Our 2021 roadtrip to Colorado (and Utah) was sixteen full days and fifteen nights on the road. For a National Parks trip that was somewhat born of circumstance—buying a car, strategizing a post-lockdown COVID-era trip—this trip would have a huge influence on the year to come, both for Sean’s and my Park trips and for the shape of Bold Bison’s business travel. It has also reoriented us—or me—a bit to thinking about the continent. Our first taste of the Ancestral Puebloan world at Mesa Verde would inspire Sean and me to visit four more Ancestral Puebloan sites in the year to come, culminating in a May 2022 sojourn to Chaco Canyon. I would return to Great Sand Dunes National Park by myself—solidifying my infatuation with the San Luis Valley and the Sangre de Cristos—only a little over two months after this trip. We would return to Denver twice more. And flirting with the Colorado Plateau would lead to a February 2022 trip to Arches National Park (and a planed return to Moab in 2023).
But all that is to come. First, it’s time to wrap up this adventure.
We ended our time in Dinosaur National Monument on the afternoon of Friday, September 3 (2021) and began a holiday weekend journey home to Chicago that was itself an adventure. But first we had one more hike—stroll really—out at the end of Cub Creek Road before breaking camp and heading out.
The Fremont People lived in what is now Utah, Idaho, Colorado, and Nevada for roughly the 1,000 years from 300 to 1,300. Unlike their contemporaries and neighbors, the Ancestral Puebloans in the Four Corners region (and later along the Rio Grande), the Fremont did not build permanent architecture like pueblos and cliff dwellings. Their villages were more ephemeral, and much of what we know about them comes from the tools and the art they left behind. The art, in the form of striking pictographs and petroglyphs, is often sublime.
On Friday, September 3 (2021), we knew that, one way or another, we’d have to be leaving Dinosaur National Monument early. But we didn’t want to go without seeing the grand Fremont petroglyphs near the campground.
After our morning visiting the Dinosaur Quarry and early afternoon checking out the paved portion of Cub Creek Road, we spent the remainder of the afternoon of Thursday, September 2 (2021) driving into the center of Dinosaur National Monument’s canyon country, just across the state line in Colorado. Our ultimate destination was the hike out to Harpers Corner, high above the Green River near its confluence with the Yampa River.
I have long wanted to visit Dinosaur National Monument.
The Monument, straddling the Colorado-Utah border, should be a National Park. By any conceivable metric, it more than deserves such a designation. At 210,844 acres, it is larger than thirty-one of the sixty-three Parks (larger than Shenandoah, Zion, Redwood, and Arches). Far more importantly, though, it contains three fundamental reasons for existing—any of which would warrant Park status—that make it important to history, science, and conservation. First, the Monument contains a world-important deposit of Jurassic-era dinosaurs: Stegosaurus, Diplodocus, Apatosaurus, Allosaurus. Specimens from major museums across North America came from here. Second, the Monument protects important cultural sites, including many pictographs and petroglyphs made by the Fremont peoples one thousand years ago. And finally, there is the landscape itself. Here, the Green and Yampa Rivers cut through the eastern edge of the Uinta Mountains, creating a dramatic canyon country of more varied hues than the redrock landscapes of Arches and Canyonlands to the south.
When President Woodrow Wilson declared the establishment of Dinosaur National Monument in 1915, he only set aside the eighty acres comprising and surrounding the Dinosaur Quarry just north of Jensen, Utah. It was Franklin Delano Roosevelt who in 1938 expanded the Monument to its present size by protecting the Green and the Yampa in their entire courses through the Uinta Mountains. FDR’s designation was crucial nearly twenty years later as conservationists successfully fought a scheme to dam the rivers at their confluence at Echo Park. This historic win bookended the fight forty years earlier to save Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park from becoming a reservoir. In both debates, the American public was asked to grapple with the question, “What is the point of protecting a landscape as a National Park or Monument if it can be destroyed by dams or resource extraction?” While Yosemite lost, Dinosaur won. And the win at Echo Park would help to protect Grand Canyon National Park in the 1960s from a long-simmering scheme to dam the Colorado River within the National Park.
