Grand Junction, Colorado – April 14, 2013
They say the longest journey begins with the first step. This morning, Hillary and I made our first step at Judy’s Restaurant at about 07:10. It is a good-ol’-boy, country restaurant. Hillary ordered a half-order of biscuits and gravy. I opted for the Monument Special; which consists of a half-order of biscuits and gravy, hash browns, two eggs over medium, and two slices of bacon. Just the way to prepare for the day’s impending doom. All of that and two cups of coffee was only $14.
Following breakfast, we drove a few miles on Colorado Highway 340 to the parking area for the Lower Monument trailhead. When we parked, there was only one other car there. We saw that man head out on the trail.
Hillary and I gathered our things and headed out. The first thing I took a photograph of was a sign depicting Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep. At the time, I had no idea what an omen that was.
The sign indicates the trail is a 2.4 mile (4.3 kilometers) one-way, two-hour hike. Quite frankly, when we first started, I had no intention of walking the entire distance to the Independence Monument. The first half-mile or so skirts behind some gorgeous homes.
Since we began our hike at about 08:00, the lighting was beautiful for taking photos. Probably my two most favorite subjects were the rock formations and the twisted cedar trees.
Prickly pear cactus is prevalent along the trail. At one point we saw some partially eaten plants. I am sure other creatures eat cactus, but the only thing I am aware of that eats cactus are desert tortoises. I don’t know if those live in this area or not. Even if they do, it seems unlikely they would have been out in the chilly 42-degree weather.
Off in the distance, as we continued along, I could hear a noise, but I did not know what it was. We rounded a bend in the trail, and I saw what was responsible for the sound; the man that had left the parking lot before us. He was running up and down a sandstone formation that I estimate had a 20-degree slope. That was his idea of exercise. I had no intention of using up my fuel from Judy’s in such an endeavor.
Shortly after seeing the runner, we caught our first glimpse of the Independence Monument. It was breathtaking. Even though the rock was nearly two miles away, it was impressive and precisely why I had wanted to hike into the Colorado National Monument. I have been to the Monument several times. On each trip, I have seen the Independence Monument, but always from an overlook off of Rimrock Drive. Seeing it from ground level provided a new perspective.
The theory is that Independence Monument got its name from John Otto, the “founder” of the Colorado National Monument. Every July 4, a group of climbers scales the 450 foot (137 meters) rock to place an American flag on the top. Legend has it that John Otto first did that on July 4, 1911. Otto carved handholds into the rock that are still in use today.
As I gazed upon Independence Monument I was reminded that our trail would take us up 500 feet (152 meters) in elevation to the base of the rock — maybe I should have had a lighter breakfast!
At this point, we encountered a sign-in station. Right at the top of the page was a visitor from France. We completed the page at the bottom by listing Georgetown, Guyana as our hometown.
While there are some igneous rocks at lower points in the valley, the spectacular rock formations, including Independence Monument, are red sandstone. If one looks closely, one can see the different layers of sediment that were laid down over millennia. Due to the shifting earth and the forces of erosion, they are now visible in these eye-catching forms.
The previous night had seen an intense rainstorm blow through the area. One result was a “fresh” trail devoid of any tracks. At one point, I saw what I thought were deer tracks. Upon rounding a bend in the trail near the cliffside, I saw what was responsible for the imprints; Desert Bighorn Sheep. No more than 20 yards in front of us, right at the base of the cliff, were four ewes surrounded by five lambs. In the brush, we could see several others, probably a total of 12 ewes and 12 lambs. We could not see a ram. The four ewes just laid there, chewing their cud and watching us. When we finally took our next step, they got up and scrambled higher. That was a real bonus!
Not long after the sheep encounter, we came across several lizards. They were not quite as exciting to see, but still lovely to see.
As we got close to the Monument, we saw a rock that came to a point, arching out toward the Monument as if to say, “you must be this tall to be an Independence Monument.”
Finally, after nearly two hours, we made it to the base of Independence Monument. It was quite impressive. Hillary decided to go up the last 50 or 100-feet to touch the “butt” of the Monument. I stayed where I was to document the moment, the best decision I made all morning! As soon as Hillary started back down, a couple made it to the base too. That meant Hillary and I were the first to arrive at the Monument that morning.
As we began our return to the parking area, the trail seemed to turn into an Interstate. People were going uphill like salmon upriver; including one man with his young son in his backpack and one woman that was running. The view of the Grand Valley and the Colorado River valley were stunning.
When we got back to the area where we had seen the sheep, we saw them again. This time they were on the downhill side of the trail. As we approached, the sheep scrambled lower and went over a ridge out of sight. I did not try any photos at that time because they were so far away.
After nearly three and one-half hours, we made it back to the parking area. There were cars everywhere. We were both exhausted after our five-mile march. Regardless, the hike was a lot of fun.