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  • Writer's pictureVien R. Guenther

Colorado National Monument - Grand Junction/Fruita, Mesa County, Colorado

Updated: Aug 4, 2023

One beautiful park you can explore in western Colorado is the Colorado National Monument in Mesa County. The park sits over 2,000 feet above the Grand Valley, near the city of Fruita just west of Grand Junction. Although far from Denver, about 260 miles via I-70 and about four and half-hour drive, it is worth the drive and your time to visit this park, if you haven’t yet. There are many hiking trails here, but you don’t have to hike to explore the area, you can drive along the Rim Rock Drive, known as the "Tour of the Moon", and see the beautiful sights without much effort. Along the drive are overlooks with spectacular views of the deep canyons and beyond to the Grand Valley and the cities of Fruita and Grand Junction. There is a campground if you want to stay more than one day.

Grand View of Independence Monument overlooking the City of Grand Junction
Independence Monument in winter

We don’t often come here, unless we stop to visit a friend living in the area, on our way to or from Moab or places further west. But this park truly is a beautiful place to go to throughout the year. May it be spring, summer, fall or winter, the park offers different experiences. There are many features different than in any other parks in Colorado. You will be fascinated by the rock sculptures and monoliths here. Use your imagination to understand why they named some of these rock formations Coke Ovens or Kissing Couple.


Other monoliths are named after historic events by John Otto, the first custodian of the park, names that remain today such as Independence Monument.


THE PARK


Established in May 24, 1911, signed by President Taft, the Colorado National Monument became part of the National Park System. The Monument sits on a high desert plateau, the Colorado Plateau, which extends from western Colorado all the way across Utah and northern Arizona.

Ute Canyon

Colorado National Monument was first explored in 1906 by John Otto, who later became the first ranger and custodian in the park, a job he did for for $1 a month, until he retired in 1927 and moved to Yreka California. His first impression of the canyon was:


“I came here last year and found these canyons, and they felt like the heart of the world to me. I’m going to stay and build trails and promote this place, because it should be a national park.”. _ John Otto, 1907


Indeed, John Otto, who was described as a “benign but enthusiastic eccentric”, began building trails in these canyons, which local residents believed are inaccessible, with his two burros. He led a fundraising campaign, collected signatures for petitions, wrote newspaper editorials and sent endless letters to Washington, while continuing to build and maintain trails for 16 years and while living in a tent in the park. In 2011, the Monument celebrated its 100th anniversary recognizing Otto's work and his lobbying to include the Monument as part of the National Park System. Otto died a pauper at the age of 81 in 1952, unrecognized until his followers raised a fund to erect a memorial on his 50th death anniversary.

Monument Canyon

THE RIM ROCK DRIVE – 23 miles


Colorado National Monument is not only for hikers and bikers, you can experience the beauty of this park and what it offers by driving the Rim Rock Drive. You can either start at the west entrance near Fruita or the east entrance near Grand Junction. The monument has 23-miles of paved road that will take you to nineteen scenic overlooks. Each one offers different views, so take your time and enjoy. This is a very scenic drive, but take note, the spectacular views are enough to distract you so it is wise to pay attention, otherwise you will end down the cliffs. This is a winding road and there are sharp turns along the way. Beware of cyclists on the road as well.


In this park you will find many sandstone rock formations sculpted by wind and water, such as the Independence Monument – a 450 foot high monolith, the tallest freestanding formation in the park. There are also the Kissing Couple, Balanced Rock, the Coke Ovens, Grand View, Artists Point, Highland View, Upper Ute Canyon Overlook, Ute Canyon View, Red Canyon Overlook, Cold Shivers Point, and many other rock formations.


Photos from Rim Rock Drive Overlooks


WILDFLOWERS


It's nice to explore here in winter, the contrast between the red stone and white snow is stunning at this time of year. But in Spring the bright colors of wildflowers compete with the scenery. See the example below.


Scarlet Globemallow Perky Sue Desert Indian Paintbrush



The canyons below are also home to many wild animals such as red-tailed hawks, golden eagles and other birds, desert bighorn sheep and coyotes. You might get lucky to find some of them.


 



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