What do you think of when you think about Colorado? The wealthy high-tech cities of the Front Range—Denver, Boulder, Colorado Springs? The 54 peaks over 14,000 feet high? Ritzy ski resorts like Vail and Aspen with their billionaire burrows and condo-stuffed valleys?
It’s all there, of course, but so is another Colorado, or I should say other Colorados. Hidden villages that time forgot. Sweltering red-rock deserts. Vast plateaus full of lakes and rivers and forests—and nothing else.
My wife and I have just returned from four days of camping and hiking in the other Colorados, places that are nothing like what you read about in most of the tourist brochures and chamber of commerce websites. Despite the crush of millions of visitors to the Colorful State, these are still real places where you can be just as alone as your fantasy dictates and your feet allow.
The Colorado National Monument, Grand Mesa National Forest and the village of Creede are places that count their annual visitation in thousands rather than millions. They are a long ways from anywhere. And exploring them requires a bit of effort, imagination and fortitude. Some may count these as problems. For my wife and I, they are opportunities.
We began with a straight eight-hour, 400-mile drive from Tijeras to the Colorado National Monument, about 10 miles southwest of Grand Junction in northwestern Colorado, smack on the Utah border.
It is big—32 square miles—it is rugged—one of the roughest landscapes anywhere in the West—and it is unlike anything else in Colorado—thousand-foot-deep canyons sunken between vertical walls of glistening red rock and filled with spires and towers and natural bridges.
The national monument was created in 1911. In case you share President Donald Trump’s belief that national monuments are some kind of liberal conspiracy to deprive miners and loggers of making a living, the man who created the monument was William Howard Taft, a Republican and one of the most conservative presidents in American history.
The Colorado National Monument is on the eastern edge of the 130,000-square-mile Colorado Plateau, most of which is in Utah. It contains some two dozen national parks, forests and monuments, the greatest concentration of public lands in the country.
The Colorado National Monument is a land of extremes, with bitter cold winters and summer temperatures well over 100 degrees. Even in mid-September, afternoon temperatures reach the low 90s. Altitudes range from just over 4,000 feet to nearly 7,000. Vegetation is sparse, but includes junipers, piñons and a variety of tough wildflowers clinging to patches of shade. There are dry waterfalls testifying to occasional flows during spring runoff and summer thunderstorms, but we did not see so much as a drop of surface water during our two days there. Families of big horn sheep calmly laze on rock outcrops with seemingly not a worry in the world.
The principal geologic feature is Monument Canyon, named for the forest of spires that jut hundreds of feet upward from the canyon floor. We hiked for several hours down a steep switchback trail and through the canyon to the base of one of tallest towers, called Independence Monument. The name derives from the tradition of hundreds of climbers scaling the monument every July 4 to place a flag atop it.
When we told a monument ranger we were heading next to Grand Mesa, she sighed, ‘“You’re lucky. It’s cool there.” In fact it was more than cool. We shivered at night in our summer-weight sleeping bags with temperatures in the 30s at our 10,300-foot-high campsite on Cobbett Lake.
Grand Mesa, at 500 square miles, is the largest flat-top mountain in the world. An hour’s drive east of the Colorado National Monument and jutting 7,000 feet above the adjacent valleys, it is a landmark for all of northwestern Colorado.
We hiked one of the most popular long trails at Grand Mesa, the Crag Crest Trail, near our campsite. The trail led us for miles across the mesa with views of lakes and streams, deep valleys and mountain ranges extending seemingly forever. On the mesa, aspens have already begun turning to the shimmering gold of fall. Grand Mesa has a lot of deer and elk, and in the fall a lot of hunters, but we were able to escape unscathed and headed over a string of back roads to one of our favorite Colorado villages.
Creede used to be connected to the outside world only by dirt roads, to South From and lake City. Now, both roads are paved but the village with a population of 290 still feels like the end of the world. It nestles against the base of gigantic cliffs and boulders and is close to the source of the Rio Grande. Its two streets include a handful of basic motels, a cute bread and breakfast marooned across a creek whose bridge is closed, and the Creede Repertory Theater, of which the newspaper USA posted, “It is one of the 10 best places to see the lights way off Broadway.” The emphasis has got to be on the “way off”—1,950 miles to be exact.
A billboard at the entrance to the village proclaims, “Welcome to Creede, the Last Great Place.” It is indeed.
The grace of Colorado is that its towering mountains carve its geography into intimate spaces. America is not naturally an intimate land. It’s too big, too open, too sweeping, too undifferentiated, too mobile, too majestic. But in a few places, such as Creede, the feeling of intimacy survives. Certainly bigness has its virtues; but so too does smallness, and I am glad for it.