Friday, August 29, 2014

Hiking in the Colorado National Monument

I often feel lonely in crowds, but I never feel alone in Nature.

The Colorado National Monument is a suburban National Park. The small city of Grand Junction is right at the bottom of the canyons - my Mother even lives off of "Monument Drive".

It's a great 23 mile drive. Rimrock Drive itself, blasted out by pickaxe and dynamite during the depression, is one of the main draws of the Monument. So, its a car park, like Zion and Bryce Canyon (Arches and Yellowstone require some walking). 

You drive the loop, get out at the turnouts, take some photos of your friends or relatives with the Nature in the background, buy a dinosaur book for the kids at the Visitors Center, and you are quickly back on the Interstate. Barely any dirt to kick off of your shoes.

Its an easy commute, and many residents of Grand Junction have yearly passes just so they can 'do the Monument' every so often. Its also a challenging trek for bicyclists, and Rimrock Drive has been a feature of many a bicycle race.
Click on this one. That's the road up there, going
through one small tunnel (left of center), across
a hacked-out section (note the debris field) and
then into a much longer tunnel.

When I first visited CNM this time I did the drive, and even got my sandals dirty in walking some of the 'view trails' up on the ridge. But something was missing for me.

There was quite obviously a dichotomy going on here. We were all up here, looking at Nature down there. And as a witch, I do not like my Nature to be separate. I want to be next to it, with it, IN IT.

About 1/3 of the way down the canyon. The floor of the
canyon would be a challenge too, as you can see.
So when my stay in 'Junction got extended (it's quite a fun TALE), I did several wacky adventures, including biking GLENWOOD CANYON and climbing to the summit of Mt. GARFIELD.

But the lure of walking down in the Monument was always going to be the climax of the trip.

I did some research online and it was obvious which hike was the one for me: 3.5 miles from Rimrock drive all the way to the base of Independence Monument.

I carefully parked at 5:45am and got out to smell the darkness. It had rained the night before, and it felt like there might be more coming during this Wednesday in August - Monsoon season, according to the locals.

The trail went past this solitary little knob, where
apparently the irresistable thing to do is to toss a
rock up on top of it. Yeah, I did it too.
Now an unfamiliar desert canyon is no place to be caught in a sudden downpour. But what the hell, its not like I didn't tell anybody where I was or what I was doing.

Oh. Wait. Oops.

I waited until 6am, when my eyes had adjusted to the dark and I could see the trail well enough. This first part was critical, because this was the bit that would take me down 500 feet to the bottom of the canyon.

And the trail went down and across and back and around and up and ohmyword. It was very creative, and a lot of work went into it - much like Rimrock Drive, but with less dynamite.

Down the dirt, across the rock strata, back up some sand, around some gigantic boulders, up some alluvial fan and that was just the first 1/4 mile.

Stair steps pickaxed into a car-sized chunk of granite. Wow. Just like the car road, the trail was as impressive as the scenery. Well, not really: The scenery was breathtaking.

And there are several reasons why I like hiking at dawn:
  • Empty tollbooths
  • Easy Parking
  • No crowds - as in NO ONE
  • No glare
  • The day isn't hot yet
  • Active animalia
  • Rest of the day to do other fun things
  • Total nap justification

But maybe the biggest reason is purely aesthetic: The light is perfect at dawn. Almost every 'postcard shot' you've ever seen, of any natural structure, was taken at the butt crack of dawn by some shivering, hungover photographer in a big jacket.

Weird, cool rocks down on the canyon floor.
And I was totally where I wanted to be: IN Nature. The beautiful, smooth sun-kissed expanses of rock were right there for me to admire, without using a tele-photo lens.

I could hear a small, finch-type bird singing, and up above there was a crow whose caw was echoing across the canyon I was in. There was no wind yet, and so those were the only sounds. On the videos I took with sound you can clearly hear every time my $10.00 sneakers move as I panned my phone around me.


The air smelled like recent rain. Crisp and clean.

The trail zigzagged and dog-legged all over the end of the canyon. It was downright humorous as it used every trick in the surveyors book to get me safely down a few more feet in relative safety.

The floor of the canyon wasn't flat however, and so the trail continue convoluting this way and that, crossing and re-crossing various streams, culverts, washes and small arroyos. All of them dry - water does not hang around long in high-desert conditions.

Extreme close-up, just like I like 'em.
At times it was hard to tell the trail from a streambed. But I soon figured out that at each juncture there would be a small pile of stones, and at the other side, where the trail picked up - another 3 foot tower of rocks. Together they formed visual, virtual bridges across all of the water run-off places.

