Along the edge of the Uncompahgre Plateau of west-central Colorado is a haven of colossal red rock cliffs and monoliths. Scenic vistas overlook the Grand Valley of the Colorado River, providing distant views of the Book Cliffs and Grand Mesa. In this arid environment a variety of organisms make a living, including pinyons, junipers, desert bighorn sheep, golden eagles, collared lizards, and even frogs. Thanks to the efforts of a variety of local people including John Otto, this unique area was protected as Colorado National Monument in 1911.
A single 23-mile road runs the length of this park, appropriately named Rim Rock Drive. This scenic route traces cliffs, canyons, and tunnels on its way through the beautiful landscapes found here.
The rocks found in this park are predominantly Mesozoic in age, deposited mostly along rivers and dune fields during the time of dinosaurs about 250 to 70 million years ago.
These rocks have been exposed by uplift and faulting over the last 70 million years. Since then they’ve been heavily eroded by wind, water, and ice into the intricate formations present today.
In the particularly impressive Fruita, Wedding, and Monument Canyons near the west end of the park the cliffs are made up mostly of Triassic and Jurassic sediments. At the base of these cliffs is the slope-forming Chinle Formation, composed mainly of soft shales deposited near rivers in the late Triassic (about 220 to 200 million years ago).
Above this is the harder, cliff-forming Wingate Sandstone of the early Jurassic (about 200 to 190 million years ago). During this period this part of North America resembled the Sahara Desert, with huge sand dunes blanketing a large area. Today evidence of these dunes is preserved in the abundant cross-bedding present in the sandstone:
Above the Wingate is the even harder sandstone of the Kayenta Formation (about 190 to 180 million years in age).
Around Monument Canyon this resistant rock forms caps on many of the stone monoliths, protecting them from erosion.
In some places erosion has worked it way through the hard Kayenta Formation, exposing the softer Wingate Sandstone to the elements. This results in formations like those seen at the Coke Ovens:
To the east other features are nearly as impressive, including Ute Canyon…
…and Red Canyon:
Several species of lizards call these rocks home:
Utah juniper is also ubiquitous along the road:
Although relatively small and remote, Colorado National Monument has a lot of bang for the buck. In addition to the scenic wonder of Rim Rock Drive, many miles of hiking trails promise an even more intimate experience here. One could wander this spectacle of nature for days, taking in the beauty of this park and with any luck, seeing some of the more elusive creatures that call this part of Colorado home.