I was standing at the end of a finger-shaped plateau, looking out onto drops of more than a thousand feet in every direction except the one from which I had come. The only other life form on the plateau was a lizard enjoying the morning sun. A slight breeze was blowing, and the echo of the wind off the cliffs was the only sound. Floating on the wind above me was a raven or a magpie, perhaps eying my lizard companion for breakfast.
This is Colorado National Monument, a 32 square mile area of plateau and canyons in western Colorado, carved by wind and water over the course of millions of years. The different erosion rates of sandstone, shale, and other sediments have resulted in the creation of canyons as deep as 2000 feet, exposing brilliant multicolored cliff walls.
As I stood on the rim I was overwhelmed by nature’s dwarfing of human time scales. The slow, steady erosion continues, yet a lifetime is too short to see any significant changes in the landscape. Indeed, except for the hiking trails the area looks much the same as it did when the monument was first established nearly 100 years ago.
An eccentric loner named John Otto was the first to discover the beauty of these canyons. Otto had arrived in Grand Junction in the early 20th century, a drifter looking for odd jobs. His passion was exploring the wilderness, particularly the area then known as Monument Park country. Locals believed the area to be inaccessible to humans. Otto, though, saw potential for the place. The locals, in turn, thought Otto was crazy.
Otto did, in fact, have a history of mental instability. In 1903, he had been arrested in Denver after breaking into the Governor’s office armed with a candlestick. The governor was out of town at the time, and no harm was done. The governor declined to prosecute, suggesting that Otto belonged in an insane asylum rather than a prison. Otto left town after being released from custody, and never returned to Denver nor involved himself in state politics again. He was next seen in Grand Junction around 1906 or 1907.
Shortly after discovering the nearby Monument Park, Otto began building trails on the plateau and into the canyons. He would disappear from civilization for weeks or months at a time, reappearing only when he needed more supplies. Few people took notice at first, but eventually word spread in Fruita and Grand Junction that this inaccessible wilderness was being made accessible.
In 1909 Grand Junction’s Chamber of Commerce sent a group to “make a thorough investigation.” They returned praising both Otto and the canyons. The local newspaper proclaimed this area a “Beauty Paradise” and began lobbying Congress to make the place a National Park. A year later, Congress designated the area Colorado National Monument. John Otto was hired as the first park ranger, drawing a salary of $1 per month. He continued building trails and living in a tent at the monument for the next sixteen years.
Today there are more than 50 miles of trails providing a wide variety of hiking experiences. Most of these are easily accessible from Rim Rock Drive, a 23 mile paved highway skirting the edge of the plateau.
On a weekend hiking getaway, I tried a sample of what Colorado National Monument has to offer.
Ute Canyon Trail offers a moderate descent from the rim to the canyon floor. I walked partway down and found a rock, where I sat and contemplated the portrait of a million years on the opposite cliff wall. The air was still. I saw not another living soul. The desert sun blazed overhead, warning me not to overexert. The stresses of life evaporated in the heat. I had nothing to worry about, except perhaps death by dehydration. I drank a half liter of water and returned to the rim.
Liberty Cap Trail makes a fine contrast. From the road, the trail leads through a desert forest on top of the plateau before beginning its descent. Though few trees can survive in this arid land, the pinyon pine and the Utah juniper manage to make a living here.
I entered the forest. The trees were barely taller than me. The aroma of pinyon and juniper hung heavy in the still air and permeated my nostrils like a smokeless incense. If Ute Canyon Trail had depleted my stress, Liberty Cap Trail was filling me with a deep sense of peace. Like John Otto, I could be happy living here.
Unfortunately, I had to return home to another state. But before leaving the Monument, I stopped the car at the last parking area, at the trailhead for the Devil’s Kitchen Trail.
The Devil’s Kitchen, according to the National Park Service brochure, is “a natural grotto surrounded by upright boulders.” The trail from Rim Rock Drive to the Devil’s Kitchen is less than a mile, winding through canyon scrublands. Walking the trail in the middle of the day, I paused often to drink water. Once, as I stopped, I heard a rustle behind me. I turned and was just able to make out the form of a rock squirrel hiding in one of the bushes that cover the canyon floor. If he hadn’t panicked and rustled the bush, I would never have known he was there. This squirrel was the only mammal I saw in two days at the monument, aside from a handful of other hikers.
A river flows through this canyon, but on this day it was dry. It probably had not seen water for months. I followed the riverbed a little way. The river leads through No Thoroughfare Canyon, and is itself considered a backcountry trail route. My map shows two waterfalls in this river, but they probably would not look very impressive without water. I walked the riverbed for a short distance, then turned around and tried to find the original trail. I couldn’t be certain if what I eventually found was the real trail, but it would have to do. I crossed the dry river and caught the path on the other side, and followed it as far as I could. Toward the end, it didn’t look much like a trail at all. I never saw a grotto, but I did find a ledge with an upright boulder perched on it. I followed what appeared to be human-carved stairs up to the ledge. When I reached the top, I beheld a panoramic view of the canyon floor. I found a spot in the shade of the boulder, and ate a mid-afternoon snack. I could hear voices – human voices – somewhere in the canyon, but no matter where I looked I could not see anyone. The acoustics of the canyon walls played tricks on my ears, and I could not even guess the direction of the sound.
After the voices drifted away, I remained sitting for a long while, letting the time crawl around me. After a while, the boulder’s shadow moved away from me. I took this as my signal to return to the trail and try to find my way back to its beginning.
The trail somehow looked different and was easier to follow on the way back – perhaps I had just now found the real trail after following an imaginary one on the way out. At any rate, I had no trouble reaching the trailhead.
I got in my car and drove back toward Grand Junction. A part of me wasn’t ready to leave. My wilderness getaway had been all too short. Paradoxically, the time had flown while I watched it crawl.