t for one man’s initial interest and hard-earned labors, it might very well never become what it is today.
Colorado National Monument preserves one of the grand landscapes of the American West.. It is a mere section of the greater Colorado Plateau, that uplifted high desert region that encompasses the Four Corners region of our country and includes ten national parks as well as seventeen national monuments. As soon as you pass one of the two entrance gates, the park road begins switchbacking up the near vertical walls of the Monument’s mesa. Rising up to 2,000 feet above the valley floor, it’s at the top where all the action begins. You must go up . . . take the road or hike a trail.
The Monument is part of what’s referred to as the Grand Valley. With the Colorado River flowing through its heart, the name is derived from what the river was first called—the Grand River. A trio of towns make up this valley—Palisade, Grand Junction, and Fruita—each with their own distinct personalities. Once an area receiving little notice (by Colorado standards), today it has a new reputation. You might say that the Grand Valley has been discovered—or remade. It’s becoming a destination area—day-trippers and weekend getawayers are looking in this direction. It’s a change from the more popular Front Range cities. Here, the vineyards and fruit orchards add a bucolic view to the scenery and the offerings of Grand Junction (food, shopping and arts events) have something for most people’s tastes. And then, there’s the outdoor side for more enticements—that’s where the monument comes in to play. Great hiking and biking, to begin with. World-class mountain biking trails. Sunny days and dry climate make it all possible (but summers can be on the hot side, I’ve read). Surrounding mountains ring in the valley, while the sheer cliff walls and deep canyons dotted with colorful rock formations make it a photographer’s ideal setting. One of the few remaining areas we had yet to explore in all of our Colorado ramblings, if the Monument wasn’t enough, there was this whole valley we were anxious to see.
The drive to the top is an adventure in itself. A very scenic road as well. Prepare to go slowly—it’s full of curves and tight turns along a constant uphill grade. No straight-aways to this road, longer RVs will have their challenges. But to get to where the action is (it bears repeating)—you must go up.
While people lived in this canyon landscape as long as 12,000 years ago, in more modern times this was easily a forgotten and little-explored area. In the latter part of the 19th century, the Grand Valley was slowly being settled. Towns grew up and livelihoods made, but people saw very little reason to visit the arid canyons that existed on the other side of the Colorado River. Until the town of Fruita needed a new water source, that is.
For 22 years, the people of Fruita had used the river as that source. Then Grand Junction’s growing community began dumping all its waste water into the river. Located downstream from there, the townspeople of Fruita soon began to look at the Land Across the River for a source of cleaner water.
In the ensuing years a pipeline would be built—20 miles long—to connect a water source located high on a mesa passing through the red rock canyons and over the river, to the town. It would take more than a year to construct. Among the many men hired to work on this pipeline was an eccentric wanderer name John Otto. Known as a “powder monkey” (an explosives expert), he developed a strong attachment to this high plateau and rugged canyons. He soon decided to set his roots here, to stay and build trails and promote this incredible chunk of land, “because it should be a national park.”
So, let me help you to see an accurate image in your mind of the layout of this topography. High on the plateau you have a grand view over miles and miles of the valley below. Stretching all the way to distant mountains on the horizon. Standing on the precipitous edge of this mesa, the ground drops away, going near vertically down to the canyons below. Several canyons have cut into the mesa’s flanks, all carved over eons by rushing water pouring down from the land above, combined with ceaseless winds to aid in the rocks’ deterioration. Down in the valley below, these finger canyons all flow into the large Monument Canyon that stretches the near-length of the entire east side of the monument. It’s out there—in that vast Monument Canyon—where you’ll see spectacular rock formations. Some will say it’s a microcosm of the famed Monument Valley. And that’s when you wonder aloud “Why haven’t I heard of this place before?”
From the land above, you’ll have absolutely breathtaking views down to what has been carved out below.
During the age of John Muir, some 1,000 miles from Yosemite Valley, a kindred spirit and passionate conservationist began to dedicate himself to protecting and promoting the land we know today as Colorado National Monument. John Otto spearheaded fundraising campaigns, collected signatures for petitions, and penned newspaper editorials and endless letters to Washington politicians in support of national recognition for the ancient canyons and towering monoliths of his adopted home. Living alone in the canyons and using a pick and shovel, he carved out trails. Gradually, through his single-minded pursuit and his Herculean physical efforts, the scenic treasures hidden in the canyons were made accessible to the public.
Ultimately, Colorado National Monument was established on May 24, 1911, as a presidential proclamation by President Taft under the authority of the Antiquities Act. Otto became the park’s first park custodian/ranger with a salary of $1 per month.
