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The ultimate guide to the Colorado National Monument

Enjoy the relative solitude of Colorado National Monument’s otherworldly formations. “The Monument,” as locals call it, is the Colorado Plateau’s eastern gateway. The plateau’s Red Rock Country is full of colorful rocks. They include domes, fins, hoodoos, reefs, natural bridges, and slot canyons.

The National Park Service has nine national parks in the Colorado Plateau. Except for the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, “The Monument” is less crowded and more compact than any of the plateau’s national parks.

The 20,500-acre, 32-square-mile monument is half an hour west of Grand Junction. It’s 17 miles east of the Utah line on Interstate 70, nearly halfway between Denver and Salt Lake City. The park charges an entrance fee. However, save on park fees with park passes.

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Colorado National Monument’s position makes it the perfect portal for a larger Colorado Plateau road trip. Alternatively, experience the wonderland on its own. Cyclists, hikers, and rock climbers will find a paradise here. The same goes for those who want to encounter spectacular views from their cars. The rocks’ colors range from cream to rust. Sagebrush bushes, juniper trees, and pinyon-juniper woodland speckle the rocks with flecks of green. 

Otto convinces the President to proclaim a national monument

President William Taft established the Colorado National Monument with a presidential proclamation on May 24, 1911. It was the state’s second national monument. Five years before Taft’s proclamation, John Otto saw the future monument’s red rock canyons. He soon decided that they should become a national park. Finally, he convinced the President to attend the 1909 Peach Festival. Taft liked what he saw and established the monument two years later.

Dead tree branches framing formations in the Colorado National Monument.
Framing the monument

Tips about visiting the Colorado National Monument

Summer temperatures at the monument can be brutal, with triple-digit highs. The red rocks reflect heat, and shade is sparse. Therefore, start summer hikes in the early morning.

Spring and fall are the best seasons to visit, and winters are mild. After a snowfall, the white highlights the rocks for breathtaking views.

In any season, drink plenty of water, wear a broad-brimmed hat, use sunscreen, and follow the park’s safety tips to ensure a perfect day.

The elevation ranges from 4,000 to 7,000 feet. Because of this, prepare for altitude; avoid altitude sickness with these tips.

Staying hydrated is key in the monument’s aridity and altitude. Add lemon slices to your water to maintain your electrolyte balance. Eating carbohydrates will also help with altitude adjustment.

Eat at picnic tables at Devil’s Kitchen and outside the visitors center.

Register for a backcountry camping permit at the Saddlehorn Visitors Center for even more solitude. Water is unavailable in the backcountry, so plan to bring a gallon (4 liters) per person daily in the summer. Refill your water at the station outside the visitor center, which is open 24 hours a day.

Irregular ovoid brownish rock formations topped with bottlenecks at the Coke Oven Overlook, Colorado National Monument
Bottle-shaped formations at the Coke Ovens Overlook

Explore the monument’s scenic Rim Rock Drive

The historic 23-mile Rim Rock Drive features spectacular views at every bend in the road. The scenic drive wiggles through six red rock canyons with distinctive cliffs and sandstone monoliths. 

In fairness, switch drivers so that each driver will enjoy the sights. The narrow, winding road hugs the canyons’ cliffs, putting you on top of the scenery. Some stops provide easy access to miles of trails. The monument has two main entrances but start at the Grand Junction entrance for the best experience. The passenger side will see the views better, and the turn-offs will be on the right side. You’ll only have left turns into two scenic overlooks. Many of the stops offer short walks. The route requires an hour without stops, but you must stop. 

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Leave your RV at your campground because the road is not trailer-friendly. Driving through the park allows lowlanders to acclimate to the altitude before more strenuous activities. Share the road with cyclists.

Related: Explore Southeast Montana’s Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area.


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People clad in shorts and T-shirts walking over tan rocks at Cold Shivers Point with mesas in the distance
Cold Shivers Point

Eight perfect Colorado National Monument overlooks

The drive includes 19 overlooks, but we recommend these the most.

