The children’s book market is as crowded as a library shelf. [Photo] ProjectManhattan/Wikimedia Commons
I’ve never had a children’s book published, or even written one. That doesn’t stop writers who are looking for advice on getting their children’s books published from contacting me.
What I know about getting a children’s book published is that it’s not much different than getting any other book published, with one caveat: It’s a lot harder.
The reason it’s a lot harder is that people think it’s easy to write one. There are a couple hundred words in a children’s book, versus tens of thousands of words in an adult novel or work of nonfiction. Books written for adults require a lot of research, too.
Since people think children’s books are easy to write, a lot of people write them. This means that children’s book publishers are overwhelmed with submissions – letters of inquiry, book proposals, and manuscripts – and most of them are not good. It also means there are a lot of good ones, too, so there is a lot of competition.
Children’s books are hard to write because every single word counts.
That’s true for any book, but because there are so few words in a children’s book, it’s even more true. If one of my books has 85,000 words and 8,000 sentences, I can bury a few bad sentences here and there, and most people won’t notice. In a children’s book, if you have even one bad sentence, people will notice. If there are only ten sentences in the whole book and one of them is bad, then 10% of your book is bad.
If you see a children’s book written by someone who is not a writer, say, a famous actor or singer, do not assume the person – in addition to their celebrity – is a talented writer. People with that kind of money hire other people to help them write books, and get them published. They may have the original idea, and it may be a wonderful idea, but writing is harder than you think, and often times the easier a book is to read, the harder it was to write. Good writers know how to make writing that’s easy to read, and celebrities can afford to hire the best writers to help them write their books.
Publishers like to publish books “written” by famous people, because (a) the celebrity worked with a really good writer, and probably an illustrator, too, to get the words and illustrations just right, and (b) they don’t have to worry so much about marketing the book, because the celebrity will do it for them. I applaud anyone who writes a book, no matter how they got it done, but I think this practice gives the general public the impression that anyone can write a children’s book, when that is just not true. Sometimes it takes hours to write one sentence. This has nothing to do with “writer’s block,” which is a whole different thing. It just takes that long, sometimes, to get a sentence exactly right.
When anyone asks me for advice, I am happy to provide it. I may not be an expert and I let them know that, but I am happy to provide them with the information I do have. So when I get an email or a letter from someone who wants advice about writing or getting published, I always reply.
It takes a while to write a letter, so from now on I’m going to post them here on my blog. That way, the next time someone asks me for advice on how to get their children’s book published, I can point them here. This will save me a lot of time, so I can get some writing done.
I read your letter of inquiry and book manuscripts. I really liked the books. The stories are fun and I can see how a kid would enjoy reading them. I also liked the fact that you included some information about yourself in the letter. Rather than edit them, I’m going to give you some advice. The reason I don’t want to edit them is because there is not enough to edit. A publisher is going to want a lot more information.
First, here are some things you should know about the publishing industry.
The publishing industry, and especially the sector for publishing children’s books, is extremely competitive. This means you have to do everything right, or you will not get a contract.
The letter of inquiry is good, but generic. Every publisher will want specific information in your letter of inquiry. Likewise, every publisher wants to see specific information in a book proposal. The information they want to see varies from one publisher to the next.
Depending on the publisher you reach out to, they may want to see (a) a letter of inquiry, (b) a book proposal, or (c) your actual manuscript. Some companies don’t want to see a manuscript at all until they’ve read the letter of inquiry or book proposal, and then they will let you know if they’re interested in seeing your manuscript.
This may sound like they’re being “picky,” but publishers get thousands of letters and proposals, so they don’t even read most of them, and if you send them something they don’t want or didn’t ask for, they won’t read it. They’ll just send you a form letter or email rejection.
Here is my advice.
Go to a bookstore and check out the children’s book section. Find books that are similar to yours – not ones that necessarily “look” like yours or have a similar story line, but books that are about the same word count, and written for the same children’s age range as your books.
