Most everyone has been to the Four Corners Monument with its outdoor concrete patio and granite-and-bronze circle. Tourists sprawl in contorted positions to get both hands and both feet in each of four states.
Usually, it’s hot, crowded and dusty at 5,000 feet in elevation on the Navajo Reservation. More than 250,000 people a year make that tourist pilgrimage to touch Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.
But how about visiting The Other Four Corners at 10,675 feet and not a tour bus in sight? The Other Four Corners is high in the San Juan National Forest on a ridgeline with stately fir and spruce. Old dashes and blazes on trees mark an historic trail. The little-known other four corners is more to my liking with the occasional chattering chipmunk, bright blue sky pilot flowers and penetrating sounds of the hermit thrush. No one is ever there.
HHHHow did the juxtaposition of four states become such a roadside attraction with tourists in their cars and campers swaying across the Southwest hurrying from national park to national park and stopping at the monument to take selfies?
Finding the Four Corners location began as part of surveying the American West after the Civil War. As territories evolved into states, it made sense to delineate their boundaries. Early surveyors like Chandler Robbins, under contract with the General Land Office in 1875, tried to find the boundary between the territories of Arizona and New Mexico. Out in the desert that’s hard to do, but he succeeded and left a pile of stones. A year later, Colorado became a state.
La Plata County, a huge mountain empire, had Howardsville as its county seat. In January 1876, San Juan County split off to the north with its county seat at Silverton. The new La Plata County seat became Parrot City in the La Plata Mountains, a mere mining camp with a pretentious name. A year after statehood, prospectors and miners advocated for a separate county. In 1877, Ouray County split off from the western part of San Juan County requiring a stone marker high on a ridge line.
Locals then agitated for another county to be carved out of the southern part of Ouray County. In 1881, Dolores County was established, with Rico as its county seat. La Plata County stretched from high peaks to the Utah state line until 1889, when the state Legislature created Montezuma County from the western part of La Plata County. Somewhere up in the San Juan National Forest, four Colorado counties come together in their own four corners. I set out to find that historic intersection.
HHHFor my guide, I had the intrepid Mark Ott, a Montezuma County native who has climbed 3,000 peaks. For 40 years, he has left registers across Colorado’s mountains, usually in glass jars.
“Signing a register is a good feeling after you’ve made a climb,” he said.
Ott volunteers to work on the Colorado Trail, where he also guides small hiking groups.
“Trail work is my favorite thing to do. It’s so rewarding to help people out,” he said with Ranger at his side. Ranger is a 32-pound cocker spaniel and a constant climbing companion who has bagged an impressive 1,600 peaks with Ott. “Ranger thinks he’s a marmot.”
Our goal was to find The Other Four Corners, which is a tree-covered opening close to the Colorado Trail on the divide between the Dolores River and Animas River watersheds. We missed it. In 1935, newspaper columnist Ernie Pyle almost missed the Four Corners. He wrote, “I had been holding my breath for years for fear Mrs. (Eleanor) Roosevelt would beat me to Four Corners, but as far as I know, I made it first.”
Pyle had a difficult time driving west from Shiprock for 30 miles then “8 miles on a track that was full of rocks and drifted sand.” Finally, Pyle and his driving buddy found a 2-foot-high concrete post with a bronze plate and 2 inch-long lines crossing at the top indicating the intersection of four states.
“We got kind of silly there,” he said. “First thing, I had to sit on top of the post, which made my rather scant bottom repose in four states simultaneously. I don’t care how big your bottom is, you can’t do better than that.” After numerous photos, “we got out our sandwiches, and I sat on the post eating in one-twelfth of America all at once.” Pyle couldn’t lunch there now. Too many people wait in line.
HHHHigh in the San Juan Mountains, we also had snacks, but we shared stories and walked too far. Ott knew something was wrong. I trusted him. Not only has he climbed all those mountains, but he also fell off one, Lavender Peak. He dropped 70 feet, broke five ribs, one arm and almost lost an ear. But within a month, Ott was back climbing.
So, trusting his instincts, we doubled back and stayed on the ridge and off the trail. I spied a stump with red rocks piled on top. Marmots don’t do that. I pointed, he nodded and off we went. Sure enough, that improvised cairn brought us to a unique spot in Colorado, where an 1877 stone etched with the names La Plata and San Juan stands in deep grass. A roofed wooden shrine holds a 4-foot-tall segment of a tree with the words burned in: SAN JUAN CO SEPT 9 1880. I found the original tree base and carved into the trunk was one word – LINE. We were standing at The Other Four Corners.
Ott pulled plastic-coated papers and historical lessons from a rounded green metal vault. Colorado Trail volunteer Laverne Nelson and a seven-person team found this rare historic site Aug. 27, 2001. Durango Herald columnist John Peel wrote about it. Then someone got truly inspired and created a nifty contraption like a four-person buggy seat with each seat facing a different cardinal direction. Although we didn’t place our butts in four counties at once, by hopping from bench to bench we visited four county “seats” and avoided long, arduous trips to Durango, Ouray, Cortez and Dove Creek to do the same thing.
Unlike the Four Corners Monument with tourists erupting out of vehicles, there were just the two of us. Since Nelson placed the register in 2001, perhaps 40 people had signed in. No one did in 2019. A few weeks before us, Rob Harries and Jodi Deller arrived and wrote, “What a great spot & historic place. We have been looking for this for years.” Earlier, Kelli and Dave Ganeisky had found this four corners hideaway and written, “Wonderful place. I work for La Plata Co. & love this great little piece of history.” Ott and I signed in as the fourth group of the year.
HHHSo, let all those frenzied tourists travel to the Four Corners Monument. It’s not even in the right place. Surveyors admit the fancy plaza is 1,807 feet east of where it should be. But the four corners of four Southwest Colorado counties is in the right place. I’ve seen the stone marker, the historic tree trunk and the U.S. Forest Service bearing tree from 2018.
Besides, I cherish fewer crowds and local history. Just like poet Robert Frost, I prefer to take “the road less taken.” And we did.
Andrew Gulliford is professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. Reach him at [email protected].