This towering red sandstone pillar stands 450 feet tall and at an elevation of 5,739 feet. It is the centerpiece of Colorado National Monument, a piece of desert high on the Colorado Plateau that was recognized by the National Park Service largely thanks to the work of a man named John Otto.
Otto first came to Grand Junction in 1906 to work building a municipal water line, but he was so enchanted by the natural beauty of the area that he decided to live in the canyons, writing: “I came here last year and found these canyons, and they feel like the heart of the world to me. I’m going to stay and build trails and promote this place, because it should be a national park.”
He lived alone in the canyons for five years, carving out trails with a pick and shovel and advocating for national recognition of the area via fundraising campaigns, newspaper editorials, and petitions. In 1911, Otto spent several weeks pounding pieces of iron into the sandstone to create a ladder as well as carving footholds into the solid rock. On June 8, he became the first person to raise the American flag at the top of the monument, just a few weeks after President William Howard Taft had officially established the site as a national monument.
Otto was hired as the park’s first ranger, which he was happy to do for a salary of $1 per month. Though the iron pipes that he added were removed in the 1950s, the footholds are still there. Anyone may attempt to climb Independence Monument today. It remains a tradition to raise the flag at the top of the monument every year on Independence Day.
Know Before You Go
A great way to see the monument is to drive the 23-mile Rim Rock Drive and stop at the Independence Monument Lookout, though there are many other lookouts along the drive as well. There is a $25 per vehicle fee to enter the park, though fees vary with vehicle type.
To climb the monument, it is recommended to take an expert-guided trip offered by one of the several climbing outfitters approved by the National Parks Service.