The publishers of those books are the publishers that you want to be targeting. Every publishing company is interested in specific types of books, so if your book isn’t their specific “type,” they will not be interested.
Get a copy of Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market 2016. “Writer’s Market” books are a listing of publishers. Look up the publishers you are targeting. When you find one, it will show you exactly what they want to see from you. Like I said, some publishers want a letter of inquiry, some want a book proposal, and some will look at a manuscript. Some do not accept work from new authors at all, and some of them will only accept work from an agent. Knowing this upfront will keep you from wasting your time contacting the wrong publisher with the wrong information.
The listings will also give you pertinent information like the name of the person at the publisher to contact, usually an acquisitions editor. This is extremely important, because if you send your stuff to the wrong person it will just get thrown away. People at publishing companies are inundated with inquiries, so they don’t go out of their way to read everything.
The listing will also tell you how to contact them. Some of them will accept email, and some will want hard copies.
The listing will also tell you the format to use for your work. Again, publishers are very picky. They may want everything in Times New Roman, 12 point font, double-spaced, and if you don’t send it that way they will not read it. I’m not kidding.
Once you’ve found a publisher that is interested in the type of books you write, and that is accepting work from new authors, follow the instructions on who to contact at the company and how to contact them.
My first book proposal was 13 pages long and included a lot of information, because that’s what the publisher wanted to see before they would even look at a manuscript. I’m telling you all this because I know how hard it is to get a book contract. It took me a long time. I will tell you that if you send a generic letter of inquiry without “doing your homework” about the specific publisher you are targeting, your work will not get read. If you send them a bulleted list of the manuscript, they will not read it. That’s just how it is.
Start with the letter and manuscripts you have prepared, but then follow my directions. You can buy a Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market on Amazon for about $20. I have several of them (they have different versions) and they are invaluable! In addition to the listings, they include a lot of great information about the market, getting an agent, and getting published.
I have a sister who has been trying to get a children’s book published for a couple of years, and she said the information she received from her local chapter has been very helpful. I don’t trust advertising for groups like this, but I trust my sister, and if she says it’s worthwhile I believe her.
After you do all of the above, and you have the right information for a specific publisher, written up in the proper format, and you would like me to look at it, feel free to send it on. I love to see new authors get published, but I also know how difficult it is. You have to do every single thing the publisher’s way, or your manuscript will not be read, no matter how good it is.
The meadow at Strawberry Fields, southeast of Mount Cutler in South Cheyenne Canyon, North Cheyenne Cañon Park, is the main focus of a hotly disputed land deal that would give the public property to the Broadmoor in a land trade. Photo by Stewart M. Green.
At first glance, it’s hard to understand why some people are opposed to a swap of public and private land between the City of Colorado Springs and the Broadmoor.
The proposed deal appears to be a win-win for local recreationists.
In the proposal, the public gets 154.6 acres around Barr Trail and the Manitou Incline, and 208 acres west of North Cheyenne Cañon Park, popular hiking areas. Springs residents also get 8.6 acres south of Bear Creek Regional Park, which would allow the park to expand.
In return, the Broadmoor gets 0.55 acres off of Ruxton Avenue, which it currently leases for Cog Railway parking, plus 189.5 acres of North Cheyenne Cañon Park, known as Strawberry Fields. The Broadmoor also promises public access to the ice climbing area known as Hully Gully, and a trail through Strawberry Fields.
The size and financial worth of the properties clearly put the deal in the city’s favor, an argument voiced by supporters. But opponents of the deal believe there is more at stake than acreage, easements and assessments.
“We should not be weighing this based on acreage and financial value,” said Springs business owner Richard Skorman. “What the Broadmoor is trading to the city doesn’t have any practical value to them, only financial value. The city is giving away property that has recreational value to the public.”
