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A Geological Tour Of Colorado National Monument

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It's rare to have a national monument in your backyard, but that's what my hosts in Grand Junction say they have, and they love it.

The 32-square mile Colorado National Monument sits on a ridge at 2,000 feet on the southwest side of Grand Valley in Mesa County where the towns of Grand Junction, Fruita and Palisade lie on the Western Slope. 

This wide semi-desert expanse of the Colorado Plateau with its pinyon pines and junipers, bighorn sheep, golden eagles, ravens, jays, coyotes, mountain lion and collared lizards, was dedicated in 1911 by President Howard Taft because of its "extraordinary examples of erosion."  What has been left after millions of years are exposures of colorful, gently-dipping sediments that have been differentially eroded to form high plateaus, bold escarpments and deep canyons. 

"It is like a magical kingdom," said my friend, Bobbie Hutchison.

"It's great for hiking and biking," said her spouse, Martin Stafford, who pointed out several trails he had already taken over the past six years since the couple moved to "the Junction" from Michigan. 

I had never heard of the Colorado National Monument, yet I instantly recognized Independence Monument, the park's most famous and tallest free-standing monolith featured in the Chevrolet commercial where an SUV is helicoptered to the top of the 450-foot sandstone structure.

Each year the National Park Service (NPS) celebrates the Fourth of July with a climb to the top of Independence Monument to raise the American flag. This tradition was started 101 years ago by the legendary John Otto (1870-1952) who dedicated 20 years of his life lobbying to designate the red canyons and the Grand Mesa, the largest in the world, as a national park.

Like Otto and my friends, I was also captivated by the Monument's beauty. Each rock formation is different, and they all left me with open-mouthed awe at both the time and relentless energy it took water, ice, wind, summer thunderstorms and heat to build the colorful spires, domes and steep canyon walls. 

The Monument is truly a miraculous sight to behold, and the NPS does an excellent job of welcoming, inspiring and educating visitors -- Americans and internationals alike -- to continue their support for these protected lands. 

The spectacular landscape is a gaze downward thanks to the 23-mile-long Rim Rock Drive with its 19 scenic overlooks and two tunnels. Construction on the road began in 1931 and was completed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Local Experienced Men. 

Because the Monument was so remote, the roadway greatly helped increase attendance from 20,000 in 1937 to 430,000 today. The first roadway, the Serpent's Trail, was built by John Otto between 1912-24. Its four miles included 52 switchbacks. 

Otto first came to this area in 1906 and after living here for a year, he wrote:

"I came here last year and found these canyons, and they feel like the heart of the world to me. I'm going to stay and build trails and promote this place, because it should be a national park."

He worked tirelessly with the communities of Grand Junction and Fruita to protect the land by spearheading fundraising campaigns, collecting signatures for petitions and penning newspaper editorials and endless letters to Washington politicians. He also conducted tours of the area, built the first trails and chiseled handholds for climbing the Wingate sandstone walls. He climbed and named various monoliths and planted the American flag from their highest vantage points.

Otto even held his marriage to Boston artist Beatrice Farnham at the base of Independence Monument. However, his fervor, and some would say his insanity in pursuing his vision, short-circuited that relationship after only a few weeks.

"I tried hard to live his way," said Farnham. "But I could not do it, I could not live with a man to whom even a cabin was an encumbrance."

Otto's passion to preserve the wilderness lands of the Monument was focused on availing other people to "see this scenery." In this he could not help himself -- and we are the lucky ones for it!

Otto lived during the conservationist era of John Muir (1838-1914), another fervent naturalist who promoted and inspired others to set aside certain natural lands for people to enjoy in perpetuity. Through his writings, Muir, son of an itinerant Presbyterian minister, articulated the spiritual connection to nature and believed that mankind is just one part of an interconnected natural world, not its master. God, he believed, was revealed through nature. 

To preach his "gospel of nature" Muir championed the establishment of the national parks through the Theodore Roosevelt administration, which according to filmmaker Ken Burns, was "America's Best Idea."

It was obvious to me that the Colorado National Monument fits Muir's conception of the spiritual in nature. History bears this out as well. The Ute who inhabited these lands since 1500 concocted myths and legends about the Mesa, the most popular being that of the Thunderbird and the Serpent. A hieroglyph is highlighted by snow in winter on Craig's Crest, the north edge of the Grand Mesa above the town of Palisade. The white shale makes it visible in summer.

According to one account, the Ute believed that great Thunderbirds ruled the skies and lived atop the Grand Mesa. One day the great birds attacked the Ute village and carried children to their nest on the Mesa's edge. The fiercest warrior disguised himself as a tree and climbed the Mesa to get to the nest, but he discovered that the children had been eaten. In vengeance, the warrior threw the Thunderbird eggs over the Mesa's edge to the valley below.

