“There is nothing little about the Colorado National Monument. I am sure we will get it to the front someday and all the people of the country will be talking about it, and the travelers of the world will want to come to see it, and none of them will be disappointed.” John Otto, 1911, first park ranger
Most Coloradans drive through Fruita, Colorado on I-70 on their way to the famous “Slick Rock” bicycle trail and Arches National Park in Moab, Utah. They rarely give a blink at the highway sign that reads, “Colorado National Monument.” They keep driving toward Moab.
How did Moab get its name? A preacher tried to bring religion and salvation to that desert town, but after decades of failure, he gave up in disgust and called it “Moab” which means “place of unending sin and debauchery.” Like it or not, Americans like their sin and depravity over “The Rapture.”
But after 40 years of living in Colorado without visiting the monument, my friend Reg Gupton and his band of wilderness wildflower watchers invited Sandi and me into visiting the Colorado National Monument. In two words: “Huge thanks!”
We filled our car with camping gear, two mountain bikes and plenty of food. A stop at the gas station severely drained our bank account. For a harbinger of things to come, my brother Howard visited Europe for three weeks in a rented car. He said the most pain came from filling up his 12 gallon gas tank at a cost of $110.00 each day.
Sandi and I quickly sped westward over Loveland and Vail Passes. Snow covered the high country in a white blanket. We cruised through the spaciously beautiful Glenwood Canyon heading into Glenwood Springs. A quick stop at the Diner on Main Street allowed us strawberry milkshakes and a bit of nostalgia with Elvis posters, 57 Chevys, Marlon Brando, Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe.
Back on the road, we sped along the raging spring runoff of the Colorado River. It boiled wild and crackling with red mud plastering the river from shore to shore. To our right and left, snow capped peaks rose into the azure Colorado sky.
The further we traveled west, the mountains changed to broken gray rock with many erosion ditches draining from their peaks. In Grand Junction, huge 50 ton boulders lay along the highway. We rolled toward Fruita. At the last exit of the town, we turned left on Route 119 toward Colorado National Monument.
We gassed up again for a heart stopping, wallet grabbing financial Waterloo.
A few miles up the road, we stopped into “Dinosaur Hill” where a paleontologist named Elmer Riggs in 1911 discovered a 70 foot long, 40 ton Adaptosaur . He dug up the bones and transported them to the Chicago Museum of Natural History. At one point, Colorado enjoyed jungles with ample food supplies, but then a huge lake submerged the region in water. It dropped layers and layers of soil over the region for millions of years that covered the existing dinosaurs. Later, as the lake declined, erosion again broke down the multiple layers of sediment to reveal the skeletons of the big critters.
“That’s one big dinosaur,” said Sandi. “It says here that Riggs cut six tons of bones out of the sediment and put them on a train to Chicago.”
As we stood at the top of Dinosaur Hill, we looked south to Colorado National Monument with its stunning red and tan—layered mountain vistas. In a word: mesmerizing!
“Those are such beautiful cliffs,” said Sandi. “I love the colors.”
“It looks like a huge wall almost like a curtain of colors,” I said.
We drove up the road until we turned into the monument. A park ranger gave us a map to find our camping mates. We drove through Juniper and Pinion trees. Cactus greeted us at every turn. Blazing red/tan rocks reflected the sunshine playing on the mountain peaks. We drove up a slowly ascending road which formed a giant horseshoe as it climbed toward the plateau.
On our left, we stopped to take a picture of a “Balanced Rock” that seemingly defied gravity as all 50 tons of it perched on a tiny platform about 200 feet above us. The magic of erosion cut that rock out of the cliffs, but one day, it too, would become rubble on the canyon floor.
We continued on Rim Rock Drive until we passed through three tunnels. We looked down to see the canyon floor below us. Bicyclists cranked up the road in front and behind us. We looked forward to riding our bikes, too.
