GRMA Day 10: Hiking the Canyons
When I formulated the Great Rocky Mountain Adventure, an important part of the formula was to get off the bike from time to time and look around at the beautiful mountains and the human and geologic history found there. Today was a walking day.
Last year, when I rode to Newfoundland and Labrador, I hiked in the Newfoundland highlands wearing running shoes and carrying my camera case on my belt. This year I was better prepared with new Keen hiking shoes and a handy little backpack that folds up to the size of a wallet when not in use. Both performed well and made this year’s walk easier than last year’s podiatric disaster
Still, a seven-mile hike 850 feet down a canyon and then back up the way I went down in 90 degree heat was challenging. I’m ready to get back on the bike tomorrow and rest my aching geriatric body. Don’t get me wrong. This was a great day: I saw massive multi-hued canyon walls rising almost straight up; I reached the base of Independence Monument; I saw more wildlife and signs of wildlife that gave me an adrenaline boost; and I’m back safely in my room in one piece enjoying an uncommonly large glass of Jack.
I had a quick stop at Quest Diagnostic early this morning for some routine lab work because of the Coumadin I take to keep my heart valve from clogging up which would keep from riding, and then headed to Colorado National Monument a few miles outside Grand Junction. “Monument” is a little misleading. It’s really a small National Park created in 1911 that promotes and protects a series of tremendous canyons carved and sculpted by relentless forces of erosion during the past 10 million years or so.
Beginning at the top of Monument Canyon about 10 a.m. I headed for Independence Monument, starting with a knee-jarring decent that dropped about 500 feet in the first 30 minutes. As I made my descent, I passed layers of rock laid down 150-250 million years ago when the tectonic plate on which Colorado is located was closer to the equator and drifting northward. Seven clearly identifiable layers of rock up to hundreds of feet thick make up the walls of the canyons, until you get to the bottom where the bedrock is about 1.7 billion year-old metamorphic rock and much more resistant to erosion that the 1000 feet of sedimentary layers that sit on top like a geologic layer cake.
The initial mile of the hike followed trails and switchbacks that hugged the canyon walls with drop-offs that could send clumsy hikers down several hundred feet before bouncing off rocks tens of millions of years older than the rocks on which they had started their plunge. Careful foot placement, I repeatedly told myself, was important. As I neared the canyon bottom, the terrain leveled out some, but still dropped another 350 feet over the next 2 1/2 miles. After the first mile of bare rock trail and walls, a few scrub trees and bushes provided a little change of scenery as did the occasional muddy wash I crisscrossed on my sojourn to Independence Monument.
Along the way, every twist and turn on the trail offered a panorama of geographic wonder and beauty as rock spires soared hundreds of feet skyward, huge boulders balanced precariously on ledges above ready to come crashing down anytime in the next 100,000 years or so, and vistas at the open end of the canyon revealed the dominant mesas more than 30 miles away and the Rocky Mountains beyond them
Even when I finally had Independence Monument in sight, I still had nearly a full-hour’s hike until I reached the actual base of the 450-foot sandstone monolith. When I got there I celebrated with a lunch of salty beef jerky and a pint of much needed water. After spending 20 minutes admiring the rock and taking a few pictures, I was about to head back, impressed by the feat my feet had accomplished. And then I heard voices. And not the usual ones that rattle around in my head. At first I thought other hikers were coming down the trail (I hadn’t seen anyone on the way down), but the voices were coming from above. Scanning the monument I tracked down the source of the conversation about 20 feet from the very top of the rock. Three young climbers had burst my ego balloon by scaling the rock that morning. Climbing the monument is not unusual, it turns out, but I was surprised to see them approaching the summit on this warm July day.
Less impressed with myself than I had been a few minutes earlier, I commenced my return trip back to the canyon rim. Only 30 minutes into the two-hour return hike I found something that hadn’t been on the trail when I came down: a fresh mountain lion track. It caught my attention and for the next hour every scurrying chipmunk or squirrel immediately sent me into a mountain-lion-killing-ninja-warrior stance. If I had had to, I do believe I could have barehandedly killed a chipmunk. Lion, of course, would have had a decidedly different outcome. I stopped by the visitor’s center to talk with Leslie the friendly NPS Ranger, who suggested that the mountain lion was more likely to stalk tasty Big Horn Sheep than a tough old hiker. That was information I would like to have had before I started hiking.
A little foot-sore and stiff in the joints but still proud of my perambulatory success, I got back on the bike for one final ride on the motorcyclist-favorite Rim Road and went roaring down out of the canyons and into the riverlands below. This was the kind of day that makes the GRMA an A.
Tomorrow, north through Colorado and Utah and into Wyoming with the Rockies in view most of the day. The only tracks I want to see tomorrow are my GPS tracks.
A few more pictures that I liked from today’s hike: