The twisting cloud-like formation was visible in Phoenix and Las Vegas just before sunrise and led to hundreds of calls and emails to area television stations.
"My initial reaction: What in the heck is that?" Russ Montgomery said, who saw the contrail from Telluride Thursday morning.
A spokesman for the U.S. Army's White Sands Missile Range says the contrail was from a Juno ballistic missile that was fired at 6:30 a.m. MDT Thursday from Fort Wingate near Gallup, N.M. The Juno missile was then targeted by an advanced version of the Patriot missile fired from White Sands.
The rising sun backlit the Juno missile's contrail and provided a spectacular morning sight for early risers across the region.
Montoya says weather conditions were just right Thursday morning for people to actually see the event, which they rarely do.
"The condensation that is in the air, the sunlight hits it at that appropriate time. It's the altitude of the launch and then you've got the winds that kind of make this odd shape. So that's what folks are seeing from so far away," Montoya said.
(KUSA-TV © 2012 Multimedia Holdings Corporation with The Associated Press)