All around us, Mother Nature had sculptured massive monoliths, caves, caverns and bridges. We passed many landmarks, Otto’s Trail and soaring hawks playing on the soft breezes near the cliffs. Slowly, we reached the top and drove toward the campgrounds.
We pulled into sites 24 and 25 to meet Reg, Tom, Marie, Mary, Marty and Mel already enjoying their camp chairs after a good hike.
“Great to see you made it,” Reg said. “You’re just in time for dinner.”
“Looks like you all enjoyed a great hike,” I said.
“We sure did,” Mary said.
We grabbed our gear and set up our tent. We pulled out some food and set up our chairs. A lot of hot food steamed on the cooking stoves.
After dinner, a guy walked by, “We’re having a flutist playing old Indian songs at 7:00 p.m. if you all would care to come to the amphitheater. It’s only a 10 minute walk from here. He’s really good.”
“We’ll be there,” Reg said.
As we sat there, Reg asked me to tell my story about Bob Wieland, the only man to walk across America on his hands. Everybody got a kick out of the tale. From my cycle travels, I’ve met guys walking across America, unicycling, running and pulling a wagon. One guy pulled his own coffin. It’s amazing that I didn’t see Forrest Gump running across America!
At 7:00 p.m., we walked over to the amphitheater where a tall, gray-haired, lean man had set up a table with seven flutes. He also featured Indian leather shirts and bead work. He welcomed the audience of 70 and began to play his flute.
John Otto, in 1907, said, “I came 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.”
Otto married a high society German lady, but after two weeks, she abandoned Otto for being too willing to live in a tent without any of the comforts of home. She traveled back to Boston, Massachusetts.
While the flutist hypnotized everyone in the crowd, the sun sank into the western sky. His music played with a gentle breeze carrying his notes into the evening air. Between each piece, he changed flutes and explained each song that he had written. His humor brought laughter and his music brought peace. Many people closed their eyes and seemed to be cradled within the music.
Afterwards, Sandi and I climbed up to the highest rock and watched the final setting of the sun as it sank below the desert floor. We walked back to our tent and curled into our sleeping bags.
But Mother Nature did not allow us to enjoy a peaceful sleep. Boreas, the “The Unruly Wind God” decided to blast us out of our quiet surroundings. All night, the wind ripped at our tent poles and tore at our tent pegs. Red dust accumulated on the floor and settled onto our bags.
By the next morning, “I felt like I got run over by a train,” said Sandi. “That wind never quit all night. It’s still blowing. I’m ready for a nap.”
Everyone cooked up a nice breakfast and prepared their packs. Several of our party would start on the high plateau and hike down while several of us would travel to another trailhead and hike up.
Reg drove five of us to the lower entrance to the trailhead. The monument rises 2,000 feet above the Grand Valley of the Colorado River. It’s situated at the edge of the Uncompahgre Uplift. It features bighorn sheep, ravens, coyote, mountain lions, canyon wrens, lizards, rattlesnakes, Indian paintbrush and fishhook cactus.
We climbed up the Monument Canyon Trail. We took pictures at the information board. A stiff wind, perhaps 30 miles per hour pummeled us. At times, it tore at our clothing in gusts over 40 miles per hour.
Nonetheless, we trekked forward into magnificent canyon beauty. Ahead we saw layers and layers of beautiful sedimentary rock walls, cliffs and blue sky. We watched every footfall to maintain our balance. We noticed vivid reds, purples, oranges, topaz and browns in the cliff rocks. Chipmunks scurried across our paths on their way to who knows where.
“How many hearts with warm red blood in them are beating under cover of the woods, and how many teeth and eyes are shining! A multitude of animal people, intimately related to us, but whose lives we know almost nothing, are as busy about their own affairs as we are about ours.” John Muir, 1869
At one point, we walked under a protected area where a Golden eagle nest rested on a cliff ledge 150 feet above our trail. A park ranger warned us to maintain silence so as to not disturb the two chicks and their mother. We also noticed swallows flying and chirping near the cliff walls. In the distance, 500 foot spires pierced the sky. Rugged, clean, raw, wilderness!
