Info from a ranger’s notebook
This is the 13th in a series of weekly columns about Colorado National Monument in honor of the park’s centennial anniversary on May 24.
Park rangers carry tiny notebooks scribbled with nuggets about everything under the sun. Random facts come in handy when the curious stop to quiz us. Ink-smeared by rain and sweat, my ragged notebooks present our knowledge on the half-shell: each wrinkled page a tender morsel of non-earthshaking information.
Camping? Backcountry campers need a permit (free of charge) and should avoid pitching tents in dry stream beds (flash floods do happen).
History? Over the course of millions of years, continental plates shifted beneath the monument, which once rested in a tropical climate near the equator before migrating north to its present location.
Owls? Eyes aim straight ahead, giving them a wide field of binocular vision and the predators a huge advantage over small birds (prey) whose eyes are fixed on sides of their skulls.
Some factoids for your own notebook:
Fruita Dugway may be the nicest hiking trail that few visitors know. Built in 1907 to facilitate construction of a water line, the dugway also served ranchers driving cattle between Glade Park and the Grand Valley. Hikers take the dugway for panoramic views along the monument’s western border.
The visitor center and amphitheater are vestiges of Mission ‘66, the National Park Service’s major upgrade of national parks and monuments. It began in 1956 to accommodate increasing numbers of visitors and ended in 1966.
The oldest petroglyphs were created by the Fremont, aboriginal Americans who moved into this area about 200 A.D. They ate insects and small animals, and grew crops here before disappearing from western Colorado about 1300 A.D.
Desert plants compete for water. Some, like cacti, have wide, shallow roots and others, like Utah juniper, have long tap roots. To help retain moisture, sagebrush leaves are hairy; those of the single-leaf ash are waxy.
The soap tree yucca blooms every May, its stalk decorated with cream-colored flowers. Along comes the female pronuba moth. She pollinates the yucca in the course of laying her eggs inside the flowers. After they hatch, moth larvae consume yucca seeds created by pollination.
Lizards spend winter underground in a sleepy state called brumation (not hibernation). Mammals hibernate. Their metabolism slows and they alternate between sleep and arousal. But lizards, being cold-blooded, have trouble staying warm. They survive by brumating, remaining completely inactive in winter. They slowly emerge from burrows in spring to soak up welcome sunshine.
A peregrine falcon stoops (dives) at speeds approaching 200 mph. As raptors (birds of prey), they use their keen vision to attack from the air. Their huge eyeballs capture more available light than human eyes. Falcons bob their heads back and forth so they can better judge distance to another animal, be it predator or prey.
A last-but-not-least fact worth noting …
Every summer, vacationing families pile out of minivans at the monument visitor center like noisy parakeets escaping from cages. They tend to be parched, weary and frazzled after being cooped up for long hours on the highway. (A few actually squawk a little.)
One remedy for road crankiness: the Junior Ranger Program. About 900 youngsters, ages 5 to 15, become junior rangers annually at the monument.
“They learn that it’s fun to explore, learn about and protect our national parks,” says Annie Williams, education park ranger. She created the monument’s award-winning Junior Ranger activity guide and leads happy kids on outdoor adventures almost every week.
The junior ranger program takes two hours in the monument for most youngsters to complete activities. They earn a special badge and congrats from monument staff. This program, including the activity guide, is free of charge. Such a deal!
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Eric Sandstrom teaches at Mesa State College and is a seasonal park ranger at Colorado National Monument.