Perhaps it’s lingering resentment over Echo Park. It could be local resistance in Utah to public lands protection (even as the state campaigns for and receives millions in tourist dollars from visitors to its existing Parks). It could simply be its remoteness. Whatever the reason, Dinosaur has never been upgraded by Congress despite being for decades on short lists of NPS units most likely to become National Parks.
Congress notwithstanding, Sean and I chose to treat Dinosaur as an unofficial 64th Park, both in how we approached it in the trip and in how I am treating it here on the site.
Colorado National Monument was established in 1911 during the administration of William Howard Taft to protect over 20,000 acres of the northeastern portion of the Uncompahgre Plateau in western Colorado. Erosion has carved this part of the plateau into a series of dramatic redrock canyons overlooking the Grand Valley of the Colorado River. True redrock country, the Uncompahgre Plateau rises above the easternmost portion of the immense Colorado Plateau, home to some of the most storied National Park landscapes, among them Arches, Canyonlands, Zion, and Grand Canyon. In fact, Arches National Park’s entrance is less than a 90-minute drive from Colorado National Monument’s western entrance.
On Wednesday, September 1 (2021), our plan had been to tour Colorado National Monument for the day as we drove between Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and Dinosaur National Monument. It turned out, though, that this first day of September was very wet. It was the only rainy day of the trip. Having packed up a wet tent and wet gear that morning, we decided to take the day bit by bit and see what we wanted to do. First off: meeting up with Jimmy in Grand Junction to get some coffee and some food.
Our friend Angela likes to say that Black Canyon of the Gunnison has the most metal name of any National Park. Seeing the chasm from the north rim, I’d argue that there’s a lot more that’s metal about Black Canyon than just its name. On Tuesday, August 31 (2021), Sean and I spent the bulk of the day driving around to the north rim to view its dizzying overlooks.
At one point looking down into the canyon on the north rim, even Sean was rattled and remarked, “The north rim is like someone who’s fun to hang out with, but you’re gonna get in trouble.”
Tuesday, August 31, the alarm clocks on our phones woke us a little after dawn. After dozing a bit longer, Sean and I climbed out of the tent to prepare for the day. “We have to go see Painted Rock,” Sean kept saying groggily. Indeed, we wanted to go and see the morning light on the Painted Wall—the highest cliff in Colorado—before going to the Ranger Walk at 9am. Then it would be off to the north rim for the rest of the day.
Beyond the end of the road, Warner Point Trail leads to the highest point on Black Canyon of the Gunnison’s south rim. Named for minister Mark Warner, whose dogged advocacy led to the canyon’s protection as a National Monument in 1933, the trail is a short three quarters of a mile each way. As the afternoon of August 30 continued, we decided to hike out to see the view.
At Black Canyon, the Gunnison River carves through rock that is 1.7 billion years old, some of the oldest rock on the planet. Called basement rock, it forms the foundation of Earth’s crust and is only exposed occasionally, such as at the lower levels of the Grand Canyon. The block of basement rock that Black Canyon is carved through is called the Gunnison Uplift. Once exposed, the upper portions of the uplift had eroded away before the Rocky Mountains formed. Sixty million years ago, the same massive, continental rising that birthed the Rockies also lifted the Gunnison Uplift, priming it for another round of erosion.
Thirty million years ago, the West Elk Mountains to the north of the Gunnison Uplift and the San Juan Mountains to the south of it were volcanic, spewing ash that buried the uplift once again. The rise of the West Elks forced the ancestral Gunnison River to flow to the south of these new mountains. The river cut easily through the volcanic tuff and sedimentary rock between the West Elks and the San Juans.
But farther down, the river hit the much harder basement rock of the Gunnison Uplift. By now it was too late, the river’s course was set and it continued to carve, slowly, through this much harder rock where it was now exposed on the surface for sixty-five miles.
Although the two rims of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison are at times a literal stone’s throw apart, traveling from rim to rim takes a couple hours. There are two routes: west down into the Uncompahgre Valley and around the Gunnison uplift into the foothills of the West Elk Mountains, or east through Cimarron and along the Gunnison Gorge through Curecanti National Recreation Area. Mid-morning of Monday, August 30, we opted for the more scenic eastern route through another National Park unit.