Musings From Colorado National Monument

Whether you call it a national "park" or a national "monument," Colorado National Monument in western Colorado is a fascinating place. Lee Dalton photo.

There is one good word that can sum up the first impression of Colorado National Monument. Wow!

This monument is perched – literally – on the edge of the Uncompaghre Plateau about 1,500 feet above the Colorado River and the towns of Fruita and Grand Junction, Colorado.

If the folks in Zion National Park think they have switchbacks, they need come take a look at the road leading up to this place in Western Colorado. One of the first things you learn about this monument is the story of the Civilian Conservation Corps workers who carved the road out of sandstone cliffs back in the dark days of the Great Depression.

A four-mile uphill climb from the west entrance station along the edges of towering cliffs of red Wingate sandstone leads you to the visitor center and Saddlehorn Campground. I found a shaded spot in site 42 that looks directly down on the city of Fruita. About 15 miles north across the valley the Book Cliffs stand in sharp relief against the horizon – or at least they usually do. Smoke from lingering fires in the west were masking the cliffs when I arrived.

Evening brought a strange kind of magic to the view across the valley as city lights below began sparking on one by one. When black night finally fell, the city below showed like gems on black velvet while above the sky was still dark enough to allow myriad stars to sparkle. The Big Dipper lay right side up and pointed as usual to Polaris. The night was windless and still.

That allowed city noises to rise from the valley in a chorus that provided muted contrast to the wild places preserved by the monument. Throughout the night, a serenade of rumbling railroad cars and mighty locomotive horns echoed. Not loud enough to be disturbing, but still loud enough to provide a strange counterpoint to the stillness of the campground.

In a way, visiting Colorado NM is frustrating. It’s a place where you’ll need a designated driver if you want to see the park as you drive. It’s definitely not a place to try to drive and view scenery at the same time.

Campgrounds

Saddlehorn Campground is so well maintained that when I first pulled into it, I thought it was brand new. Campsites are widely spaced and shaded – at least a bit – by pinyon and juniper. It’s immaculate. All the picnic tables appear to be new. No wood fires are permitted. Charcoal grates are provided and charcoal may be purchased from the camp host.

It took a while, but I suddenly began to realize that perhaps one of the reasons the camp’s appearance is so good is that there are no trash-filled fire rings dotting the landscape. Campground trees have not been decimated by campers ignoring prohibitions on gathering firewood.

The restrooms appeared to be newly constructed, but when I had a chance to talk with a maintenance worker (who happens to also work as a seasonal ranger for part of his year) he assured me that they were just renovated about five years ago. When I told him I was impressed by their condition, he remarked, “Well, we try hard.”

As I began exploring other parts of the park, that “We try hard” attitude came through loud and clear.

Interpretation

The visitor center is not far from the campground, and when I got over there I found a small building with completely new interpretive displays. Many of the exhibits are interactive, but only a few are electronic gadgets that so often wear OUT OF ORDER signs. I particularly enjoyed the dynamite detonator that visitors must push. (But you’ll have to visit the park to find out for yourself what that means. I’m not gonna tell.)

One of the things that struck me about the new exhibits is the inclusion of quite a bit of material about the Ute tribe that once made this land their home.

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The Grand Valley unspreads beneath the monument's redrock. Lee Dalton photo.

It’s great to see that our native neighbors are finally being recognized for what and who they are – and for their cultures and contributions to our history. I recall a time when mention was simply not made of those who lived here before us. Perhaps we were ashamed of what we had done to them and now we seem willing to confront the reality of our past.

I was also happy to find that many of the displays are down low and clearly targeted at our smaller audience, the kids who are dragged into places like these by their parents. As I was reading the panels, a ranger in uniform came into the display room explaining to another lady that the Ute story played such a large part in local history, it had been important to include some of their culture into the new displays.

As I eavesdropped, I was able to detect a certain enthusiasm in her voice that suddenly began to explain something I’d been feeling ever since I’d entered the park. It was another dose of that “We try hard” feeling. A quick inquiry and I learned I had just met chief of interpretation, Michelle Wheatley, who was guiding a young assistant to Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar through the center.

As the three of us spoke, there was a lot of well-deserved pride in what Ms. Wheatley told us of the development of these new exhibits. She, it turned out, had been able to shepherd the entire project from concept to completion.

As I’ve traveled through parks all over the country, I’ve come to recognize that each park has a personality distinct from others. It’s not just the landscape or history of the place that shapes that personality. It’s the people who care for it. Some parks come alive. Some don’t. And almost invariably, it is the people who wear the uniforms who are behind those various personalities.

I had just come from another park where there was a sense of something I can only describe as tired. The entire place seemed dispirited as if, at end of summer, it was time to move into hibernation. In that other park, where I’d visited about a year-and-a-half earlier, the same bit of graffiti still adorned the wall in a restroom stall. There was a schedule of interpretive programs hanging on a bulletin board in the campground. But it had expired nearly two weeks ago. Something was missing there.

At Colorado NM, though, the information desk was covered with handouts that described the park’s offerings and natural and historic features. Even at the end of the summer season, an active list of interpretive activities was ready.

Tomorrow night in the campground amphitheater we’ll find “local singer and songwriter Paul Jensen – who has drawn inspiration from the Monument.” We are invited to bring a picnic dinner and then stay for the star viewing party that starts at dark. The star party involves members of the Western Colorado Astronomy Club and their telescopes.