John married Beatrice Farmham, an artist from Massachusetts, near the base of Independence Monument in 1911. Otto’s insistence on living in a tent in his beloved canyon was reportedly one of the reasons why Beatrice left him after 2 months (and a 3-week honeymoon). Perhaps receiving a pack burro from John as her wedding gift played a part in it too. She filed for divorce, gave John $2,000 in alimony, and headed back East. She got as far as Kansas, where she married a cowboy and for a time they were part of a Western Exhibition Show.
Leading from the Visitors Center, a trail follows the perimeter of the rim of the canyon for an easy mile or so. From the trail as well as the overlooks, you’ll have outstanding views of some of the more scenic perspectives of Monument Canyon. Ending near the campground, you’ll have easy access when staying here to capture early morning or evening light on the landscape.
One great feature of this park is the wide variety of hiking trails offered. From lengths of a quarter to over fourteen miles, they vary from easy to more difficult levels of ability. Some stay on top, while others lead down into the canyon. Something for everyone, and they all offer tremendous views.
IMHO, it’s the scenic park road that is the monument’s big claim to fame. The Rim Rock Drive is one supremely scenic experience where IT’S ALL ABOUT THE VIEWS. A paved, 23-mile-long road that connects both entrances of the park, it gives access to trailheads and overlooks, while staying low on the risky-drive meter. If you’re not too squeamish about steep drop-offs with no guardrails, that is. Another great touring road.
Inseparable from the identity of the Monument, the Rim Rock Drive is a winding roadway that plots an improbable course along the rim of Monument Canyon. With 19 overlooks and 14 trails along the drive, it was built by the CCC beginning in 1931, when its route was laid out by engineers. Most of the actual road building was done between 1933 and 1942.
Making significant use of native building materials, construction crews built Rim Rock Drive without benefit of heavy equipment like bulldozers or backhoes. After blasting rock apart, they removed refuse by hand or guided horses pulling small dump carts on rails.
Biking the Rim Rock Road has obviously caught on. With a good paved surface and plenty of gorgeous views, all you have to contend with is making the challenging 1,800-foot climb to the top. After that, it’s all rolling hills and winding curves to give you an exhilarating ride. With an easy and swift descent at the end.
So popular a ride, many organized bike tours have taken place on the Rim Rock Road. Ride the Rockies has had it on their agenda and Tour of the Moon is a annual classic ride held here since the 1980s.
The quintessential formation at Colorado National Monument is Independence Monument. Soaring 450 feet above the valley floor, its massive height belies the fact that it is, in fact, a very slender, delicate formation. Some who view it up close at ground level think that it closely resembles the sail on a sailboat. It is one of the most frequently published summits in the state of Colorado, following Maroon Bells and Pikes Peak. Its image appears frequently on calendars and picture books of Colorado.
Less than two months after the Colorado National Monument became a reality in May of 1911, John Otto was the first man to climb Independence Monument, fittingly on July 4th. It was a stupendous feat back in those days of primitive climbing gear, although he did drill holes in the rock and placed steel pipes (which the park service has since removed). Placing the American flag on its summit, he began a custom of sorts in recent years. Area climbers have picked up Otto’s tradition and make the climb each Independence Day.
John Otto retired as the park’s custodian after 16 years of service. He headed west to California where he died in 1952 at the age of 81.
Saddlehorn Campground is located on top of the plateau, in the vicinity of the Visitors Center. Having convenient access to the views and hiking trails, it’s a great place to set up camp. What it lacks in amenities—no hookups—it makes up for with paved pull-through sites tucked into a pinyon and juniper trees environment. If you’re lucky enough to snag an outer rim site in Loop B (reservable), you’ll overlook the valley below and have tremendous views just a few steps from your trailer door.
When you have the advantage of staying where the action is, you always increase your chances of capturing those unplanned, spontaneous sights. Although once indigenous to the area (ancient pictographs and petroglyphs provide the evidence), Desert Bighorn Sheep had become extinct. Beginning in 1979, 37 were re-introduced to Colorado National Monument, and a census taken in 2010 recorded about 50 are now living within the park’s boundaries. A few of them happened by near to where we were camped. A kismet moment to capture.
Taking advantage of our prime campsite spot, I ended both days along the canyon rim. As the sun dropped low and the light warmed up, that’s the time to be out roaming with one’s camera. One night, in particular, gave me some special color—I could see its effect on the cliff faces. A fleeting moment of illumination.
Leaving the rocks behind us,
Airstream Travelers, Melinda & Chris
. . . until the next trip,
over and out.