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Todd Burras: Colorado Plateau provides lots of highs and lows

Todd Burras, Eyes on the Outdoors

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. – Starting up the steep incline in our loaded-down vehicle, the words had barely passed over my lips when I did a double-take and hit the brakes.

“We have to get a picture of at least one,” I had just asserted to my son, Andrew, upon passing a “Bighorn Sheep Crossing Next 23 Miles” sign just a few hundred feet after entering the Colorado State Monument, when, as if on cue, there suddenly appeared a pair of bighorns browsing on a jagged outcrop above us.

I’d seen desert bighorns in the past, nonchalantly doing their death-defying scaling of mountain faces in other parts of Colorado, but this was the closest I’d ever gotten. Undoubtedly accustomed to curious park visitors stopping to gawk and take their pictures, the pair, soon joined by a third and a fourth, paid little attention to us. With winter fast approaching the plateau-and-canyon country of western Colorado, packing on pounds appeared to be their sole objective on this chilly November afternoon.

A bighorn sheep takes a break from foraging to peer over the edge of a rock at Colorado National Monument near Colorado Junction, Colorado.

This was last week on our way back from San Diego, and we had decided to spend a day exploring more closely a part of the country that on previous trips we’d only viewed from the windows of a car while flying along on a highway intent on getting to some other destination. The previous day we’d driven through Zion National Park in Utah, stopping on a few occasions to get out and marvel at the wonderous landscape, and it had only fueled our desire to slow down and soak in the scenery.

The Monument and its 20,533 aces is the eastern gateway to the Colorado Plateau, a massive geologic area of mostly public lands that encompasses portions of four states and constitutes a large part of the drainage basin of the Colorado River and its many tributaries. Zion, Grand Canyon, Arches, Bryce Canyon and Petrified Forest are among more than two dozen entities of the National Park Service found within the Plateau’s 150,000 square miles between the Rocky Mountains and the Great Basin of Nevada.

Prior to the 20th century, most residents living around Grand Junction believed the nearby red rock canyons to be nearly inaccessible to humans, although archeological findings suggest that there has been continual human activity in the area for centuries. But one self-proclaimed eccentric’s sense of curiosity and adventure got the best of him, and he began exploring the nearby wilderness area. As he did, John Otto built trails on the plateaus and into the canyons, drawing attention from the locals as he worked.

It wasn’t long before many locals and outsiders, alike, began using Otto’s trails to venture onto the plateaus to get a closer look at the spectacular red rock formations. By 1911, with the aid of President William Howard Taft and the Antiquities Act, the Colorado National Monument was established. Otto was hired as the park’s first ranger, drawing a monthly salary of $1, and for the next 16 years, he continued building and maintaining trails while living in a tent.

A portion of Colorado National Monument as seen from Rim Rock Drive.

A century later, visitors to the Monument hike, bike or use their vehicles to negotiate the park’s 23-mile-long Rim Rock Drive, which includes three tunnels and offers frequently harrowing views of 500-foot-deep canyons as well as 450-foot-tall rock monoliths jutting upward from the canyon floor.

And then there’s the wildlife. Besides bighorn sheep, the high desert woodland ecosystem of pinyon pine and Utah juniper that covers most of the mesa tops is also home to mountain lions, bobcats, mule deer, coyotes, foxes, cottontails, squirrels, marmots, lizards, ravens, golden eagles, scrub jays and red-tailed hawks, among others.

On this day, however, it was the bighorn sheep – we saw eight in total – that provided us a close-up look into the wild world of living things that have long-ago learned to adapt to this unforgiving but spectacularly beautiful landscape. A landscape that we hope to revisit again and would heartily encourage others to do so as well.

Todd Burras can be reached at outdoorstoddburras@gmail.com.