The name Colorado is Spanish for “colored red” or “red colored” and it was given to the river by the early Spanish settlers as they explored “The West”, or to them it was “The North”, and found a river so rich in sediment it was dyed red as it cut through the sandstone layers of the Colorado Plateau and Grand Canyon. With the dams built along the river, particularly the Glen Canyon Dam and the Hoover Dam, most of the red sediment now settles out at the bottom of reservoirs and the water hardly ever reaches the ocean anymore. But, if you can imagine, when the early Spanish settlers first started coming north out of Mexico and exploring the region, they got to see it in all its glory. I imagine the northern tip of the Sea of Cortez, where the Colorado meets the sea, must have been quite the sight to see.
The Colorado River has been known by several names over the centuries as different explorers and cultures came through the area. Different sections of the river also had different names. From the mid-1700s to the early 1900s the Colorado River was considered to start at the confluence of two rivers, The Green and The Grand, about 30 miles southwest of modern-day Moab in an area now encompassed by Canyon Lands National Park. The Green River was the longer of the two tributaries extending north through Utah into the Wind River Range of Wyoming but The Grand provided the majority of the water that flowed through, originating in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.
In 1921, Edward T. Taylor, a US House Representative from Colorado, with the backing of the governor and state legislators, pushed Congress to change the name from Grand River to the continuation of the Colorado River. Oddly, the state had been named after the Colorado River in 1861, when it first became a territory, and the river did not even extend into the territory. It had been long observed that the majority of the water for the river started in these Rocky Mountains so while considering other names for the territory as well, Colorado was chosen. There was some opposition to The Grand being considered the headwaters of the mighty Colorado River by representatives of Utah and Wyoming that thought the longer Green River should get the moniker, but ultimately it was decided that the name sake of the state should originate in the state. So, to the question “was the state named for the river or the river named for the state?” The answer is, “Yes”.
While it was known as the Grand River several towns, valleys, counties, and more along its path took “Grand” into their name as homage to the river that gave their area life in an otherwise inhospitable place. The river originated in Grand County, Colorado and terminated into the Colorado in Grand County, Utah. The town of Parachute, CO was once called Grand Valley and the high school there still bears the name. Glenwood Canyon was once “The Canyon of the Grand River”, that name change was probably for the better. Grand Junction took its name as it sits at the junction of the Grand and the Gunnison, a major tributary. The valley where Grand Junction can be found along with Palisade, Fruita, Loma, and Mack is known as The Grand Valley though it didn’t need the river to get that name. Surrounded by the Book Cliffs to the north, the monument to the southwest and the Grand Mesa to the east this beautiful valley could be what gave the river its name, but probably not. Yeah, I live here, and absolutely love this valley, so I am a little biased.
Grand Junction and The Grand Valley have been a hub for the booms and busts of the region for over 100 years. From gold, silver, coal and other mining in the mid to late 1800s, to sugar beets and other farming around WWI, to uranium mining and processing from WWII till the mid-1950s, to oil and gas that continues to boom and bust in the area to this day. This area has had its share of great times and horrible times. Though it has jumped and dropped several times over the years the average population has grown with the number of people staying after a bust usually being higher than it was before the boom. The area has morphed from the wild place it once was to the metropolis it is today. As the area grew, the property along the river was developed first and in time expanded across the valley. Farms, rock quarries, the railroad, uranium mill tailing sites, sugar beet processing facilities and other private ventures lined the river through the valley till eventually there was no public access to the river.
Of course, this is just a breif European history of the Grand Valley, the native history goes back thousands of years to at least the Archaic and possibly even the Paleo era where some of the only evidence is the rock art and artifacts they left behind. Traces of this history can be found all over the Grand Valley from the petroglyphs atop the Palisade Rim to the pictographs in McDonald Creek Canyon.
River Front Trail coming into Las Colonias River Park
View from Eagal Rim Park overlooking Las Colonias.
