Colorado National Monument: The Heart of the World

Few urban centers have the Grand Valley’s good fortune to be located on the edge of a national monument or park, like Grand Junction is to Colorado National Monument. Local residents like Jane Quimby relish this relatively unknown national gem they consider their backyard. 

Quimby hops in her car early each morning to drive a short distance past the monument’s east entrance to the Serpents Trailhead. Across the street is a small parking area where motorists leave their cars before hiking up Serpents or one of the other nearby trails: Devil’s Kitchen, No Thoroughfare, and Old Gordon. The lot is often full on summer mornings.

The 3.9-mile (round-trip) Serpents Trail draws the occasional out-of-towner, as well as a regular slew of locals who come for a workout with a view. The steep trail climbs steadily from east to west, with 16 switchbacks and vast views of the valley and canyons below. Built in the early 1900s, Serpents was once known as the “crookedest road in the world.” In the distance are the Book Cliff Mountains and, for early birds, a sunrise over Grand Mesa. 

Quimby has hiked the trail every morning for the past 15 years. “It’s peaceful and challenging, and yet you can talk – it’s socializing,” she says. “I hike with a partner, a friend of mine. We’ve solved a lot of the world’s problems on that trail. It’s a good time to do some venting, some thinking, some philosophizing.” And with the Valley’s somewhat mild winter climate, it’s doable 12 months a year.

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A little over 100 miles west of Grand Junction, Arches and Canyonlands national parks are overrun with summer tourists, many of whom apparently skip over the Valley’s own beautiful array of canyons. While it’s clear what a national park entails, the term national monument confuses some people – especially if there’s nothing in the name to indicate what is special about the park, as in the case of Colorado National Monument. “People think it’s a statue or a plaque,” says Terri Chappell, founder of Grand Valley Region Citizens for a National Park. “People don’t know it’s here.” 

For that reason, some Grand Valley business and community leaders have proposed changing Colorado National Monument’s status to a national park. Proponents say the designation would attract more tourism and boost the local economy. “There’s no industry cleaner or more efficient than tourism,” Chappell says. 

The 32-square-mile park includes sandstone canyons and towering monoliths; it is home to desert bighorn sheep, coyotes, and mountain lions. A unique and historic road, built on the edge of cliffs that overlook canyons and the Grand Valley, connects the west entrance to the east. The park is small by most national park standards. Some say it’s too small to warrant a national park designation, although Chappell doesn’t buy that argument. “There are 23 other parks that are smaller than Colorado National Monument,” she says. Plus, she notes, the monument adjoins other public land, the McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area.

Grand Junction Economic Partnership executive director Kristi Pollard agrees with Chappell that the Grand Valley would attract more visitors if the monument were a national park. National park proponents say tour buses bound for the Moab area bypass Colorado National Monument altogether because they’re unaware of its existence. A national park in our midst would “put Grand Junction on the map, which benefits us all,” Pollard says.

Others prefer that the monument designation remain unchanged. “I have one foot firmly in the ‘keep it as it is’ camp,” Quimby says. “Honestly, it’s selfish – I enjoy the park as it is. I have some trepidation of what a status change would mean, how that would impact the experience of users. I know that’s selfish, but it’s my fear.”

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The Grand Junction Economic Partnership endorsed draft legislation in 2014 that called for changing the monument to a national park. The bipartisan effort failed, but Chappell says the issue will be revived. “The fight for national park status is not going away,” she asserts. “There is grassroots support for it,” Pollard adds. “We think we can draft legislation. It’s a valuable asset, and we want to heighten awareness. We want to be part of reinvigorating the conversation with U.S. Senators Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner.”

Chappell points out that travelers visit more remote areas in Colorado, like Black Canyon and Great Sand Dunes national parks, where there is less infrastructure to support tourists. “We have the hotels and other businesses that would love to have them,” she adds. The Grand Junction Visitor and Convention Bureau spends thousands of dollars to advertise Grand Junction. “If the monument became a national park we’d be on the Rand McNally maps for free,” Chappell says.