Mile two brought a slow, twisty left hand turn out into the trunk of the canyon system. The nearest wall, to my left, was the one with the serious scenery, and impending dawn over the far canyon wall give me some great light to work with.

About 2.5 miles in was where I found a flat rock just off the trail and I took a

Cloud porn, but that ain't a happy ending
lurking over that horizon.
slow, panoramic video of the sun just coming over the East wall, and the moon setting over the Western wall. That, and the proximity of an isolated, 500ft. tower of stone combined to give me the biggest energy 'feel' of the day.

I felt.....timeless. All Time. Ancient and yet so very much alive. I said my thanks and gave blessings to the Gods I keep. It was definitely a time of prayer.

I resumed walking, up and down and around as I worked my way down the main avenue of these canyons. The walls around me were literal piles of history:
  • The oldest igneous and metamorphic rocks were more than 1.5 billion years old. This goes back to the Pre-Cambrian era, when life was just beginning to twitch on this planet.
  • Basalt and other sedimentary rocks on top of that, a mere 1 billion years
    On the right you can see the the scraggly little trail I was on.
  • Bands of fossil snails from when this was the coast of the WesternInterior Seaway.
  • Next up was Limestone from the late Paleozoic era, 250 Million years ago, when the invertebrates were first flexing their new backbones.
  • From there various seas washed up and down this part of the world, depositing levels of sandstone, oil, shale, siltstone and dinosaur bones.
  • The Pleistocene era (2 million years ago to basically yesterday), brought ice ages, glaciation, seismic thrusting, and beautiful, rapturous erosion.
  • And that washed out all the 'easy stuff', leaving behind these glorious canyons as mute, physical timelines of our Earth's history.

Leave it to the Geologic timescale to make me feel young again.

Independence Monument (best side)
At mile three the sun broke over the Eastern Wall, and the day warmed up. I was still half in shadow though as I wove in and out of some side Canyons.

The goal, at 3.5 miles, was Independence Monument, the lonely spire you see in most of the photos of the Colorado National Monument. Except I was kinda unsure about both of those things.
  1. I was pretty close to the 3.5 mile mark (by my internal 5K pedometer), and not near anything remotely remote.
  2. The one structure ahead that was alone (and hence, "Independent" I guess), was a wall, not a spire.

My ground shot of the 'fat side' of Independence
Monument. So you can see where
I might be confused.
Where was my goal? I didn't bring a map or a brochure or anything, and believe me everything looks completely different when you are up close to it. My smart phone just threw up its little, digital hands and gave up trying to find any bars out here in Ancient History Arroyo.

And there was a third, more important factor weighing down right then:

   3.  Dark clouds on the horizon. And I know that out here on the Western shore of the Midwest, weather can move in very fast.

Climbing back up the 500ft canyon wall,
in the heat and the glare. 
I snapped a quick picture of the 'fin' - which turned out to be Independence Monument after all. (I was seeing it from its 'fat side'.) I turned on my phone's pedometer function, and hightailed it back the way I had come.

This was familiar territory now, but with the hot sun beating down there was a fun new reason to pay attention to the trail: Snakes. Just coming out of their dens to warm up. I encountered several pissed off slithers as I rounded various corners. The couple I did catch sight of were gopher and ring neck cuties. No diamondbacks, thank the Gods.

(I recorded the 10 second video above from the door of my motel room a few days before this hike, but its representative of the mini-monsoons that grace this biome in High Summer.)

The climb back out of the first canyon was easier than I thought it was going to be. The long trail here made the ascent pretty gradual, and I had the worsening weather on my tail to keep me focused and motivated.

TIme to skedaddle!
I met a few other hikers for the first time, and they looked a little strangely at the grinning, dusty, sweat-stained old man who was coming out of the wilderness at 9am. Bwa-ha-ha!

I topped out at around 10am, so a four hour hike, with only a few minutes rest. My pedometer registered 4.12 miles (one way) and I was not really close to Independence Monument when I turned it on, so I think the Parks Service needs to recalibrate this hike up to 5 miles.

I took a few more photos topside, back to doing the standard touristy protocol. Back in Fruita I ordered the entire breakfast menu at Taco Bell, and the rain began as I took I-70 back into Grand Junction.

Close escape, but I made it out.
Just in time.


I often feel lonely in crowds, but I never feel alone in Nature. And this time, All Time was with me for this wondrous trek.

Angus McMahan


  1. Thanks for this. Probably the nearest I'll ever get to being there. Spectacular photos! My tablet won't play the videos, but I'm wondering if the panoramic sunrise-moonset one is included.

    1. It is. Its the second video, back up a ways.