Skorman is concerned about how the deal was crafted. “The Broadmoor, city parks department and city staff put this together, but we have no details at all about the commercial development that’s going to end up in Strawberry Fields. They plan on developing 7-9 acres, which is probably going to be the only flat area on the property – the meadow – an area the public currently enjoys most,” he said. Skorman also questioned why there has been no inclusion of the city’s planning department, which would traditionally evaluate proposed development.
“If they are putting in a 100-seat pavilion, horse or pony stables, and 45-minute long riding trails, they should be doing noise and light pollution studies, and traffic studies. If they plan on having music, that canyon is like an echo chamber. They will have to bus people to the area, and they’re already shuttling people to Seven Falls, so that’s going to cause even more congestion, and affect local residents and recreationists. This requires an environmental assessment, because it’s a drainage area into Cheyenne Creek, which already has problems with E. coli and flooding,” he said, adding that this type of development is typically fully vetted before it is even brought before the city council.
“TOPS and the parks department should do a master plan of South Cheyenne Canyon first, since that hasn’t been done since 2003. The city council and the park board don’t have enough information to make the proper evaluations, and they certainly won’t know how Strawberry Fields could benefit the public until there is a public benefit master planning process. That should all happen first, and then if the Broadmoor’s plans can fit into what’s best for the public, a lease could be considered. This is being done backwards, and creates a dangerous precedent for giving public lands away. The public has a right to have our questions answered before a decision is made, and right now we know very little.”
Skorman would like to see the commercial development follow the standard development and planning process before it would be even considered by the park board and city council, like any other commercial development. “This is being rushed, and the citizens of Colorado Springs should demand to slow it down, and we should be brought into the process,” he said, adding that the proposal should ultimately be voted on by the public, “because it was originally voted on by the public in 1885.” Skorman added, “The precedent of trading property is a slippery slope, we don’t want to open that door because we own public land all over the city that landowners and developers would love to trade for.”
Skorman also noted that fears about limiting access to Barr Trail and the Incline if the swap doesn’t go through are unfounded. “It would be easier to let the city buy those properties with TOPS money,” he said, “That’s what TOPS is for. The Broadmoor doesn’t want the liability anyway.”
A Facebook page titled Save Cheyenne was set up in opposition to the land swap, and a petition against the deal at www.change.org has more than 3,000 signatures. Skorman is leading hikes through Strawberry Fields daily at 10 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., and anyone interested is welcomed to meet for the hike at Sacred Grounds on Cheyenne Boulevard.
Residents can attend a monthly TOPS working committee meeting, and a monthly park board meeting, to learn more. A public meeting about the proposed land deal will be held on Wednesday, March 30, at Gold Camp Elementary, 1805 Preserve Drive. Springs residents are welcome to attend to learn more, ask questions, and voice their opinions on the proposal.
Springs businessman Richard Skorman has many questions about the proposed land swap between the city and the Broadmoor. Photo courtesy of Richard Skorman.
Greenhorn Mountain (12,347′) in San Isabel National Forest can be reached with a 5.2 mile 1,300′ elevation roundtrip hike from the Upper Greenhorn Trailhead. Photo by Stewart M. Green.
Greenhorn Mountain is the highpoint of the Wet Mountains, a range that picks up where Colorado’s Front Range ends, at the Cañon City Embayment near Cañon City. The Wet Mountains were formed by the San Isabel batholith and a faulted anticline, evidenced by the smooth-shouldered, rolling hills of the range.
Named for the prevalent moisture of the area in a predominantly dry region of the state, the Wet Mountains hold snow late into the springtime, and the melt-off feeds numerous waterways that filter through the surrounding, green valleys. Bighorn sheep make their home on Greenhorn Mountain.
