Monument visitors indebted to Otto

Spotting desert bighorn sheep is just one of the reasons to hike Colorado National Monument. The park is a wealth of biological and geological wonders.


Click HERE to read all of the columns in the series.

This is the fifth in a series of weekly columns about Colorado National Monument in honor of the park’s centennial anniversary on May 24.

One advantage of working as a national park ranger — besides the Smokey Bear hat, of course — is the chance to hang out with experts. These folks have, through their education and experience, already have forgotten more than many of us will ever know.

Don Regan is one of the experts at Colorado National Monument. He knows rocks like Gov. John Hickenlooper knows beer. Very well indeed.

Regan also works as a seasonal ranger every summer. But unlike me, he has the wisdom to turn a walk in the park into a graduate seminar on the Colorado Plateau.

To illustrate the climatic changes that distinguished Chinle sandstone from Wingate sandstone, he offers a clue. See those crooked white etchings in the red Chinle? Those are burrows dug by crawfish and shrimp over 200 million years ago. You won’t see them in Wingate. Why? Much too dry.

Regan speaks with exacting precision. He loves to talk about the “Great Uncomformity,” that huge gap in the geological record. He draws invisible pictures in the air to describe the forces of nature. It’s not uncommon to see a dozen hikers of all ages and from all parts of the globe hanging on his every syllable. En-TRA-da. Kay-ENT-a.

One spring morning, a small group of us hiked from the Lower Monument Canyon trailhead toward Wedding Canyon. Regan led the way at his usual brisk pace and, in a cheerful voice, ordered us to stick to the trail and stay off the fragile biological soil crust. Minutes later, he pointed out a huge vertical crack in a sandstone wall before us.

“This is one of the best places to see how the Redlands Fault Zone allowed the monument to be lifted 800 to 1,000 feet above the valley,” he said.

An avid cyclist and skier, Regan moves up and down rocky terrain gracefully, never seeming to gasp for breath or wipe a damp brow. From a distance, his athletic carriage could be mistaken for the ghost of John Otto, the monument’s first custodian and expert trail builder.

Nearly a million people visit the monument every year. From panoramic views higher than a mile above sea level, they come to explore a remarkably preserved ancient world.

They bike across Rim Rock Drive, climb 400-foot walls, stargaze from campsites, and learn to identify creatures they’ve never seen or even heard of before.

Approaching the monument’s gates, visitors become witnesses to an earth-shaking accident scene in which high winds, deep seas and raging rivers have repeatedly collided since the beginning of time.

We call it erosion. What began over a billion years ago still continues to this day. That is why botanists and biologists (not only geologists) conduct research here. And it’s why many of us tramp up and down 43 miles of hiking trails, some of which were carved out of rock with Otto’s pick and shovel.

Every spring draws visitors to the blooming splendor of claret cup cacti, sego lilies, and umpteen species of sagebrush that blanket the canyons. Some folks explore on their own; others join park rangers like Regan for guided hikes.

Whatever they do here, visitors are indebted to Otto. He had the early 20th century foresight to make our 21st century adventures happen. He launched a letter-writing campaign to politicians, newspapers and community leaders that prompted President William Howard Taft to create the monument.

Taft issued a proclamation May 24, 1911, that protected and preserved these wide-open spaces as a national monument. Yet despite Otto’s relentless publicity efforts, the monument remains one of the National Park System’s best-kept secrets.

In 1907, Otto penned the following lines, revealing his newfound mission:

“I’m going to stay and build trails and promote this place because it should be a national park. Some folks think I’m crazy but I want to see this scenery opened up to all people.”

That is exactly what he did.

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Eric Sandstrom teaches at Mesa State College and is a seasonal park ranger at Colorado National Monument.


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