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Monday, September 19, 2016

Colorado National Monument: Monument Canyon - Wedding Canyon Loop Hike

Colorado National Monument, established on May 24, 1911, contains spectacular canyons cut deep into sandstone, granite–gneiss–schist, rock formations, and extensive areas of igneous rock. It is an area of desert land high on the Colorado Plateau, with pinion and juniper forests. It hosts a wide range of wildlife, including red-tailed hawks, golden eagles, ravens, jays, desert bighorn sheep, and coyotes.  Standing on the canyon rim, you can identify over 1.5 billion years of geologic history in nine distinct rock formations that remain neatly arranged by age.

Monument Canyon is the feature attraction of Colorado National Monument.  The canyon contains two striking formations, Independence Monument and the Kissing Couple, and a formation known as the Coke Ovens.

We had only today to hike in the park, and we decided the big canyon had to be our playground, so we started up the Monument Canyon Trail:

The canyon provides immense vistas and wide varieties of rock formations, including this sandstone mass that was heaved up at an angle some unnumbered eons ago:

Yet, in addition to beauty on a grand scale, the park also provides brilliant colors on a small scale in the early Fall:

After nearly 2 miles of hiking, we rounded the corner of a cliff and got our first clear view of Independence Monument:

The park's tallest freestanding tower at 450 feet high, the tower is featured in the cultural history of the park, in that the park's first caretaker, John Otto, who explored the area and built some of the trails, was the first known person to climb it, raising a U.S. flag atop its flat summit on Independence Day in 1911.

We couldn't get too distracted by the tower itself, however, because at every turn we found rocks and formations that were unique and fascinating:

Huge cliffs and spires loomed over us as we worked our way further up the canyon:

We eventually reached the base of Independence Monument, finding that it looks completely different from every vantage point:

Here is another view of the monument - one that is more famous because it is the view of the tower that most people see from Rimrock Drive:

Otto’s route in his famous climb up Independence Monument is one of the most popular rock climbs in western Colorado. On almost any day, climbers can be seen scaling its cracks and chimneys by grabbing the empty holes left by pipes Otto sunk in the sandstone for his climbs.  Otto's pipes have long since been removed for safety reasons, because they did not remain secure, but the route remains.  Every July 4, climbers ascend the tower in celebration of his original feat - a popular local event.

As we were hiking, we heard some voices from above.  We looked up, and, to our amazement, spotted two climbers just as they were completing their climb of the tower:

Again, however, we had to turn our eyes to the path because we had further to hike.  Our ultimate goal was the Kissing Couple, a rock formation given that name because it resembles just that:

We couldn't help trying to duplicate this little pose:

Kissing Couple isn't the only feature of this hike with romantic implications.  Independence Monument is also known as the site where John Otto wed a young woman who, once she discovered his idiosyncracies, quickly left him.  An alternate route to Independence Monument is known as Wedding Canyon in honor of his ill-fated wedding.  We decided to hike back down to our original trailhead through Wedding Canyon, which provided its own, unique views of Independence Monument, on the left in this photo:

Wedding Canyon doesn't have the huge vistas that Monument Canyon has, but it continued to surprise us with a variety of terrains and interesting rock formations.  Here, David finds a potential route under some leaning boulders:

Looking down Wedding Canyon, we could see the Colorado River and the cities of Grand Junction and Fruita in the distance:

Kathy found a little rock cairn perched on a boulder and couldn't resist adding her own little quartz buddy to the pile:

Once we reached the bottom of the canyon, we turned eastward toward our trailhead, but still had several ridges to cross before we reached our ultimate goal.  Some of the ridges were unique formations of tilted sandstone, pocked with circular hollows that could only have been made by rocks and boulders being slung against the stone by rushing water:

Here's an up-close look at one of these formations:

This was a very hot hike, with the temperature rising to 91F before we finished.  We always carry plenty of water, but this was one of the few hikes we've taken where we've actually drunk all four liters of water we carried.  We were grateful to return to the truck and a cool bottle of Gatorade to quench our thirst and replenish some electrolytes.  We drove home, tired but very satisfied with the hike we had chosen today - a chance to put our boots on the ground and really get to know Colorado National Monument.

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