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Wandering the West

These are the final weeks to explore southern Utah’s red-rock deserts before the heat sets in and chases us back into the high country. If you’ve crawled around the Colorado Plateau’s best scenery in Utah, maybe its time to move a little bit east.

While it’s called the "Colorado" Plateau, most of it is in Utah and Arizona. The name has more to do with the Colorado River, which drains the plateau, than with a political boundary.

But that’s not to say there isn’t some worthwhile southern Utah canyon country that is within the confines of our fine neighbors to the east. Colorado National Monument, which rises a few miles south of Fruita and west of Grand Junction, looks like a piece of Capital Reef, or Monument Valley, or the Grand Staircase transplanted into Colorado. It’s really the best place in that state to see red-rock canyon country, with tall freestanding pillars of red sandstone and sheer walls of red rock under a blue Colorado sky.

This Saturday, May 21, the monument celebrates its centennial. It was a hundred years ago that President Taft listened to local promoters like John Otto who thought the place was among the grandest in the fledgling national park system. Otto spent years hand-building trails into the once-remote area and promoting it as a destination. For his hard work, Otto became the first park ranger lord of the domain. On Saturday at 11 a.m. at the Visitor Center, an Otto impersonator will join Colorado Senator Mark Udall, Ute elder Clifford Duncan and the Grand Junction Symphony in a grand celebration.

Probably the biggest day to celebrate in the monument’s history was the completion of Rim Rock Drive. The 23-mile drive from the valley floor to the rim rock, 1,950 feet higher, was build during the Depression by members of the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC boys would otherwise have been unemployed, but FDR’s New Deal paid them $25 a month for the backbreaking work they did, all by hand. (And of the $25, the rules required that $20 be sent home each month to support the rest of the family.) The CCC-built road had three tunnels and was blasted into the sides of steep cliffs. Nine CCC boys were killed in one massive rockslide.

The result today is a spectacular drive from the desert floor into a pinion and juniper forest where bighorn sheep can occasionally be spotted. Watch for golden eagles catching thermals rising from the valley to the edges of the rim and look for colorful collared lizards. These fast little critters have aqua-blue bodies and yellow-gold heads. The reward at the top of the drive is a spectacular view of the immediate monument and, beyond, all of Grand Valley.

This can be a windshield park, seen in an hour’s drive. But hop out and dig deeper if you have the chance. Fourteen hiking trails, some of them John Otto’s handiwork, lead into narrow canyons or to the tops of pinnacles like Independence Monument. The 450-foot-vertical climb is a local tradition on the 4th of July, when hundreds of hikers sweat their way to the top to plant an American flag. Rim Rock Road and the connecting valley roads make for great biking as well. Circle August 28 on your calendar if you want to cycle Rim Rock Road car-free. That day, motorized traffic is banned and cyclists take over the blacktop.

Wind, rain and freeze-thaw cycles eroded the plateau’s valleys, just like in the rest of canyon country. When you look bottom to top you’re seeing half of the earth’s four-billion-year-old history. With Grand Junction so close, there are no real services in the monument, but there is an 80-site campground that’s first-come first-served.

John Otto had a good idea to hang around this country and lobby for national recognition. Saturday marks the 100th anniversary of his considerable success.

Writer, filmmaker and author Larry Warren has made the West his beat for the past three decades. He is the general manager of KPCW.

THE VITALS:

Park City to Fruita: 280 miles

Halfway stop for burgers and beer: Ray’s Tavern, Green River

Website: http://www.nps.gov/colm/


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