Colorado National Monument is an area of semi-arid desert and high mesa, with a large canyon running through it. It features several types of rock, including hard gneiss and schist (the gneiss is very interesting because it glitters), as well as softer sandstone that creates impressive rock formations as the powers of erosion do their work. To me the landscape looks like a combination of Canyonlands National Park and Arches National Park. It has the red sandstone formations, and also the deep canyon with the juniper and scrub pine covered high mesa.
The land on which Colorado National Monument now sits was long thought by residents of nearby Grand Junction to be inaccessible, so there wasn’t a lot going on there until John Otto arrived in 1907. He began building trails through the area, up to the top of the mesa. Otto’s work eventually got the notice of the locals. They decided to lobby for national protection, and Colorado National Monument was designated on May 24, 1911 by President William Howard Taft.
John Otto was named as the first park superintendent and drew a $1 monthly salary for the next 16 years while he lived in the park in a tent – he was an “off the grid” kind of guy. Interestingly, he married a Boston artist, Beatrice Farnham in June 1911 – she only stayed a few weeks before packing up and leaving forever. She just couldn’t fathom living the kind of life he wanted. I wonder if she married him thinking he would change…
Visitors today can drive the 23 mile Rim Rock Road, which was begun in 1931 and constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, mostly with hand tools! It starts near the bottom of the canyon at each of the entrances to the park and climbs quickly up to the top of the mesa.
There are 40 miles of hiking trails, several of which descend into the canyon and take hikers to some of the stunning rock formations. The longest hike in the monument is 14 miles. Hikers looking for an easier trek can hike along the canyon rim.
Wildlife includes several species of lizards, rattlesnakes, scorpions, coyote, squirrels, rabbits, Golden Eagles, swifts, and Desert Bighorn Sheep. Did you know that Desert Bighorn Sheep are actually a separate species from Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep? They have adapted mechanisms to conserve water more effectively than their mountain cousins.
Did you know that Colorado National Monument once had bison? At that point shortly after the turn of the last century, bison were still very close to extinction. John Otto raised money to buy one bull and two cows from Yellowstone National Park in 1925. They multiplied to about 45, and the herd was periodically culled to keep it within a manageable limit for grazing. However, they were fairly destructive to the fragile high desert ecosystem, so they were removed in 1983, and taken to Badlands National Park.
There were 454,510 visitors to Colorado National Monument in 2012, and the park encompasses 20,533 acres, much of which is undeveloped backcountry.
I’ll take you there next!