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2 abandoned national monuments

Sidebar by Marcia Darnell and Ed Quillen

Sand Dunes – February 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

THE PLACE formerly known as Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument became a National Park last year, and now the authorities are looking at a similar upgrade for Great Sand Dunes National Monument.

At the edges of Central Colorado are two areas that were once set aside as National Monuments. But instead of growing into National Parks like Black Canyon, or staying Monuments like Great Sand Dunes, they received so few visitors that they were abolished. The National Park Service, which also administers National Monuments, turned them back over to the U.S. Forest Service, which administered the surrounding land.


The Wheeler Geologic Area, a few hundred acres of enchanting rock formations about 10 miles northeast of Creede, became Wheeler National Monument by proclamation of President Theodore Roosevelt on Dec. 7, 1908.

(It was named for Capt. George Wheeler, who led an 1874 government survey into the San Juans and southward. There’s no record that his crew ever ventured into the Wheeler area, though. They did go on into New Mexico, which explains the name of that state’s highest summit, 13,161-foot Wheeler Peak.)

The monument designation came at the request of Frank Spencer, superintendent of Rio Grande National Forest. Rangers had been told to look for interesting sites that could become National Monuments, and Spencer had heard tales of a zone of odd-shaped rocks. In the summer of 1907, he began searching for it, and he and his party soon found “a truly remarkable site… an enchanted city. Spires and domes, castles and cathedrals, mosques and temples, with their fluted columns and wonderfully carved friezes, were arrayed in a confusing panorama of form and color.”

Although the new national monument got some publicity — National Geographic ran a short article in 1909, and the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railway promoted it as an attraction to be reached from the Creede branch — it never attracted many visitors.

There was no road for autos, or even wagons, which meant that tourists had to enter by foot or horseback from Creede or Wagon Wheel Gap. And the growing number of auto-borne tourists in the 1920s generally found easier places to visit.

In 1943 there were only 43 Wheeler visitors. Among the nine recorded visitors in the first half of 1944 was M.R. Tillotson, regional director of the National Park Service. He saw that there wasn’t nearly enough patronage to justify keeping a ranger there, and recommended that the land revert to the Forest Service.

And that’s what happened nearly 50 years ago, on August 3, 1950, when Congress abolished Wheeler National Monument, which is now managed by the U.S. Forest Service as the Wheeler Geologic Area.

MOUNT OF THE HOLY CROSS became famous on account of William Henry Jackson’s dramatic picture, taken on the 1873 Hayden survey of the Colorado mountains. At 14,005 feet, it is the northernmost 14er in the Sawatch Range, and it’s about 20 miles northwest of Leadville.

Religious pilgrimages apparently began in 1912 to view the cross, which can’t be seen from most roads or railroads. (You can see it from the Shrine Pass road, and from the Frémont Pass area.) Nor is the cross visible from the usual route that climbers take to the summit; it goes up a different side of the mountain. Thus most pilgrimages were a climb to the best view of the cross, at the summit of 13,237-foot Notch Mountain.

By 1928, the pilgrimages were an annual event, and the Denver Post began publicizing them, with 218 people taking part in one pilgrimage that year.

The increasing visitation and publicity may have inspired President Herbert Hoover on May 11, 1929, when he signed a proclamation establishing the Mount of the Holy Cross National Monument.


At the time, it looked like a good idea, as visitation continued to increase — there were 600 people in the 1932 pilgrimage. And there were reports of miraculous cures of afflicted people who had gone to Holy Cross.

Notch Mountain is a tough climb for sick people, though, so American ingenuity came up with another method. People could mail handkerchiefs (more than 2,000 one year) to a minister, who arranged for them to be dipped in the Bowl of Tears, a lake under the cross, then mailed back, presumably to effect cures.

But there were fewer pilgrims as the Great Depression wore on — only 200 in 1935 — and in 1938, the area was closed to the public because it became part of the Camp Hale Military Reservation, and it stayed off limits until after World War II.

It was then administered by Rocky Mountain National Park. The superintendent, Edmund D. Rogers, noted that there were fewer than 50 visitors a year, not nearly enough to justify keeping a ranger there. He recommended that Mount of the Holy Cross National Monument be abolished and that the Forest Service take over the area.

Congress passed such a bill on August 3, 1950, and it was duly signed by President Harry Truman.

If there’s a moral to these stories, it may be that the Park Service, at least in 1950, was trying to spend tax money efficiently by shedding areas that got few visitors. It made sense to turn them back to the Forest Service, since it already had rangers in place.

–Marcia Darnell & Ed Quillen