The Thunderbirds returned to find an empty nest and that their offspring had been swallowed by a giant serpent in the valley (presumably the Colorado River). The great birds screeched down and clinched the giant serpent with their huge talons and lifted it high over the Grand Mesa. In a raging storm the birds ripped the serpent apart hurling electrified pieces to the forest below, thus creating the huge scars on the Mesa's previously smooth flat top. The storm raged and the gouges were filled with sorrowful tears from the birds' loss of their offspring, which formed the many lakes of the Grand Mesa.

One of the Ute names for the Grand Mesa roughly translates to "Land of the Departed Spirits." The Ute ritually suspended their honored dead high in the trees for their spirits to be carried by wind into the Spirit World that exists on the Mesa. It is said that there are two strange winds that blow across the Mesa's crest: One is the Thunderbirds screeching for their lost young, and the other is the Ute warrior calling for his children.

Today, Otto's dream to make these lands a national park has taken another turn -- and it has gained national attention. Some community residents want to upgrade the park from a national monument to national park status.

A national monument is a protected area that either the President of the United States can establish by executive order or the United States Congress can by legislation. The Antiquities Act of 1906 authorizes the president to proclaim "historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures and other objects of historic or scientific interest" as national monuments. 

An upgraded national park designation needs congressional approval to take effect. Currently, there are 101 national monuments and 58 national parks. 

To explore the possibility of this change, last June U.S. Senator Mark Udall and U.S. Representative Scott Tipton, both of Colorado, appointed the Colorado National Monument/Park Study Committee, a 16-member state-funded research group.

The committee found the that the Monument meets the criteria for national park designation, but that 40 percent of residents want national park status, 40 percent are against it and 20 percent just don't care, according to a recent story in the Grand Junction Free Press

Some people see the upgrade as an opportunity to enhance economic development in the area, and they are supported by many chambers of commerce who contend that "national park" status carries much more cachet when it comes to tourists.  

Other people are more worried about traffic congestion, access issues, water rights, air quality standards and more unwanted entanglement with the federal government should the upgrade take place. 

Time will tell what happens. Meanwhile, life will go on at the Monument, especially since it is already part of the NPS system.

Biking, camping, hiking (short trails and backcountry trails), rock climbing, picnicking are available to those who want to spend a day or more. Guided walks and porch talks are offered daily throughout the summer. Topics include geology, ecology and history. For more information, contact the Visitor Center:  

For more information on the geology of the area, see NPS Geology Fieldnotes.

Shapes 
Erosion produces unusual shapes on the landscape and can lead the imagination to see more familiar images. Here are the more prominent places in the Monument that have been given names.

"Praying Hands" is a vertical sandstone fin resembling praying hands overlooking Columbus Canyon.

"The Coke Ovens" (formerly called "Haystacks" by Otto) were named by the CCC in the 1930s.  They represent an urban, industrial perspective while Otto saw them from an agricultural perspective. As the protective Kayenta Formation erodes from the ridge, the softer Wingate Formation beneath it is exposed.

Each year the Colorado National Monument commemorates the Fourth of July by raising the American flag on the top of "Independence Monument," the tallest free-standing rock formation in the park. This tradition was started 101 years ago by the legendary John Otto. Mesa County's Technical Search and Rescue Team continues this tradition.

"Window Rock" (formerly named "Needle's Eye" by Otto) is a natural widening crack in the Wingate sandstone formed by pounding erosive forces. The formation stands on a ledge of Kayenta Sandstone, a more resistant form of this sedimentary rock.

Colors and Features
The browns, yellows, blues and greens in the rocks are minerals found in the clay mudstones. Reds come from clear quartz grains that come from a thin coating of iron oxide on each grain. In some areas percolating water has dissolved the coating leaving the sandstone pale and bleached. Lichens are composite organisms made up of fungi and cyanobacteria (green algae) living symbiotically. The fungi partner spreads across the rock thus providing a stable, moist environment for the cyanobacteria, which then produces nutrients through photosynthesis.

The dark brown "desert varnish" comes from a thin coating of concentrated iron and manganese compounds and clays that color rock surfaces over thousands of years. Long black streaks in the rock occur as dissolved chemicals carried in the water seep over the rock. White coloration comes from the groundwater that deposits calcite.

Potholes are naturally occurring basins in sandstone that collect rainwater and wind-blown sediment. These potholes harbor organisms that are able to survive long periods of dehydration. They also serve as a breeding ground for many high desert amphibians and insects. Both of these communities are very vulnerable to human impacts.

The bumpy, knobby and sometimes dark soil along the trails is biological soil crust. Just like a coral reef is formed over time by lots of small organisms living together, soil crust is formed the same way. Moss, lichen, green algae, cyanobacteria and microfungi all work together to hold sand grains in place and create an environment where seeds can grow. Biological soil crust is extremely slow growing; a footprint can erase decades of growth. Visitors are asked to help protect biological soil crust by staying on established trails.

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