Ranger Trails: Hike leads GJ woman to discover family ties to national monument

Dwight L. Hamilton, Colorado National Monument’s first park naturalist, posed for this mid-1950s photo with his wife, Mickey, their daughters Leslie (in her mother’s arms), Cynthia (seated on the ground), and two young family friends.



Last year, Leslie Spurlin took a hike at Colorado National Monument that piqued her curiosity about her own past.

Led by a park ranger, Spurlin found herself at Buffalo Spring, a stone masonry trough where bison once drank. There was something vaguely familiar about this unusual place but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it.

“I had never been there before,” she said recently. “Or at least I didn’t think so.”

Located on the Bench Trail approximately one-quarter mile east of Gold Star Canyon, Buffalo Spring is one of many esoteric spots that make the monument a sort of outdoor history museum.

Several decades ago, when a small bison herd subsisted there, natural spring water was piped into the trough so those heavy beasts wouldn’t accidentally destroy the spring itself.

Spurlin, 57, of Grand Junction, dug out black and white photos inherited from her father, Dwight L. Hamilton. He worked at the monument as its first park naturalist in the 1950s.

Leslie Hamilton (Spurlin became her married name) was only 3 years old when the family left Grand Junction. Thus, her memories of the red canyons that comprise the monument were preciously few.

In her recent search for photographic evidence of Buffalo Spring, she hit pay dirt.

“Yep, there was a photo of me, age 1, sitting beside the tank that caught water from the old spring,” she said. “My dad must’ve carried me the whole way!”

Other photos enrich the history of the Hamilton family’s short tenure at the monument. In one, the family posed on the lip of Wedding Canyon. While Hamilton points out over the abyss toward the Independence monolith, his wife, Mickey, holds young Leslie in her arms. Leslie’s older sister, Cynthia, sits nearby.

Like most National Park Service families, the Hamiltons lived like nomads, never staying long in any one place. The places were some of America’s spectacular parks: Mount Rainier, Rocky Mountain and Glacier, among others.

“Dad instilled in us roughing it,” Spurlin said. “He spent all his free time walking.”

An avid hiker herself, Spurlin and a friend once hiked far up into Kodel’s Canyon where there stands a towering Douglas fir. Her father had discovered the lone evergreen conifer, surrounded by a forest of shorter junipers and pinons, so significant that he marked it on a topographical map. Her hike up Kodel’s Canyon was a kind of pilgrimage for her at a time when Dwight L. Hamilton was ailing and had few years left. (He died in 2002; her mother, 82, lives in Hawaii.)

The naturalist’s daughter ended her own nomadic existence in 1990, when she and her late husband, high school history teacher Bill Spurlin, moved from Denver to Grand Junction. She continues to hike the trails, which often spark fond memories of her father.

Eric Sandstrom is a park ranger at Colorado National Monument and teaches at Colorado Mesa University. If you have an interesting story to share with readers, he can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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