Mount Of The Holy Cross – A Sign From Above To Push Westward?


Today I want to share with you a little tidbit of history I stumbled across in my research, one I was previously unfamiliar with.

During the early days of the westward movement, when travelers and adventurers were still exploring the Colorado Rockies, there was a legend about a great wonder to be found hidden in a rugged and nearly inaccessible area of the great mountain range.  Rumors floated around for decades about an immense cross of snow that appeared only occasionally on the face of a high mountain peak.  Word of its existence inspired many of the curious and/or devout to seek it out.  But most who claimed to have seen the natural wonder stumbled on the sight accidentally, while others who searched diligently never caught so much as a glimpse.  And even those who saw it, found that it would subsequently disappear from view.

One of the earliest recorded sighting comes from author Samuel Bowles in his 1869 book, The Switzerland of America.  In it he wrote   “Over one of the largest and finest, the snow fields lay in the form of an immense cross, and by this it is known in all the mountain views of the territory. It is as if God has set His sign, His seal, His promise there–a beacon upon the very center and height of the Continent to all its people and all its generations…as if here was a great supply store and workshop of Creation, the fountain of Earth.”

After the Civil War, the Department of the Interior turned its attention to continuing the exploration of the West, including mapping and charting the landscape.  As part of that endeavor they hired photographers and engravers to accompany the expeditions in order to capture images of the environment and the people who populated it.  Photographer William Henry Jackson was picked to accompany the US Geological and Geographic Survey of the Territories from 1870 to 1878.  During that period, Jackson heard the rumors and legends about the extraordinary cross and became determined to be the first to photograph it.  He set out to do so in the summer of 1873.  An experienced wilderness photographer, he led a small party to what was rumored to be the best vantage spot.  But this was no easy trek up the mountain.  This arduous climb involved carrying hundreds of pounds of equipment without the aid of pack animals.  When they finally reached their destination, Jackson and his team spent a night in the high altitude air so that he could be in just the right spot to take the perfect picture when the sun rose.  But all these efforts proved to be worth it.   That photograph won Jackson numerous awards and, among other things, inspired Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to pen his poem The Cross of Snow.

The next year, western artist Thomas Moran accompanied the expedition and made several rough sketches.  When he returned to his studio he did not attempt to create a faithful reproduction of what he’d seen, but rather a “true impression.  As one website stated “In an attempt to capture the “true impression” of the scene rather than a topographical view, Moran freely invented the foreground waterfall in his painting. Forthright about his approach, Moran declared, “I place no value upon literal transcripts from Nature. My general scope is not realistic; all my tendencies are toward idealization….Topography in art is valueless.”  The result was the 7’ x 5’ painting Mountain of the Holy Cross, finished in 1875.

Both Jackson’s photograph and Moran’s painting were exhibited in the 1876 Centennial Exposition held in Philadelphia.  The public was immediately looked for religious implications of this natural wonder.  Many saw the presence of the cross in this particular location as a blessing on the idea of the nation’s Manifest Destiny to continue the westward expansion.  Others went so far as to assign it curative powers.   It became the destination of many pilgrimages and was credited with many cures.

Now for the scientific explanation.  Centuries of erosion carved two very deep ravines in the rugged rock face, and these intersected at a ninety degree angle.  These ravines fill with snow during the winter months, and their steep walls keep that snow sheltered in the spring and part of the summer, well after the rest of the mountain’s snowfall has melted away.  It does eventually melt as well, but for 2-3 months every year, a dramatically perfect white cross could be viewed from great distances.  The vertical portion of the cross is about 1200 feet long and 50 feet wide.  The horizontal arms have a combined length of about 700 feet (though this varies with the season).  The altitude of that particular mountain peak is just over 17,600 feet.

In 1929 President Herbert Hoover designated the Mountain of the Holy Cross a National Monument.  The monument was then transferred from the USDA Forest Service to the National Park Service in 1933.  Then in 1950 it lost its National Monument designation and was returned to the oversight of the Forest Service.  In 1951, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Colorado’s statehood, a commenorative stamp was issued and a picture of the Cross was featured in the collage image.

Eventually, visitation to the site fell off, and nature took its toll on the mountain itself as well.  Erosion has caused the right arm of the cross to virtually disappear, making it difficult to visualize the cross as it once was.

The site describes the landmark’s history this way:  “The Mountain of the Holy Cross began as a myth and became a rumor. Then it became a report, a photograph, and a painting. In time it became a destination for pilgrims and tourists. Shortly after that it ceased to exist.”

So what do you think?  Do you believe this was just some natural phenomenon, some accident of nature with no deeper significance?  Or do you believe it was put there at that specific time and place for a deeper purpose?

And do you have any first hand experience with this or any other natural phenomena you’d like to share with us?

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Winnie Griggs is the author of Historical (and occasionally Contemporary) romances that focus on Small Towns, Big Hearts, Amazing Grace. She is also a list maker, a lover of dragonflies and holds an advanced degree in the art of procrastination.
Three of Winnie’s books have been nominated for the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award, and one of those nominations resulted in a win.
Winnie loves to hear from readers. You can connect with her on facebook at or email her at

29 thoughts on “Mount Of The Holy Cross – A Sign From Above To Push Westward?”

