COLORADO NATIONAL MONUMENT, Colo. — Just off Interstate 70 in western Colorado is a 32-square-mile collection of towering red-stone monoliths, deep canyons and a road that cuts through nearly 2 billion years of geology.
Colorado National Monument might not get the attention of its better-known neighbors in Utah’s canyon lands. But it’s increasingly popular with cyclists, runners, rock climbers and cross-country skiers, and there’s growing interest in getting Congress to declare the monument a national park as it approaches its 100th anniversary. It was proclaimed a national monument May 24, 1911.
The centennial-year celebration kicks off New Year’s Eve in the park with fireworks, and U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., has begun soliciting public comment on the national park idea.
“Our name has been a challenge,” says Michelle Wheatley, chief of interpretation and visitor services. “Because it has ‘Colorado’ in it and it’s a monument, people a lot of times think we’re just a marker on the road.”
Far from it.
The “pocket-size Grand Canyon,” as Superintendent Joan Anzelmo calls it, is on the doorstep of Grand Junction, the region’s largest city. The Colorado River flows north of the carved landscape that is part of the Colorado Plateau, which stretches into four states — Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.
Entering the monument’s west entrance near the town of Fruita, what appear to be typical high mesas from the interstate turns into an eye-opening drive up a two-lane road, full of switchbacks and anchored by sheer rock cliffs. The 4-mile-long Fruita Canyon includes Balanced Rock, a 600-ton mass atop a narrow stone pedestal.
Higher up, heading toward the visitor center, the view expands to take in one of the Colorado Plateau’s last and oldest pinon-pine and juniper forests. Their green pops out against the reds and tans of the rocks.
Visitors can see sweeping canyons and rock formations, the product of cycles of thrusting earth and erosion, with names like Independence Monument, Cleopatra’s Couch, Otto’s Bathtub, Squatting Monkey, the Coke Ovens and the Kissing Couple.
At the visitor center, recently discovered fossilized footprints of turtles, lizards and a dinosaur, all roughly 150 million years old, are on display through Dec. 31. Petroglyphs and archaeological sites have helped document people’s presence in the region about 10,000 years back.
The monument’s 23-mile Rim Rock Drive is an attraction in itself. “It was carved practically out of air,” Anzelmo says of the road-cum-time machine whose construction revealed rock between 150 million and roughly 1.7 billion years old.
Monument founder John Otto, a miner bewitched with the area, started blazing the path by building trails himself in the early 1900s. In the 1930s, workers with the Civilian Conservation Corps and other agencies chiseled Rim Rock Drive from cliffsides and dug three tunnels. Nine workers died in a rock slide just before Christmas 1933.
There’s little room for mistakes when negotiating the road’s twists and turns amid 500-foot drop-offs. But the turnouts along Rim Rock Drive provide better views of Monument Canyon, the Coke Ovens and Ute Canyon. And this winter, about 14 miles of the interior road will be closed to vehicles and won’t be plowed — a bonanza for cross-country skiers and snowshoers.
To see even more, there are 43 miles of maintained trails and more primitive paths, along with campgrounds and backcountry camping. Canyon Rim and Window Rock are accessible from the road and are easygoing short walks running a quarter to a half mile.
Alcove Nature Trail, near the visitor center, is a one-mile round trip that’s good for families. Otto’s and Coke Ovens trails, accessible from the visitor center, are considered easy and take about a half hour.
Longer, more ambitious hikes include Serpent’s Trail, steep and 1.75 miles one way. It has 16 switchbacks and was part of the main road until 1950.
The six-mile Monument Canyon Trail can be reached from the top or bottom of the canyon and has the monument’s largest concentrations of freestanding rocks, Wheatley said. Hikers are likely to see bighorn sheep, golden eagles and other wildlife.
Many people hike the roughly 2.5 miles through Monument Canyon to Independence Monument, a 450-foot remnant of a wall that once separated two canyons and is 5,739 feet in elevation. Otto started a tradition of climbing the rock and planting a U.S. flag on top every Fourth of July.
The seven-mile Liberty Cap Trail climbs steeply for two miles from a valley floor to a huge bell-shaped rock, then winds across Monument Mesa through trees and sagebrush. The view into Ute Canyon is worth the sweat, Wheatley said.
A growing number of the monument’s 720,000 annual visitors see the sights from two wheels. Colorado National Monument was part of this year’s Denver Post Ride the Rockies bicycle tour, an annual 100-mile ride sponsored by an area hospital. The loop through the monument is 36 miles from the west entrance, or 45 miles if starting from Grand Junction.
Bryan Miick, co-owner of The Bike Shop in Grand Junction, has taken his bike to the monument since 1979. He says it’s becoming more popular among cyclists thanks in part to mountain biking in nearby Fruita.
A seven-day pass for cyclists is $4, compared with $7 for private vehicles. Cyclists must have lights on the front and rear of their bikes inside the tunnels and should be aware of commercial traffic along the eastern four miles of Rim Rock Drive near the community of Glade Park.
Anzelmo encourages the public to join the monument’s 100th birthday celebration, starting with a fireworks display on New Year’s Eve.
In April, the Park Service will dedicate Ute Canyon to the Ute Indians who lived and hunted in the area before being forced onto reservations.