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.
As Sean and I flew home from New York on March 2, 2020, we couldn’t have known how profoundly the world was about to change. We also couldn’t have known that it would be some eighteen months before we’d visit our next National Park unit. We’d had plans to visit Parks: a visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park with my parents was already booked for April 2020; we were looking at Santa Fe and White Sands National Park in 2020; September of that terrible year was supposed to include a marriage celebration on Cape Cod followed by Acadia National Park and the Canadian Maritimes; we had loose plans for a weekend trip to St. Louis and Gateway Arch National Park. For 2021, we’d been considering possibly the Hawaiian Parks and American Samoa, maybe a 10th anniversary return to Isle Royale National Park combined with the Lake Superior Circle Tour, and then maybe that marriage celebration would be feasible for fall 2021.
None of those trips happened. Instead we stayed home, coped, watched in horror as the pandemic raged. We adjusted and created new ways to socialize. We even made some great new friends. Between gorging on poetry and the news, I built my business. As soon as it was our turn, we got vaccinated. We’re still skittish about flying, which was of course a fundamental component to nearly all of our Park trips. In June 2021 we bought a car, my first in seventeen years, because without it our horizons had contracted to the quiet, leafy streets of our Chicago neighborhood.
In early spring 2021, when it became clear that New England and the Canadian Maritimes were unlikely for the fall, we looked to alternative trip ideas. It may have felt optimistic, but we figured it would be good to get a trip booked even if we later had to cancel. Anticipating a road trip (even though we were yet to actually buy the car), we turned our gaze to Colorado.
On Sunday, March 1, 2020, Sean and I spent the day eating, drinking, seeing old friends, and going to the theater again. We also visited one more National Park Unit, Castle Clinton National Monument at the lower tip of Manhattan. Of course we could not have known then that this would be the last unit we’d visit before a global pandemic set in, making it also the last unit we’d visit in 2020 or the foreseeable future.
On Saturday, February 29, Sean and I started a long, fun-filled day in Manhattan with a sobering visit to African Burial Ground National Monument, which marks and memorializes an early colonial slave cemetery that was only rediscovered in the early 1990s. The visit anchored and provided framework for a day that would focus on history, science, family, and race, culminating in an activist-minded Broadway show. But even with all that on a packed day during a packed weekend, African Burial Ground National Monument was deeply resonant and has stuck with us in the months since our visit.
Early afternoon on February 28 Sean and I wandered over to the West Village to our second National Park unit of the day: Stonewall National Monument, which was established by President Barack Obama in 2016 as the first LGBTQ+ National Park site. The National Monument honors a key catalyzing event in the burgeoning gay rights movement of the late 1960s, the June 28, 1969 raid by New York City police of The Stonewall Inn, a mafia-owned gay bar, and the six nights of riots that followed as LGBTQ+ New Yorkers fought back, led by homeless gay youth and transexuals, many of whom were people of color. While not the start of the gay rights movement, nor even the first riot, Stonewall led to an explosion of gay rights organizing across the country as gay people embraced a stance of being out and proud about their sexual orientation.
A grave personal injustice was done to the American citizens and resident aliens of Japanese ancestry who, without individual review or any probative evidence against them, were excluded, removed and detained by the United States during World War II.
Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians
As the afternoon of September 18 progressed, Sean and I drove over from Petroglyph Point at Lava Beds National Monument to nearby Tule Lake National Monument, one of the newest in the system. In 2008, George W. Bush had established WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument, which was subsequently abolished by Congress in March 2019. Its three sites each became their own park units: Pearl Harbor National Memorial, Aleutian Islands World War II National Monument, and Tule Lake National Monument.
Tule Lake National Monument preserves and interprets Tule Lake Segregation Center, the largest and most controversial of the ten internment camps in which Japanese Americans were imprisoned during World War II.