Exploring the Colorado National Monument - Grand Junction/Fruita, Colorado
Updated: Mar 9, 2020
One beautiful park you can explore in western Colorado is the Colorado National Monument. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
- HIKING -
You can get most of your experience in the park when you hike down in the canyons. There are many trails in the Monument, from easy short hikes to longer and strenuous ones. Down in the canyon is a different experience all together, you can get an idea of the scale of these rock formations as you get near them. You can choose your trail depending on your time and capabilities. Even casual hikers can do some of these easier trails.
Short Hiking Trails includes: Window Rock Trail (0.25 mile), Canyon Rim Trail (0.5 mile), Alcove Nature Trail (0.5 mile), Otto’s Trail (0.5 mile), Coke Ovens Trail (0.5 mile), CCC Trail (0.75 mile), Devils Kitchen Trail (0.75 mile), Serpents Trail (1.75 mile).
Backcountry Hiking Trails include: Black Ridge Trail (5.5 miles), Monument Canyon Trail (6.0 miles), Liberty Cap Trail (7.0 miles), Ute Canyon Trail (7.0 miles), Old Gordon Trail (4.0 miles), No Thoroughfare Canyon Trail (8.5 mile), Corkscrew Trail Loop (3.3 mile). All distances are one way.
MONUMENT CANYON TRAIL/WEDDING CANYON TRAIL – 5.0 to 7.2 miles
We hiked here in winter when the red canyons are dusted, if not covered, with snow. There are two trailheads on this trail. The Lower Trailhead is located off of Hwy 340/Broadway and the Upper Trailhead is located on Rim Rock Drive 3.8 miles east of the Visitor Center. We did the former in this hike.
To get to the Lower Trailhead from Broadway, turn left on Fawn Lane, it's about 0.12 mile to the trailhead. Following the Monument Canyon Trail/Wedding Canyon Trail, you will pass behind some houses for about a mile and then you will be in the canyon.
This is an easy hike and an interesting trail. You will see rock formations such as the Kissing Couple, the Pipe Organ and Monolith Spire and many others. You can make this hike short or longer, some trails are connected to other trails so there are a lot of possibilities, if you have time and energy and if the weather is ideal.
Near the base of Independence Monument is where Otto married his wife. Isn't that romantic? Their marriage did not last unfortunately, but the occasion did, hence the name the Wedding Canyon and Wedding Canyon Trail.
Our hike ended at the base of the Independence Monument, the tallest free-standing monolith in the park, rising 450 feet from the canyon floor. The trail splits at this point; to the left is the Monument Canyon Trail and to the right is the continuation of the Wedding Canyon Trail that loops around the big rock called The Island. Instead of taking the loop, we turned around here.
For more information about the park's fees, activities and campsites check the link: https://www.nps.gov/colm/index.htm