While a new designation might not create jobs directly, it would introduce new people to the community, including business owners and “decision makers” – people who could help grow the economy – says Pollard. Grand Junction would become a “top of mind” city, she says. “It’s a way to market who we are in a unique way. It’s an opportunity to showcase that firsthand. If we can get people here, it’s 10 times better than a brochure.” 

Quimby, who 26 years ago held her wedding at the monument, says she’s not convinced a park status would help the community economically. “My research shows it’s mixed whether it would really be a panacea for economic struggles.” Plus, she contends an increase in visitors without additional park service resources could cause problems. Monument Road, the highway leading into the monument’s east entrance, is already in need of repair and maintenance, she says. “If [a national park status] brought more people in tour buses, how are we going to support that increased density of use?” she asks. “The conflict between bikers and cars will increase.”

The Park Service considers the 23-mile Rim Rock Drive one of the grandest scenic drives in the American West. The road is popular with local cyclists, some of whom are leery about sharing the road with large tour buses. The highway is narrow and winding, with significant descents and ascents, and a lot of turns. There’s not room on the highway to widen it. For the most part, it is what it is.

Grand Junction Mayor Rick Taggart cycles across Rim Rock Drive two or three times each week. He says he hasn’t decided whether he’s in favor of changing the monument to a national park, although he has concerns that a park status – and an increase in visitors that might bring – would make Rim Rock Drive more dangerous for cyclists. 

“As much as I would love to see it on a map as a national park, I have concerns about how much traffic Rim Rock Drive can support,” Taggart says. “Buses are really difficult for us cyclists. They are so much bigger, wider. Right now there are not a huge number of them. We can merge over a little. But if one is coming in both directions and there are a lot of them, I’m not sure. We need a traffic plan if it moves toward national park service status.” 

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Surprisingly, perhaps, the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce hasn’t taken a position on the issue. “We would like to see what a draft legislation bill would look like before we react to it,” Chamber president and CEO Diane Schwenke says. “Some of our business members had concerns on questions around whether or not regulations would be more strictly enforced. The fact that the monument is so close to our urban boundaries – would it affect our ability to grow? Could park boundaries be expanded?”

There’s also some concern of “loving it to death” This has happened at Hanging Lake in Glenwood Canyon, where the White River National Forest recently limited foot traffic due to vandalism and overuse. “Are we going to end up like Zion where we’ll need a shuttle?” Schwenke asks.

The West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association used to oppose a national park status, because it feared the designation would bring more stringent rules and regulations that would affect its industry. Recently, however, it has taken a new position that supports national park designation. “We see the value of a diverse economy to offset the extraction industry,” WSCOGA executive director David Ludlam says. 

Concerns that a national park status would increase rules and regulations are unfounded. “It is inaccurate information that a change in title also changes rules and regulations; that’s not true,” explains Colorado National Monument superintendent Ken Mayberry. “Monuments and parks are managed exactly the same. They have the same laws, regulations, and management policies.” Congress designates national parks; presidential proclamations generally establish national monuments. 

Fears that the monument’s existing infrastructure is inadequate to support a jump in tourism “are valid concerns,” Mayberry says. “The likelihood that there would be any additions to staff or more funding would be remote,” he says.

“I do realize that there are strong opinions in the community and state because of the cachet a national park status carries with it. I see a name change that is more evocative of what’s here, which does not necessitate a change in status from national monument to national park. Colorado National Monument is not evocative of anything. It doesn’t tell you anything about what’s here.” Colorado Canyons or Red Rock Canyons have been offered up as possible new names to better identify what exists in the monument.

Colorado National Monument became the nation’s first national monument in 1911 – thanks to John Otto, who lived in the canyons and campaigned tirelessly to set aside the area for protection. The collection of canyons “felt like the heart of the world to me,” he wrote. Whether it remains a national monument or becomes a national park, one thing remains certain: Sometimes the best finds are off the beaten track.

Photo credits to Jeff Kochevar.