The name of the peak refers to Cuerno Verde, Spanish for “Green Horn,” the nickname of Comanche Chief Tabivo Naritgant, known for the green-tinted bison horn that adorned his battle headdress. The chief inherited the helmet and the nickname from his father, who was killed by Spanish explorers in an act that set in motion Naritgant’s tribal requisite to avenge his father’s death. The ongoing battle between Naritgant and the Spaniards ended when the chief—along with his first born son and about a dozen others of the Comanche tribe—was killed in combat near Greenhorn Mountain on September 3, 1779, by Spanish troops and Native American allies under army captain Juan Bautista de Anza. Naritgant’s headdress was brought to Spain as a trophy for King Charles III, who presented it to Pope Pius VI, and the battle helmet of Chief Naritgant remains in the collection of the Vatican Museums.
From the summit of Greenhorn Mountain, the surrounding plains and valleys—sites of numerous battles between Spaniards and Comanches—may be viewed. Easily recognizable peaks visible from the summit include the isolated mound of 6er Huerfano Butte, along I-25 far below and to the northeast; the imposing twin summits of 12er East Spanish Peak and Spanish Peaks highpoint, 13er West Spanish Peak to the south; and the twin 13er summits of the Buffalo Peaks near Trout Pass to the northwest. In addition, on a clear day and with a keen eye, you can count as many as twenty 14,000-foot peaks from the summit. Looking southwest and turning clockwise, the following ranges are visible: the Blanca Group to the southwest; the Crestones and Great Sand Dunes, across the Wet Mountain Valley to the west; the Sawatch Range to the northwest; and the Front Range, including the Pikes Peak massif, to the north.
A plaque in Greenhorn Meadows Park, Colorado City commemorates the defeat of Comanche Chief Tabivo Naritgant, or “Green Horn,” referring to him as the “Cruel Scourge.” Greenhorn Mountain and the Greenhorn Mountain Wilderness present a kinder tribute to the man who lost his father, his son, and his life to western expansion.
Climbing Colorado’s Mountains (October 2015, FalconGuides) features driving directions, route descriptions, maps, photos and GPS waypoints to more than 100 Colorado summits.
Hahns Peak (10,839′) in Routt National Forest is climbed year-round by boot, ski, and snowshoe. From County Road 129 it’s just 6 miles and +2,164 feet of elevation gain, round-trip. Photo by Susan Joy Paul.
Climbing Colorado’s Mountains (October 2015, FalconGuides) features driving directions, route descriptions, maps, photos and GPS waypoints to more than 100 Colorado summits.
I was reading a public mountaineering forum this morning and was struck by some comments made to a writer about his book, which he had posted in the forum. The author was a member of Colorado Search and Rescue (SAR), and some people on the forum questioned his character in regard to writing a book about his experiences and not explicitly pledging a portion of the profits to SAR. Below is my response.
People seem to have a lot of misconceptions about the business side of the publishing industry. The fact is, if you work with a publisher, and they get your book into stores, the retailer keeps at least 40% of the money when they sell one of your books. Some of the big box retailers take 55% or more. That’s right: If you write a book and Walmart sells it for $20, they get $11. Of the remaining $9, the publisher takes 85-90% – so up to $8.10 – for editing, layout, printing, marketing, sales, and distribution. That leaves between 90 cents (worst case) and $1.80 (best case) for the author for each $20 book sold.
This is no different than any other business that provides a product or service: The individual contributor generally gets a small percentage of what you pay for an item. Case in point: When I taught college, my students were paying collectively $15,000 a week for my classes. I was definitely not making $15,000 a week. Think about your own jobs and what people are paying for what you create or provide, and ultimately, how much of that actually ends up in your paycheck. REI takes 40% or more of every book they sell, and they take similar percentages if not more for all other items they sell. This is Business 101, folks, so if you want to make money at something you need to learn the business side of whatever industry you jump into.