Public Access to Our Rivers:
In 1987 the Colorado Riverfront Commission formed. Getting together with the cities of Grand Junction, Palisade, and Fruita along with Mesa County and the State Parks System they have been working towards providing public access to our river corridor throughout The Grand Valley. Old rock quarries, that filled with water seeping through the ground from the river, created several small lakes. The Colorado State Parks System acquired several of them and created the James M Robb State Parks in 1994 creating boat ramps to access the river and lakes for the general public to fish and recreate in. The Cities of Grand Junction and Palisade have turned some river front property into city parks and built ramps to get on and off the river at places like Palisade Rim, River Bend Park, Blue Heron, and a few more.
Construction on a river front trail that will eventually connect Palisade to Loma was started and much of it has been completed. Since its inception, the commission has facilitated the purchase of property, negotiated easements and raised public awareness of this great resource. Several large sections of this trail have been completed and several shorter trails have been built leading to places like Connected Lakes and other public lands. Enough of the trail is completed that one could ride a bike or walk from Las Colonias all the way to Loma, about 20 miles away, almost entirely without getting on a city street. Sections have been built in pieces going from Las Colonias to Palisade and the River Front Commission is in constant negotiations with the few property owners that are holding out. For more information or to help out head to their website.
Las Colonias and the upcoming Dos Rios further the commitment the City of Grand Junction has made to its open spaces turning these old Super Fund sites into public areas that combine work and play in a way that reminds people that it is just as important to support your household as it is to rejuvenate your soul.
As the river winds through the valley it slowly erodes away at its banks, as rivers have always done. It’s one of the main processes by which this great landscape was formed. But, once you claim a plot of land, and more land is difficult to acquire, it must be hard to watch that land slowly falling off into the river and do nothing to stop it. Some property owners tried to take steps to slow the process by dumping rebar laden concrete, planting tamarisk or other invasive trees, and sometimes even lining the banks with old cars. This was in a time before the EPA existed or the long-term impact was widely accepted or cared about. Remnants of this can still be found up and down the river, though several local groups have been making efforts to clean it up. Organizations like the Tamarisk Coalition, now known as Rivers Edge West, have been working to remove tamarisk, and other invasive trees from the river banks and other groups have been working to clean up some of the other debris. There is still a long way to go but at least an effort is being made.
River Clean up:
Humans can be slobs, trash and debris often get dumped or flushed into the river making it gross. Not all humans are slobs though and for the last 15 years local river rats have taken to the river at least once a year to do a big river clean up. This cleanup has been organized by a few different groups over the years with the latest organization to head it up being the Grand Valley Paddle Club. This continuing effort may be never ending, in 2019 75 volunteers, in 3 groups, picked up 18 yards of trash from 30 miles of river, through The Grand Valley from Palisade to Fruita. It can be discouraging to look at 15 years of river clean up and still see that much trash pulled out but it is encouraging to see locals come and care for this resource year after year. It’s a reminder that we need to be ever vigilant in our efforts to care for and maintain our beautiful places, it’s also a reminder to land managers of how important these places are to the people that use them.
Class I/II my ass
I have long believed that the Colorado River through the Grand Valley is the most dangerous stretch of class I/II water that I have personally ever run. I’m not saying it’s the most dangerous I’ve ever run but while it is class I/II most of the year, at high water it becomes class IV maybe even V and not because of the rapids or technical aspect but the danger; the grade or classification of a river reflects both the technical difficulty and the danger associated with a rapid or stretch of river. There are real hazards on this stretch and the harm they cause are evident in the number of calls the Mesa County SAR get during spring runoff and the death toll that rises year after year. In an article published in May 2019, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reported that 11 people have died on this river in the last 8 years. Every river has its dangers and I’m not trying to imply that this river has some sort of special hazard not present anywhere else but I think it important to continue to have this conversation so people continue to understand the hazards present and prepare accordingly.
Please be safe out there and always:
Wear a properly fitted PFD (life jacket)
Use equipment designed for the river
Have all your safety gear and patch kits with you and in proper working order
Watch out for hazards like strainers, rebar, farm equipment and other debris
Stay within your skill level
Let people know where you will be and an approximate time you should be getting off
Avoid excessive drinking or drug use
For more information on the runs on the river please go to the individual pages for each section.