On May 24, 1911, President William Howard Taft established Colorado National Monument in Mesa County, near Grand Junction. Today the monument, one of eight in Colorado, encompasses more than 20,000 acres of sandstone cliffs and monoliths, scenic canyons, and sparse vegetation. The area draws thousands of tourists each year and has become one of the most iconic landscapes in the state.
Rocks at the foundation of Colorado National Monument date from nearly 1.7 billion years ago. Since then, volcanic processes, the creation and disappearance of seas, three periods of chaotic mountain building, and hundreds of millions of years of water and wind erosion carved the spectacular landscape of the monument.
Thousands of years later, in the age of famed conservationist John Muir, a kindred spirit named John Otto dedicated himself to protecting and promoting these spectacular ancient landscapes in western Colorado. A quirky individual whose sanity was often questioned, Otto moved to the area in the early twentieth century to work on an irrigation project. When he first saw the rugged canyon lands and soaring monoliths south of Grand Junction, he was enthralled. In 1907 he wrote, that “these canyons … they feel like the heart of the world to me. I'm going to stay and build trails and promote this place, because it should be a national park.” Otto led fundraising campaigns, collected signatures for petitions, and wrote newspaper editorials and letters to politicians in support of national recognition for the ancient landscape.
With pick, shovel, and two burros, Otto carved the first trails through the glorious red rock canyons. He gave patriotic names, such as Independence Monument and Liberty Cap, to the various rock formations he encountered. Monument Canyon, which runs the length of the park, includes such geologic features as the Kissing Couple and the Coke Ovens, which draw thousands of tourists annually.
The Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce and the city’s newspaper—the Daily Sentinel—took note of Otto's persistent efforts to make the scenic landscape and began their own lobbying for a national park. In 1910 Colorado senator Simon Guggenheim introduced a bill to Congress to create such a park, but congressional deadlock threatened to kill the legislation. So, on May 24, 1911, President William Howard Taft exercised his authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act to create Colorado National Monument. In June 1911, the National Park Service (NPS) appointed John Otto as the monument’s first custodian.
In order to promote tourism in the area, the NPS obtained funds to build roads in the monument. In 1911 Otto began surveying the monument’s first road, Trail of the Serpent (Serpents Trail), and construction on the winding, four-mile route commenced in February 1912. In June 1921, the Daily Sentinel reported that work on the Serpents Trail was nearing completion. The road made the monument accessible to an increasing number of automobile tourists, and remained the sole access point until 1937.
The Great Depression profoundly influenced the development of Colorado National Monument. Faced with unprecedented unemployment, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1937, a program that employed hundreds of thousands of young men in conservation projects throughout the country. That year, through the efforts of the CCC and the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Fruita portion of Rim Rock Drive opened, providing another access point to the monument. Overall, thousands of CCC workers labored in the monument, building amenities such as Rim Rock Drive, Saddlehorn Headquarters, and the Devil’s Kitchen Picnic Shelter. Tourism to the monument dropped precipitously during World War II, but after the war visitation to the monument and the entire NPS system surged.
More recently, the Coors Classic bicycle race began in the 1980s and secured the monument international renown. The race became known as the “Tour of the Moon” for the scenic, almost alien vistas offered by Rim Rock Drive.
Visitation to the park has steadily climbed in the twenty-first century, reaching nearly 600,000 in 2015. Today, the monument has a visitor center, a campground, and dozens of miles of hiking trails, and is a mecca for bicyclists and rock climbers. As with other NPS holdings, local economies have become dependent on tourist dollars and government spending, especially during economic slumps.
Since the monument was established, locals have continually lobbied for the landscape to be designated a national park, in hopes that such a designation would increase tourism. The boom and bust cycles typical of uranium mining and oil and gas extraction have kept the issue of park designation simmering for decades. As recently as 2014, Colorado politicians once again encouraged Congress to designate the monument as a national park. The idea has even won support from filmmaker Ken Burns, producer of a 2009 documentary on the country’s national parks.
Whether the monument ever achieves official national park status, it already provides the same benefits as many of the national parks—offering citizens and tourists the opportunity to escape the burdens of city life and to enjoy and appreciate the country’s natural heritage. As such, Colorado National Monument stands as an important marker of America's natural and cultural heritage and a pillar of the regional economy.