Back to publishing… What the author stated in his original post — about not making a lot of money off each book sale — is true for what he refers to as “non-fiction niche market” books, and it’s also true for any other book that gets written and published. If you want to make a million dollars, you have to write a book that a million people will buy. You can bypass the big publishers and self-publish, but then you have to do all the other stuff – editing, layout, printing, marketing, sales, and distribution – yourself, and if you’re a writer you don’t want to spend time doing that crap, you just want to write. Also, all that stuff costs money, too, and it’s a heck of a lot cheaper (per book) for a big publisher to get 10,000 books printed than it is for a self-published author to get 1,000 books printed. And who wants to manage that inventory? I don’t. Amazon Kindle is a great option for self-publishing, by the way, and they give you a large percentage of the sale price, but you will have to invest some time into learning about online marketing to promote your work, and then actually doing the marketing, or no one will know it’s out there.
If you hear stories of people getting $100,000 advances on their books, it’s because the publisher is confident they’ll sell 100,000 books the first year or two that the book is out. They don’t actually pay them to write the book, they give them this money upfront, which counts against future royalties on books sold. Make sense?
Most people who are in the business of book-writing as a career use the books to establish themselves as experts in their fields, and leverage that for paying jobs, or they do the book tour circuit, with paid speaking engagements, where they usually also sell and sign their books (they can get them directly from the publisher, bypassing the retailer and thus getting a bigger cut). Either way, they are still working. Personally, I am an extreme introvert (borderline recluse), and so the thought of speaking engagements makes my skin crawl, but I occasionally do them anyway and then I go home exhausted and think “Wow, that was fun, maybe I’ll do another one – in ten years.” But there are authors who really enjoy them, and who do them well, and who make a career out of them. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s called a job.
Writers seldom talk about this stuff, because we often get smug comments like, “I would never write a book, then,” and all I can say to that is, “You’re right, you would never write a book, because if the only reason you would write a book is for financial gain, then you’re not a writer.” Actually, they would never write a book because few people would actually devote the time and energy it takes to start and finish a book. The author mentioned he spent 1,000 hours on his book, and I would agree, having spent between 1,000 and 2,000 hours on each of my own books. It is a crap-ton of work, and most writers do it while they’re also working full time jobs. As I stated on another thread, I regularly put in 80-100 hour workweeks for four years writing books.
Before you criticize, or think to yourself, “What a waste of time,” think about how this compares to mountaineering.
You know how when you go to work on Monday morning and tell your cubemate that you slogged ten miles in thigh-deep snow over the weekend to the top of a 14,000-foot mountain and you stood up there all by yourself watching the sun come up and light up the peaks for a hundred miles around and they look at you like you’re nuts and say something stupid like, “I would never climb a mountain. You couldn’t pay me to do that. What a waste of time.”
They’re right, they would never climb a mountain, not so much because they wouldn’t get paid to climb a mountain, but more because they would never drag their ass out of bed early enough to drive two hours to a trailhead in the dark and put on all those layers and haul themselves and their pack through all that snow to the top of that peak.
And they’ll never know what it was like to stand up there, like you did.
That’s how it feels when someone tells me they’ll never write a book because it’s a waste of time.
One final note: As far as donating a portion of your royalties to charity, considering what most writers make that’s a ridiculous request, but I’ve been asked the same thing numerous times. I even had a TV station call and ask me to do an interview for them, and they would promote my books, if I agreed to donate some of my earnings to charity. When asked about my charitable contributions, I usually give some P.C., B.S. response.
Here’s what I would like to say:
“How much of my earnings do I donate to charity? Well, let me ask you that same question, how much of your earnings do you donate to charity?”
While they’re standing there with a puzzled look on their face, I would continue…
“Wait, I really don’t want you to answer that question. Do you know why?
My latest book, Climbing Colorado’s Mountains, was edited from the original manuscript and more than 21,000 words had to be cut to fit the book format. Following is the original chapter I wrote about the geology of the mountains.
