A Classic Western Quarrel:
A History of the Road Controversy at Colorado National Monument
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The Landscape / The Setting

The landscape of the Colorado National Monument is one of constant change. A simple drive, run, or biking trip across the Rim Rock Drive, which hugs the edges of the canyons in some places and winds for twenty-eight miles between the park's western and eastern entrances, reveals a legacy of billions of years of extreme geologic and climatic change. Evidence of these extremes is most notable in the deeply cut canyons, multi-colored rock layers, and strange, almost otherworldly monoliths rising arbitrarily from the canyon floors. Aesthetically, change is perceived each day when the sunrise and sunset turn the sandstone a brilliant orange. The canyon walls are often dramatically spattered with desert varnish, an iron and manganese oxide that darkens the sandstone as if it had been rubbed with giant pieces of charcoal. [14] Even the monoliths, seemingly sturdy and one-dimensional, change shape depending on the angle from which they are viewed. [15] In comparison to the Grand Valley, which runs along the northern edge of the Monument, and the Grand Mesa at the valley's eastern end, the Colorado National Monument resembles a different planet, and in fact, has been likened to the landscape of the moon and Mars. [16]

A semi-arid climate dominates the Colorado National Monument and the Grand Valley below. Rain is scarce, except for summer cloudbursts whose intensity has been known to wash out entire sections of the park's road and create temporary waterfalls that tumble from the canyon rims. Average yearly rainfall measures around 6 to 10 inches. The winters are mild, with an average temperature of 40 degrees, and moderate snowfall. [17] The wildlife is suited to the harsh environment. Lizards, canyon wrens, nighthawks, varieties of snakes, deer, and even occasional golden eagles and peregrine falcons comprise only a fraction of the creatures that inhabit the Monument each day. The present climate makes it difficult to believe that millions of years ago the area was covered by a vast sea and inhabited by the dinosaurs.

The Colorado National Monument is part of the northeastern section of the canyon lands of the Colorado Plateau Province, an area that covers 150,000 square miles in portions of Colorado, Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. The Monument occupies approximately 20,457 acres of this province with canyons that expose layers of rocks with along and colorful history of geologic activity. [18] At its rough faulted and folded edge lies the Grand Valley, the largest in western Colorado, bordered by the Bookcliffs to the north and the Grand Mesa to the east. [19] The Monument is separated from the Grand Valley by the Colorado River, which stretches through the Valley, running north of the park's boundary.

Colorado National Monument contains nine canyons. Kodels, Fruita and Lizard canyons are located near the west entrance of the park, approximately one and a half miles from the town of Fruita. Next in the procession is the two-forked Monument Canyon, famous for its towering monoliths. Its northern and eastern entrances spill out into the Redlands residential area. Gold Star Canyon, much smaller Redlands. Ute Canyon—formerly known as Lime Kiln Canyon—and Red Canyon dominate a great portion of the area just east of Monument Mesa. Finally, Columbus and No Thoroughfare canyons surround the park's east entrance, approximately four miles from Grand Junction. The mouths of all of these canyons open into the Grand Valley. [20] Prior to and during the development of the Colorado National Monument, Fruita, Monument, and No Thoroughfare canyons were the most frequently used. As both thoroughfares and scenic curiosities, these canyons played an important role in defining relations between local residents and officials of the National Park Service. [21]

The canyons are composed of multi-colored layers of rock, the oldest of which date back 1.5 billion years. Each layer—from the dark twisted Precambrian rock of the canyon floors, to the erosion-resistant Kayenta caprock that preserves the canyon rims and the monoliths—formed during different periods of geologic time. Millions of years of alternating wet and arid climates, shallow seas, the presence of dinosaurs, and sand dunes created a turbulent setting for the formation of these rock layers. Erosion, freezing, pressure, and heat determined the rocks' color and resilience. [22]

The actual cutting of the Monument's canyons began in the Quaternary Period, approximately 2 million years ago, with the majority of this activity occurring around one hundred thousand years ago. The ancestral Colorado River was responsible for this cutting. At first the canyons were steep and V-shaped, but as erosional forces combined with the action of the water, the canyons took on their present U-shaped appearance. Erosion also shaped the monoliths. Independence Monument, one of the more imposing of the monoliths, used to be part of a canyon wall until erosion slowly wore down and broke apart the wall. The remaining structure, Independence Monument, will eventually succumb to erosion as well. [23]

The geology of the Colorado National Monument is its most outstanding feature. The layers of rocks exposed in the canyons tell, as early park promoter John Otto once remarked, a "story without end." [24] Each year visitors flock to the park to admire its unusual beauty, driving along its impressive highway, and hiking its many trails. Rarely, however, do visitors consider the human element behind the park's history. Colorado National Monument has been the setting for human interaction, triumph, and conflict nearly as turbulent as its geologic beginnings.

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Last Updated: 09-Feb-2005