  1. Hi, Winnie. Loved this post! I had never heard of the Mountain of the Holy Cross. What a fascinating story. And what a beautiful landmark. Too bad erosion is taking its toll. Makes me wonder if it mimic’s our nation’s moral erosion, getting away from our faith roots.

    I am a woman of faith, but I’ve never been one to get excited about people seeing face of Jesus in potato chips or any other weird coincidences like that. Who can know if God planned for that cross to be there or if it was a wonderful, accidental gift of nature? All things are under his control, though, so part of me wants to believe that he had a hand in it.

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Wow, Winnie! I’d never heard of this! What a wonderful story and the photograph is so cool. Yes, it’s nature at work. You can see how the snow would linger in crevices, but to me it’s so much more. I can see early pioneers getting encouragement just when they needed it, just when the mountains seemed overwhelming. Romans 8:28 — God enters all things to work his good 🙂

    If you wrote this in a book, I wonder if people would believe it? I would 🙂

  3. What I love about this is that God was important enough in these people’s lives, that a cross like that becomes special to them. A glimpse of the hand of God on the earth.

    I studied Thomas Moran a lot when I was writing Wrangler in Petticoats because the hero of that story was a western artist. He was so talented and his paintings were always very idealized, perhaps more beautiful that reality.

  4. Wow, I have never heard about the cross! The picture and painting are beautiful! Its sad that its no longer there!

  5. Karen, I had those same thoughts about the significance of the erosion today

    Victoria, – LOL yes it’s true we can’t make this kind of stuff up for our books and have readers buy into it

  6. Winnie,

    Loved this post. Like others, I’ve never heard of the Mountain of the Holy Cross.

    I’m not sure if it was put there for a deeper purpose, or just a natural phenomenon, but God had a hand in it either way. And that it blessed those who found it, well that never hurts.


  7. Really enjoyed this post. I am the kind of gal who will see bark formed into a cross on my hiking trail. 🙂 So when it comes to these sorts of things, I am a believer.

    Peace, Julie

  8. Winnie,
    I absolutely loved this post. The weird thing is, a couple of days ago, I was talking to my sister about this–she had not ever heard of it, and I couldn’t remember enough detail to tell her much, but I remembered that Longfellow had written that beautiful poem about it. Now I must look that poem up again and re-read it–it’s been a while.
    Cheryl P.

  9. This was truely fasinating and I think that it is most likey just natural errosion of rock and it somehow formed this cross. Just a fluke of nature… I think most people see what they want to see.

    Thanks for this history lesson…

  10. Jennie – you’re right, perception is a very powerful thing

    Kathleen – glad you enjoyed the post. And yes, our country has a rich history and it’s just sad to think how many things we never learn about

  11. I was born in Colorado and I can remember as a child really looking forward to visiting my grandfather who lived in Rifle, Colorado. That meant we got to drive by the cross on the mountain. To me it was an awesome site. It is one of about 20 mountains in that area that is over 14 thousand feet high. Some of the highest in the Rocky Mountains. A lot of them are named after colleges, i.e. Mt Princeton, Mt Harvard, Mt Yale. My dad used to say he was taking us to Harvard.
    Another note of trivia about my state is that the lowest elevation in Colorado is still higher than the Eastern coast of America. Also, it has beautiful scenery.

  12. Enjoyed reading your blog today…I’ve been in Colorado and seen the mountain you wrote about …it is a beautiful site…I think it was an act of God to put the cross on the mountain for all to enjoy.

  13. Winnie, this is absolutely fantastic! I have been to Rifle, Colorado but never knew of this mountain. I so want to see it now. And I do believe God has His hand everywhere, in things big and small. Great post. oxoxox

  14. Never heard of this cross but no matter how it got there, God had his hand in it. As long as those who saw it were blessed by seeing it, it does not matter how it got there.

    Colorado is a favorite place to visit so will someday have to see the mountain.

  15. There is a monastery in the area. Holy Cross Abbey in Canon City, Colorado is now a public facility with a convention center and winery. We stopped there some time between 1982 and 1985 when it was still a monastery. They had a copy of Mr. Jackson’s picture in the lobby and the monk told us the monastery was named for the mountain. I don’t know if you are supposed to be able to see Holy Cross Mountain from there or not. The monk we spoke with said it wasn’t easy to see the cross the time of the year we were there. They felt the cross on the mountain was a special sign. He also commented on how pure the water was from their well. It was refreshing. I don’t know if places are put there for a special purpose. I do believe places can be an inspiration to people.

    It is a beautiful area. We loved living in Colorado. Thanks for all the information on Holy Cross Mountain. It is nice to have the rest of the story.

  16. Thanks for this post Winnie. I had never heard of this mountain. I got out my book of Longfellow to read his poem and have spent a lovely hour or so revisiting some of my favourite poems.

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