Rocky red towers of sandstone–remnants of an ancient seabed–frame Pikes Peak (14,110′) above Colorado Springs. [Photo: Stewart M. Green]
Three major provinces comprise Colorado’s topography: the plains or prairies of the east, plateaus of the west, and the mountains—specifically, the Rocky Mountains—that split the state from north to south, between the prairies and plateaus. The Rocky Mountain system is composed of many smaller mountain ranges and subranges, most running north-south, with a few running east-west. The mountains, or peaks, of Colorado are as varied as the forces that created and defined them. Our mountains began their slow development about 1.8 billion years ago, when the shifting of tectonic plates—sections of the earth’s outer crust or lithosphere—movement of molten rock or magma within the Earth’s crust, and volcanic eruptions all served to thrust the landscape of our state upward. At the same time, wind, rain, ice, lava, and rock fall pummeled the terrain, eroding the uplifted earth away to a lower, smoother playing ground. It is these two forces, uplift and erosion, that formed the mountains of Colorado we see and climb today.
Fishers Peak (9,627′) rises up more than 3,500 feet above Trinidad at the edge of the Great Plains near Raton Pass. [Photo: Susan Joy Paul]
Generally speaking, the major ranges of Colorado can trace their origins back to uplift in the form of batholiths and faulted anticlines. Batholiths formed when an igneous intrusion—molten rock that intruded the lithosphere but did not break through to the surface—solidified as a large mass beneath the earth, and was later exposed due to volcanic activity that pushed it up, and by erosion that cleared sediment from the surface. Underground pressure forced softer rock upward into tent-like folds or anticlines, and faults were created as the rock—under tremendous stress—split, and the sections shifted apart. Erupted volcanoes and layers of eroded and erupted rock, or sediments, topped some of the mountain ranges as well, forming newer ranges. Mountain building, or orogeny, is not isolated to Colorado, and in fact the Rocky Mountains extend north into Canada and south into New Mexico, and are part of a larger system known as the North American Cordillera, a subrange of the American Cordillera that stretches from Alaska to South America.
The many types of rocks created by uplift andberosion add to the variety in our peaks. Colorado’s mountains are composed mainly of igneous rocks like basalt, breccia, gabbro, granite, pegmatite, porphyry, and tuff; sedimentary rocks like conglomerate, dolomite, limestone, sandstone, and shale; and metamorphic rocks like gneiss,hornfels, migmatite, schist, and quartzite.
· Igneous rocks are formed by molten rock as it cools and hardens. Magma can rise and push through the surrounding rock, exploding above the surface as fine-grained volcanic rock, or it can solidify below the surface, as coarse-grained plutonic rock. Intrusions of plutonic rock may be exposed over time, as batholiths, dikes and plugs.
· Sedimentary rocks are made up of beds of material that have accumulated through erosion of older rocks, precipitated from water sources above or below the ground, or are the remains of plants and animals. The beds consolidate in layers, and the angle of the layers from the Earth’s surface present various slope and ledge systems, and challenges, for the mountain climber.
· Metamorphic rocksare created when rocks and minerals are subjected to intense heat and pressure, changing the mineral structure and forming a new type of rock. The type of new rock created varies, based on the original matter, the temperature and duration of the heating, and the amount of pressure. Contact metamorphism occurs in rock that’s heated due to proximity with superheated magma or a lava flow. Regional metamorphism is caused by the shifting of tectonic plates, when rock is forced deep into the Earth, and high temperatures and extreme pressure cause the rock to metamorphose.
The Crestone Mountains of the Sangre de Cristo Range form a striking backdrop above Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in southern Colorado. [Photo: Stewart M. Green]
It may seem strange that the mountains of landlocked Colorado consist of such a wide variety of rocks and minerals, until you examine the geologic evolution of our state. The geologic record tells us the Earth’s crust stabilized four and a half billion years ago, and the uplift and erosion that formed Colorado’s landscape occurred within roughly the last 2 billion years. The mountains may not have been here since the beginning of time, but—compared to mere mortals, who appeared on Earth just 2 million years ago, and in Colorado a mere 15,000 years ago—they have been in development for a very, very, very long time. Here’s a brief summary of the development of our peaks:
· 1.8 billion years ago: The area on Earth we know as Colorado was a series of island chains off the coast of the ancient supercontinent of Laurentia. Tectonic plates, sections of the earth’s lithosphere, moved north and drove the islands under Laurentia.