We passed near some “Kissing cousins” rock formation and finally reached Independence Monument that towered 450 feet above us. Little did we know that two climbers had embarked on their vertical wall climb at day break. Later, as we came back, they summitted the rock. We applauded them.
We kept pushing against the wind until we reached a valley that led us down into quiet creek bed where we broke out lunch. We sat among orange, red, purple, white and pink desert flowers. A few prickly pear cacti sprouted red flowers. Dead, twisted Pinion trees stood defiant against the desert backdrop. Lunch never tasted so good.
Thoreau said, “We need the tonic of the wilderness, to wade sometimes in the marsh where the bitten and the meadow hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground.”
We shouldered our packs and made our way back down the trail. The wind picked up as we reached the open spaces. We cheered the folks that summitted the top of Independence Monument. We passed under the eagle’s nest, but didn’t see the chicks or the mother eagle. Later, we saw another couple rock climbing another vertical wall.
Back at the trailhead, we piled into Reg’s SUV. Great feeling to have enjoyed so much wilderness. Sandi and I made a vow to return to that magical area for more hikes and to ride our bicycles along the plateau.
We reached camp and set up dinner. Because of the blasting Boreas temper tantrums, we piled into Tom and Marie’s camper. We ate, laughed and shared stories.
Reg told a wild bear story from up in Alaska that caught everyone’s attention. It’s amazing how a grizzly bear escapade will catch your emotions. He related how his crew had hung three duffel food bags on a rack while on a fishing trip out in the middle of nowhere, but not high enough, so in the morning, a bear had ripped them into pieces. We could feel the bear’s presence in his animation and eyes. While it’s great to have lived through such episodes in the wilds, it can get very terrifying to live through the moment.
“Bears are made of the same dust as we, and breathe the same winds and drink the same waters. A bear’s days are warmed by the same sun, his dwellings are overdomed by the same blue sky, and his life turns and ebbs with heart-pulsings like ours, and was poured from the same First Foundation. And whether he at least goes to our stingy heaven or no, he has terrestrial immortality. His life not long, not short, knows no beginning, no ending. To him life unstinted, unplanned, is above the accidents of time, and his years, markless and boundless, equal Eternity.” John Muir 1871
As we sat there, everyone enjoyed cookies, drinks and laughter. Such fellowship makes life a great adventure. Everyone brought a bright spirit to the party. Everyone enjoyed their hike in the wild. Life in the wilderness at Colorado National Monument doesn’t get any better than that.
Next morning, Sandi and I arose at dawn for our trip back home. We carried gracious memories and wondrous pictures. As we sped into eastbound traffic, we looked back at the magic of those colorful mountains. We would come back!
Californian John Muir the great original ecologist said, “Tell me what you will of the benefactions of city civilization, of the sweet security of streets—all as part of the natural up-growth of man towards the high destiny we hear so much about. I know that our bodies were made to thrive only in pure air, and the scenes in which pure air is found. If death exhalations that brood the broad towns in which we so fondly compact ourselves were made visible, we should flee as from a plague. All are more or less sick; there is not a perfectly sane man in all of San Francisco.”
For information on camping, backpacking, bicycling and visiting Colorado National Monument: www.nps.gov/colm
Red Desert By Guy Lebeda
Let me die outdoors, out here,
So the last sound I hear is not,
The lonely drone of untended machines
Or an electric hum of conditioned air,
Let it be the meadowlark’s song,
Or the rush of wind through buffalo grass.
Let me die outdoors, out here,
So the last image in my eyes,
Is not the white wall of a sterile room,
Or the stare of a heart monitor,
Let it be the mountains hanging on,
The horizon like a watercolor.
Let me die outdoors, out here
So my last breath will not float.
To a cracked plaster ceiling,
Or hang in the blue-white fluorescent light,
Let it be free to rise into a huge sky,
And mingle with the scent of gray sage.