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Photo courtesy of History Colorado, 10038539

Meet the Man Who Made the Monument

How John Otto almost single-handedly ensured the landscape he loved became part of the National Park Service.

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President William Taft’s signature might have certified CNM as part of the National Park Service, but it was John Otto who provided the pen. Otto arrived in Colorado from California in 1906 and spent nearly three decades carving trails into the cliffs and canyons outside of Grand Junction that, in his words, felt “like the heart of the world.” He regularly wrote letters to Taft and others advocating for its protection.

In 1911, persuaded by the persistent requests, Taft designated Otto’s beloved terrain in order to preserve its “extraordinary examples of weathering and erosion.” Taft appointed Otto its custodian for a salary of $1 per month. Among the caretaker’s legacies are the Serpents Trail—once deemed the most dangerous road ever built and now a popular hiking trail—and Rim Rock Drive, a 23-mile scenic tour along the plateau’s edge that Otto conceived in his first few years in Colorado but which wasn’t completed until 1950.

Otto left Colorado in 1932 for unclear reasons and died in Yreka, California, in 1952 with only $144 to his name—not enough for a proper burial. Fifty years later, a group of Coloradans raised money to erect a headstone with an Otto quote. It reads: “Do your best for the West / The best for the world. / The new day, get it going.”

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