· 1.7 billion years ago: During the Colorado Orogeny, magma beneath the lithosphere interacted with the island rock, forming igneous and metamorphic rock, the basement rock that emerged as the Colorado Province,and which forms the bases of our oldest mountain ranges.
· 1.4 billion years ago: The Berthoud Orogenydefined a period of tectonic plate shifts and batholith surges in Colorado, evidenced by—among others—the St. Vrain (Longs Peak) Batholith, Silver Plume Batholith, and the Mount Evans Batholith in the Front Range, the San Isabel Batholith in the Wet Mountains, and the St. Kevin Batholith in the Sawatch Range.
· 1.1 billion years ago: During the Grenville Orogeny the Pikes Peak Batholith intruded the outer crust of the earth as an irregular, elliptical mound of superheated magma, and cooled a mile or two beneath the surface.
· 1.1 billion to 500 million years ago: Erosion exposed and softened basement rock, forming low, rounded hills throughout the state. Erosion also exposed the surfaces of the intruded batholiths, such as the 1,200-square-mile mass of the Pikes Peak Batholith that now makes up the Tarryall Mountains, Rampart Range, and the Pikes Peak Massif in south-central Colorado.
The Diamond Peaks at Cameron Pass form the southern terminus of the Rawah Range, offering views south to the Nokhu Crags of the Never Summer Range. [Photo: Susan Joy Paul]
· 320 million to 250 million years ago: A slow (very slow) collision between all the land masses formed the supercontinent of Pangaea. The collision created uplift, forcing large masses of metamorphic rock up through layers of limestone and dolomite—sediments of ancient seas—forming faulted anticlines in the basement rock of Colorado. As the rock was being uplifted, it was also being worn away by erosion. The Front Range Uplift in central Colorado and the Uncompahgre Uplift in western Colorado created two northwest-to-southeast trending ranges of about 10,000 feet, Frontrangia and Uncompahgria. These ranges comprised the major mountains of the Ancestral Rocky Mountains. The uplifts caused the complete erosion of surrounding sedimentary rock in some places, and today those areas are marked by an absence of old layers of rock, and an uncomformity exists where newer sedimentary rock lies directly on top of the ancient basement rock. The Great Unconformity refers to a great lapse of time in the physical, geologic history of the land, and is found in areas across Colorado.
· 250 million to 100 million years ago: The Ancestral Rockies eroded away, and their overlying sediment was swept down their slopes and deposited to the east and west in tumbled-down sediment.
· 75 million to 45 million years ago: Plate movement from the west increased, affecting a compression of the earth below, and buckling of the surface. A mountain-building episode of uplift known as the Laramide Orogeny occurred, where the area between what are now the cities of Grand Junction and Denver was shortened by as much as fifty miles, and the Laramide Mountains rose up, defining the areas of the major mountain ranges in today’s Colorado. At the same time, magma rose up in a diagonal line from the southwestern San Juan Mountains northeast to the Front Range. Much of the magma solidified below, forming Colorado’s Mineral Belt: great masses of igneous rock laced with deposits of gold, silver, lead, and zinc. Magma also made its way to the surface, feeding volcanoes. The Colorado River began to form at this time, west of the Laramide Mountains, eventually flowing southwest to carve out the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
· 45 million to 35 million years ago: Uplift slowed but erosion continued along the area of the Laramide Orogeny, and thepeaks were gently reduced to low mountains and rolling hills rising from plains just a few thousand feet above sea level. At the same time, magma intrusion increased, exploding above the surface as volcanoes.