Pack a picnic and eat at the Devil’s Kitchen Picnic Area. Then, stretch your legs on the moderate 1.5-mile round-trip Devil’s Kitchen Trail. The kitchen’s rocks loom over visitors like devils.

The edgy Cold Shivers Point feels like riding on a shark’s fin, so cue up Theme From Jaws. I half expected the shark to throw me off its 300-foot fin.

At Artists Point, the Squaw Fingers formation juts from the ground south of the point. I thought the “fingers” looked more like broken teeth. Look for blackish-red desert varnish staining some of the rocks. Indigenous people often carved rock art into desert varnish so it would stand out.

At the Coke Ovens Overlook, the squatty bulbs reminded me of giant wax bottle candies.

A series of red rock monoliths on the Colorado National Monument's Canyon View Trail
Red rock monoliths stand before visitors at Grand View.

A kissing couple, a pipe organ, and more in Colorado National Monument

You approach Grand View through the claustrophobia-inducing Half Tunnel. Then the curtain rises. The Kissing Couple, Independence Monument, The Island, and the Pipe Organ offer themselves for your viewing delight. The Grand Mesa, the world’s largest flat-top mountain, dominates the horizon. Come early for the fantastic sunrises.

Independence Monument View offers an unobstructed vista of the park’s tallest monolith. Arrive early on Independence Day to watch the Mesa County rescue team plant the American flag on top of the 450-foot fin. Otto began the tradition on July 4, 1911.

The Saddlehorn Visitor Center offers more incredible views. While at the center, watch the park videos and look for Otto’s monument. Afterward, explore several easy short trails. One of them, the Canyon Rim Trail, is an easy half-mile one-way hike from the Saddlehorn Visitors Center to the Book Cliffs View. It follows the cliff edge above the colorful Wedding Canyon. Keep a close eye on children. 

On the road’s final section, prepare for five hairpin curves in a row, two tunnels, and Dead Man’s Curve.

The Red Canyon Overlook looks directly down Red Canyon. Winter freezing and thawing pries off canyon rock slabs especially on the shady side. The sunny side erodes less. Look at the northeast canyon bottom for a distinctive gunsight notch.

Roxie’s reliable report: Cold Shivers, Independence Monument, Fruita Canyon, and the Historic Trails overlooks, the Devils Kitchen Picnic Area, and the visitor center are all accessible. Consider using trekking poles at the other overlooks. Always stay behind the fences.

Related: Explore the Kansas rocks tour.

Sagebrush-dotted red rocks in the Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness
Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness (Bob Wick/Bureau of Land Management California)

Find arches on Black Ridge Road

Add an adventure to your drive. From Rim Rocks Drive’s highest point, Black Ridge Road heads west 13 miles to Rattlesnake Canyon in Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness. 

However, only four-wheel drive, high-clearance vehicles, or all-terrain vehicles should attempt this road. The road is impassable when wet; ask park rangers about road conditions.

Your reward for all this effort? Thirty-five stone arches. The collection is the second-largest arch collection outside Arches National Park. On a 6.2-mile hike, you’ll see eight arches. Add a half-mile side trip to see one more.

Navigate the perfect road bikers’ challenge

Test your legs and lungs on the park’s roads. Riding the entire cyclist’s loop requires all 23 of Rim Rock Drive’s miles, plus 10 more miles of connecting roads. The road climbs 2,300 vertical feet, with the steepest grades near both entrances.

Beware: Many trucks use the southern 4 miles of Rim Rock to supply the Glade Park community. Because of this, the park has installed a Bicycle Safety Warning System in the area. Allow 3 hours for the full route.

Roxie’s reliable report: The park does not offer mountain biking opportunities. Instead, try the challenging Lunch Loops in Grand Junction.

Hiking serpents, and weddings, and corkscrews. Oh, my!

Otto created many of the park’s roads and trails, and the Civilian Conservation Corps continued his work. Unfortunately, nine of the CCC workers died in an explosion. Experience the fruits of their labor on the CCC Trail. Watch for desert bighorn sheep where the trail intersects the Black Ridge Trail.