It’s not just park staff who present these programs. The staff here has drawn talented help from the surrounding community. In a couple of weeks a climatologist from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will tell visitors why it’s so dry. In October, visitors can take a towel or yoga mat to the visitor center on a Saturday morning for “Yoga on the Monument.” A retired chief ranger will lead a hike and a former Colorado State Extension Service expert will teach about local plants and invasive species. And those are just a few things from the list.

A couple of hours after meeting Michelle Wheatley, I sat on the visitor center porch to listen to seasonal ranger Page Merrifield deliver a program called Ranger’s Choice. But it wasn’t really ranger’s choice because Page made the mistake of asking me what I wanted to learn about the monument.

“Everything!” was my reply.

So that’s what she did. A humorous and informative spontaneous talk about everything. Enthusiasm again. It showed.

On Friday, I missed a couple of offerings. There are too many to remember all of them. It’s also apparent that the daily schedule is sort of ad hoc. They seem to make some of it up as they go along. Ah, the luxury of flexibility. So Friday afternoon I enjoyed the tail end of a program by Nickolos Meyers, who was inviting visitors to the star party the next night.

Along the way, he introduced about ten people to the concept of dark skies. When I arrived late, he was just explaining how rods and cones in our eyes enable us to see color and in dim light. He told us of dark adaptation and of something called “light pollution.” Light pollution was a new concept to some of his listeners, and following his talk I heard one lady tell her husband that he needed to find a way to get a light in their backyard aimed downward. Nick’s belief that light pollution is the only kind of pollution that may be easily reversible seemed to strike a note with those folks.

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Page Merrifield had an infectious approach to engaging visitors. Lee Dalton photo.

A few minutes after Nick finished, it was time for Page Merrifield to tell a dozen visitors all about the monument’s first custodian, John Otto and his contributions to the park and to all of us who were sitting in the patio’s shade.

The next day, I happened upon another patio talk by Nick. This time his ranger’s choice was a brief history of our national parks. A common question at Colorado NM is “what’s the difference between a park and monument.”

Nick’s answer: “It’s only in the way they are spelled.”

He introduced his audience of about 15 visitors to the processes by which areas become either parks or monuments. An important part of the talk was an introduction to the Antiquities Act that is often under attack in the legislatures of many Western states and the halls of Congress.

His listeners left with an understanding of how much they owe to that law and people like Theodore Roosevelt – and hopefully, an understanding of the need to defend it. As I left Nick’s talk, I noticed a plaque bearing part of the Enabling Act that created the National Park Service back in 1916. I found myself thinking that plaques like that should be hanging above the desks of all our national park areas. Maybe if there were, visitors could see and occasionally think of the contradiction it presents — preserve for the future while enjoying now. If they could, perhaps there would be greater understanding of the challenges parks face in this changing world. And if there was greater public understanding, maybe it wouldn’t be quite so difficult to obtain public support when parks are politically threatened.

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Ranger Nickolos Meysers involves young and old in his talks about the monument. Lee Dalton photo.

Later that evening, I met Nick again as he headed up a star party for perhaps 50 other visitors. With help from a number of big telescopes and amateur astronomers from the community, we were introduced to the sky above us despite some threatening clouds and a couple of uncooperative planets that decided to set just as clouds cleared.

It’s obvious that at Colorado NM, people enjoy their jobs. While I mostly met only Page and Nick, others helped my experience there. Liz Barrett did her best to help my confused old mind comprehend the difference between Navajo and Wingate Sandstones. Others, whose names I didn’t catch, also helped make my experiences at the monument stand out. They were all keys to making my time in their home as enjoyable as it was.

So what makes the difference in park personalities? I think I know what it is. It’s not the size of the area. It’s not the number of visitors. It’s not the time of the season. It’s probably not even the park’s budget – or lack thereof. Prosperity may not actually trickle down. But attitude sure does. And where does attitude start? Not at the bottom usually.

One insight into the key to Colorado’s attitude came when I asked Liz Barrett who had written the park’s newspaper. I had particularly enjoyed its lighthearted and conversational tone. She seemed both pleased and puzzled that I would ask. She shrugged her shoulders and said, “We all did. We work together on everything here.”

So my hat is off to the rangers and other staff members of Colorado National Monument.

From Superintendent Lisa Eckert on down — or maybe sideways is a better word — there’s a spirit at Colorado National Monument that is easy to catch. A spirit that seems to have spread to the surrounding community, too. I took this as a great example of what can be accomplished when people care enough to reach out to others around them.

Comments

Lee Dalton, your article is the core reasons I love the national parks. While reading it, I feel your passion for what's right in this park. Attitude is infectous and it is great that it goes from park personel to visitor. I think many park visitors miss out when not interacting with the rangers and the programs available. Thanks for sharing this; I now added this park to my bucket list.

It's a good thing you didn't go a year or two ago; the "spirit" you'd easily catch that was more like hopelessness and despair. Sounds like things are better over there - good to hear it.

I was there in July 2011 and enjoyed the park as well, slightly different then the author. Right at dawn we entered the park while not even the Visitor Center was open. We enjoyed the morning solitude throughout the park, did a lot of the canyon rim trails and saw some big horn sheep strolling through the hillsides. The personnel was helpful, too. Unfortunately it was not possible to proceed to the Rattlesnake Canyon that day as it rained heavy the days before.

Thanks for the nice write-up, Lee!

Nice article about one of my favorite parks!