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Colorado National Monument, briefly...

The city of Grand Junction is nestled between two distinct looking sets of mountains, about an hour from the Utah border. Driving through, we were trying to guess which range contained the Colorado National Monument: the strange gray one, or the strange red one spotted with green? Turns out I was wrong, it's the red one.

When most people think of a monument, they think of an imposing stone structure built to commemorate a person, idea or an event. Think of the Jefferson Memorial, Statue of Liberty, or Stonehenge. By their very nature they tend to be imposing, often designed to illicit a sense of awe in the viewer.

What then, would you expect from something called the Colorado National Monument? What could represent Coloradoans, who fly their state flags so fiercely and hold being native born with a rare pride? Some symbol of a mountain? Or maybe that giant, weird blue bronco with glittering demon eyes that greets you at the Denver airport? No. The state chooses to speak for itself. Colorado National Monument isn't just a representation of nature, it is nature. Human hands were incapable of erecting it. Instead, they just built the roads.

A picture on Monument Canyon, in Colorado National Monument

Just southwest of Grand Junction, this plateau has been carved into vast canyons, and flat-topped monoliths. It's lovely and bizarre; and perhaps thanks to it's being close to more famous parks, such as Arches, it's much less traveled. The cost is only seven dollars per car load, and whether you stay an afternoon or a week, there is plenty to see.

Geologists should get a kick out of so much exposed strata. Rangers lead rock talks, and the tiny visitor's center even sells a souvenir bandanna with labeled geologic layers on it.

Another view of Monument Canyon, showing the rock strata

The breathtakingly gorgeous twenty-three-mile-long Rim Rock Drive takes you along the Uncompahgre Plateau's rim up to the visitors center.  The road was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Depression-era work relief program for unemployed men. Small overlooks are sprinkled generously over the road, for a full afternoon of drive-by sightseeing.

If you have more time, you can go off the beaten path on hiking or biking trails, across the tops of mesas, or into back country canyons. Climbing, horseback riding and picnicking (my personal favorite) opportunities also abound.

Independence Monument, in Monument Canyon

The park began shortly after John Otto, master trail-builder, first ascended Independence Monument on July 4, 1911. He was actually making his ascent into a public trail, complete with carved steps and pipe ladders – no small feet up the sheer sandstone rock face. The Grand Junction Daily News reported on his climb saying, “Inch by inch, foot by foot, daring intrepid John Otto, creeping up the giant sides of Independence Monument, the highest and most noble eminence of rock in all Monument Canyon… It is a perilous piece of work he is doing and he should receive great recognition for his feat when he reaches the summit." When President Taft established the park a year later, Otto was its first caretaker.

And although Otto's original trail is no longer in use, the tradition of climbing the monument every July 4th still is.