· 35 million to 26 million years ago: Volcanoes rose up in northern Colorado, spewing lava that hardened and was later eroded during periods of uplift, and by wind, water, and gravity. Volcanic activity in the southwest part of the state forced ash into the air which eventually settled, forming a thick layer of tuff throughout the area of the San Juan Mountains. That same activity formed volcanic rock still evident throughout the San Juans, West Elk Mountains, and the Never Summer Range. Igneous intrusion continued, forming more blocks of granite throughout the San Miguel, Sawatch, West Elk, and Elk Mountains, and the Front Range. This period also marks the beginnings of the Rio Grande Rift, when that same volcanic activity that pushed the land upward caused the lithosphere located between the uplifts to rise, thin out, spread apart, and fill with sediment eroded from nearby peaks, and blown in by wind from surrounding mountain passes. In south central Colorado, the Sangre de Cristo Fault and the Alvarado Fault began an active period of thrust, eventually defining the east and west borders of the Sangre de Cristo Range.
The sheer west face of Mount Zirkel (12,180’) is best viewed from Big Agnes Mountain (12,060’) in the Sawtooth Range. [Photo: Susan Joy Paul]
· 26 million years ago: Another tectonic plate shift pulled the land westward, toward the Pacific. Faulting occurred along the Colorado landscape, and the Rio Grande Rift grew, stretching from around Leadville in Colorado, to Chihuahua, Mexico. Great valleys were formed along the rift, such as the northern Arkansas Valley that split the Sawatch and Mosquito mountain ranges, and the San Luis Valley between the San Juan Mountains and Sangre de Cristo Range. Heat generated by plate movement deep within the earth caused a final, great uplift across the land, and much of Colorado was raised by about 6,000 feet.
· 26 million to 2.5 million years ago: Basalt flows capped the Grand Mesa, west.
· 2.5 million years ago: Temperatures dropped, glaciers moved in from the north, and the Ice Age began. Wind-driven ice and snow and grinding glaciers left their mark on 1.4 billion-year-old basement rock, witnessed by chiseled rock face and polished, alpine cirques, such as those on display in the Mummy Range. Subsequent freeze-thaw cycles severed rock from the mountains and cliffs into football-to-crate-sized chunks now seen as talus fields. Ice Age glaciers carved out valleys along the flanks of the Sierra Blanca Range, leaving behind alpine basins and loose moraines. Further pulverizing of the rock created scree fields, and the formation of talus and scree fields continues today.
· 170,000 to 120,000 years ago: A period of glacier activity occurred, witnessed by present-day moraines, polished rock, glacial cirques and enormous, stranded boulders, glacial erratics that were formed or carried by moving slabs of ice.
· 30,000 to 12,000 years ago: Another period of glacial activity continued to mark the land, and high basins were formed, the eventual settings for today’s alpine lakes. Humans first appeared in Colorado during this time.
· 12,000 to 5,000 years ago: Temperatures rose and the glaciers retreated.
· 5,000 years ago to the Present: Colorado’s current “glaciers” and perennial snowfields are not remnants of the Ice Age, but were formed in later years during short periods of cold, including the Little Ice Age that occurred just a few hundred years ago and ended in the late 1800s. Rock glaciers were also created, rocky remnants of ice glaciers seen along mountain slopes, their movement eased by bits of ice formed of precipitation caught and frozen beneath the surface. Rock glaciers are still found in Colorado, such as on Mount Mestas at La Veta Pass in south-central Colorado, and Engineer Mountain at Coal Bank Pass, in the southwest part of the state.
Mountain building did not come to an abrupt halt in the 21st century, and Colorado’s mountains continue to evolve, shaped by forces of nature like uplift, erosion, precipitation, rockslides, mudslides, flashfloods, and changing temperatures; and by human intrusion with mining, road-building, and of course, mountaineering. This creates an ever-changing and unpredictable environment for the Colorado mountaineer, and a demand for vigilance on every outing.
Vermilion Peak (13,894′) tops San Juan county at Ice Lake Basin near Silverton. [Photo: Susan Joy Paul]
Climbing Colorado’s Mountains (October 2015, FalconGuides) features driving directions, route descriptions, maps, photos and GPS waypoints to 100 Colorado mountain adventures.