By John Leach
The Colorado National Monument is a red-rock wonderland of sheer-walled canyons, towering monoliths such as Independence Monument and Kissing Couple and rock sculptures such as Balanced Rock and the Coke Ovens.
The monument can be viewed from a scenic drive that climbs nearly 2,000 feet in altitude from either entrance in a series of twists and turns to the top of a mesa above the Grand Valley. It then runs along the rim of the mesa, which is part of the Colorado Plateau, before descending 2,000 feet in another series of long switchbacks.
The Rim Rock Drive, built during the Great Depression and designated as a national historic site, is 23 miles long and features 19 marked turnoffs and three tunnels. It connects with roads leading to Grand Junction and Fruita at each end of the monument.
The best way to tour the monument is to start at the Fruita entrance, which is just four miles from Interstate 70. The drive up Fruita Canyon rises from 4,690 feet in elevation on the valley floor through a series of long switchbacks and two tunnels to reach the top of the mesa at an elevation of 5,700 feet. Stop at turnoffs to view Balanced Rock and key monoliths, and stop by the visitor center four miles later. The visitor center offers orientation materials and videos and a gift shop, and there are picnicking areas and the 80-site Saddlehorn Campground nearby.
Take a loop road near the visitor center to the Book Cliffs View, which offers a panorama of the Grand Valley from nearby Fruita to Grand Junction and Palisade, with the Colorado River in the foreground. The Book Cliffs, a geologic formation that runs the length of the valley, are in the distance, and Grand Mesa, the world’s largest flat-topped mountain, is off to the right. Walk out to the edge of the mesa, a quiet, often windy spot with a nearly 2,000-foot dropoff to the valley below and look for hawks in the sky.
If your time is limited, you can end your visit there.
The rest of the scenic drive takes about an hour, plus time for stops along the way, and takes you past the Kissing Couple and other monoliths, the Coke Ovens, a series of red rock canyons, Cold Shivers Point and Devils Kitchen. There is another picnic area at Devils Kitchen, near the end of the drive, and it has restrooms.
The park offers a variety of well-maintained hiking trails, from easy to difficult. Rangers warn that summer storms can cause flash floods and that rattlesnakes are present.
For a short, steep hike, take Serpents Trail, which follows the winding route of the original road from the early 1900s, when local resident John Otto began developing the monument. It offers views of the canyons and valley, and it begins at parking lots on Rim Rock Drive at both ends of the trail, so hikers can head uphill or downhill. The trail is 1 3/4 miles long one-way and gains 700 feet in elevation. Plan on an hour one-way.
A short trail recommended for families is Devil’s Kitchen. The trailhead is located near the Grand Junction entrance to the monument, and the 3/4-mile trail runs gradually uphill before ending at a circle of huge, upright boulders. Plan on an hour round-trip, but slower with kids, particularly if they want to explore the boulders.
For a moderate hike, take the Monument Canyon Trail, which starts on the top of the mesa, descends though the heart of Monument Canyon and passes by the base of 450-foot Independence Monument, the park’s largest monolith. The six-mile, one-way trail drops from an elevation of 6,140 feet to 4,700 feet. The trail ends at Colorado 340, also called Broadway. Some hike one-way, others round-trip. Plan on four hours one-way.
Another easy option is Otto’s Trail, a hike of a half-mile one-way to an overlook that offers dramatic views of Kissing Couple, Pipe Organ and Independence Monument, plus Wedding and Monument canyons. The route travels through pinyon-juniper woodlands. Look for wildflowers and blooming cacti in the spring and summer.
The monument also is popular with bicyclists, having made a name for itself as part of the Coors Classic professional race in the 1980s, when foreign riders called the stage that crossed the monument the “Mountains of the Moon” because of the unique landscape.
The Grand Loop is a difficult ride of 40 miles that starts at the Fruita entrance, climbs a twisting 1,950 feet to Rim Rock Drive, crosses the monument, descends a winding route to the valley floor and returns to the start via Colorado 340, also known as Broadway.
For an easy to moderate ride, go from the visitor’s center to Artist’s Point, which is 8.5 miles round-trip but has an elevation gain of less than 500 feet.
Watch for mule deer, coyotes, mountain lions, bobcats, desert bighorns, foxes, desert cottontails, squirrels and other rodents, plus hawks and occasional eagles.
The 32-square-mile monument marked its 100th anniversary in 2011.
Colorado National Monument
1750 Rimrock Drive
Fruita, CO 81521