The steep Serpents Trail slithers through 16 switchbacks in 1.75 miles. The trail was the original park road from the 1900s until 1950. Park at the trailhead near the east entrance or the Devils Kitchen Picnic Area.

Wedding Canyon named for a short-lived relationship

Wedding Canyon got its name in 1911 when Otto married Boston artist Beatrice Farnham at Independence Monument’s base. Wedded bliss eluded the couple because Otto wanted to live in a tent. His wife didn’t, and she left.

She said, “I tried hard to live his way. [However,] I could not live with a man to whom even a cabin was an encumbrance.”

The Wedding Canyon Trail connects to the Monument Canyon Trail at Independence Monument. Start hiking in Wedding Canyon, which is mostly uphill. In the morning, the rocks provide shade. Monument Canyon is mostly downhill from Independence Monument. Both trails are rated intermediate to difficult. Allow at least 3 hours for the loop.

Think of the route as a metaphor for the Ottos’ short marriage.

Yellow wildflowers growing diagonally in Ute Canyon
Wildflowers in Ute Canyon

Corkscrews and canyons at Colorado National Monument

The 1.3-mile point-to-point Corkscrew Trail’s name fits well. The switchback-filled difficult trail begins on the Lower Liberty Cap Trail. It weaves into and out of a dry wash, then climbs up slickrock. Enjoy gorgeous views of the metamorphic cliffs, but make sure to watch for the trail cairns. Search for rock art at the Ute Canyon Trail junction. 

No Thoroughfare Canyon starts as a maintained trail with 400-foot canyon walls towering over hikers. About a mile into the hike, a small pool awaits. Enjoy a picnic, and continue less than a mile to a waterfall. The unmaintained trail continues to the upper trailhead on Little Park Road. Bring a compass and a topographic map. Check the weather because flash flooding is an ever-present danger.

In contrast, the 7-mile Ute Canyon Trail is steep and has a 1,640-foot elevation change. The unmaintained trail descends into narrow Ute Canyon from the plateau and then follows a stream bed. 

A rock climber’s dream: 275 perfect climbing days 

For 275 days a year, the monument’s forecast is for perfect rock climbing weather. Park rock climbing begins with Otto’s Route, one of the best routes for beginners. Devils Kitchen cooks up several canyoneering routes, including the Lemon Squeezer.

Roxie’s reliable report: Unaweep Canyon, 40 minutes southeast of the monument, is filled with excellent, lightly-used climbing routes.

Snarling T-rex painting below a Fruita sign on a grain elevator
Fruita digs dinosaurs.

Your perfect dinosaur hunting day

You can visit Fruita’s Dinosaur Journey museum near the park’s Fruita entrance, or hike the easy Dinosaur Hill Trail to see fossils in the ground.

In addition, why not improve your game? Join the Museums of Western Colorado’s paleontology expeditions, including the full gamut of experiences, half-day, full-day, and advanced options.

Related: Petrified tree stumps and tiny fossils await at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument.

Green-shirted man acting like a Tyrannosaurus rex in front of a green T-rex  sculpture
Eric and Grrreta

Fruita’s hilarious dinosaur

Grrreta is a large green dinosaur sculpture in Circle Park. I asked my husband to mimic Grrreta for a picture. He was wearing a green shirt, and he looked so funny in his dinosaur pose. I doubled over, laughing hysterically. He started yelling, “Take the picture! People are staring at me!”

Perfect places to eat and stay

Fruita’s Comfort Inn and Suites (ad) is across the road from Dinosaur Journey and 4 minutes from the park’s northern entrance. Camp at Junction West – Grand Junction or Canyon View RV Resort, minutes from Colorado National Monument.

The movie short Life of Pie tells the story of Jen Zenuer and Anne Keller, who own Detroit-style Hot Tomato Pizza. They make their dough by hand and proof it for 24 hours before serving. Try the Badabing Pizza.

Savor delights from the ultimate high country at Karma Kitchen, serving Indian and Nepalese cuisine. Eat the cheese-garlic naan and the lamb vindaloo.

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