HIDDEN ON THE EDGE OF COLORADO IS ONE OF THE MOST STUNNING DESERT LANDSCAPES IN THE COUNTRY. THIS IN-DEPTH ADVENTURE GUIDE COVERS EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE COLORADO NATIONAL MONUMENT.
When we decided to spend the month of November exploring the Grand Junction area we knew we had to spend at least one weekend up at the Colorado National Monument - or as Grand Junction-ians call it, "the Monument." And we are so glad we did, because within about the first 5 minutes of driving the famous Rim Rock Drive our draws were just hanging open in surprise and awe at the natural scenery.
The Monument, simply put, is absolutely gorgeous. With its sandstone spires, deep, rugged canyons and amazing views of the surrounding valley (not to mention the Bookcliffs and Mesa), it is totally worth exploring. Plus, the campground is one of the best we have ever stayed at and the visitor center had some of the best exhibits we have ever seen at a national park.
If you are anywhere close to the area we highly suggest taking some time to explore the Monument yourself. Below is our in-depth adventure travel guide on the Colorado National Monument that covers everything you need to know; including, the best time to visit, camping information and the best adventures to be had.
HISTORY OF COLORADO NATIONAL MONUMENT
The area was first explored by John Otto, who settled in Grand Junction in the early 20th century. Prior to Otto's arrival, many area residents believed the canyons to be inaccessible to humans. Otto soon began building trails on the plateau and into the canyons. As word spread about his work, the Chamber of Commerce of Grand Junction sent a delegation to investigate. The delegation would soon be praising both Otto's work and the scenic beauty of the wilderness area. Within no time, the local newspaper began lobbying to make the area a National Park.
A bill was introduced and carried by the local Representatives to the U.S. Congress and Senate, but a Congressional slowdown in the final months threatened the process. To ensure protection of the canyons President Taft (who had visited the area) stepped in and used the highest powers available to him (via the Antiquities Act and presidential proclamation) to declare the canyons as a national monument.
The area was established as Colorado National Monument in 1911. Otto was hired as the first park ranger (where he would draw a salary of $1 per month). For the next 16 years, he continued building and maintaining trails while living in a tent in the park.
Many of the early visitor facilities at the Colorado National Monument were designed by the National Park Service and constructed by the Public Works Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Several of these areas have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places in recognition of this and in consequence of their adherence to the National Park Service Rustic design standards of the time.
NATIVE AMERICAN HISTORY IN THE MONUMENT
The latest archeological survey of the monument located over 100 Native American sites. The numerous artifacts found at the sites suggest that there has been continual human activity in the region for at least 10,000 years. Evidence found at the sites mostly suggests that shortly after the last ice age, Paleo Indians made their way into the canyons of the Monument. And Clovis and Folsom spear points the people left behind alludes to their nomadic hunting way of life - which mostly consisted of hunting bighorn sheep and small mammals, and collecting a variety of plants for food.
But around 400 A.D. their culture disappeared and a more sedentary way of life began to dominate. The Fremont Indians - groups of farmers that lived throughout the region until around 1250 A.D., left behind corn cobs, hearth deposits, and check dams across small streams in the Monument telling us of their stationary lifestyle.
Although it is not known exactly when they came, the Ute Indians are also known to be longtime residents of the region. Similar to the Archaic Indians, the Utes followed a hunting and gathering subsistence pattern by moving throughout the Grand Valley for food. The Utes were removed from northwest Colorado in 1881 and escorted by the military to the Uintah Ouray reservation in present-day Utah.
THE ULTIMATE ADVENTURE GUIDE TO THE COLORADO NATIONAL MONUMENT
\\ Colorado National Monument | Fast Facts
NUMBER OF VISITORS (A YEAR)
Just over 375,000 people
COST TO ENTER
$25 per vehicle, $20 per motorcycle, and $15 per hiker/biker; all good for 7 days
Hiking, trail running and climbing
\\ When to Visit the Colorado National Monument
The monument is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The only times you cannot really get around the monument is when the famous Rim Rock Drive (pretty much the only road in the monument) closes due to dangerous road conditions (snow, ice, rockfalls). The visitor center also closes on major holidays.
Below is an outline of what to expect during each season:
| Summer: the weather in the Monument can be quite hot. It is somewhat common for temperatures to reach 100° F / 37° C. Similarly, during the summer season, afternoon thunderstorms are common.
| Fall: once September hits the temperatures start to cool off. This is a great time to visit the Colorado National Monument because the trails are still open, there are fewer people, and the weather is nicer. Plus, beautiful afternoon storms are still somewhat common.
| Winter: the colder temperatures start to set in around November and last up until February. During this time of the year the temperatures can be quite chilly (in the mid-40s / 7° C during the day). It is even colder in the morning and once the sun sets in the evening. Similarly, snow and frost are also possible. If you can stand the cold, you will likely find the Monument all to yourself for this is one of the least visited times of the year.
| Spring: by March the temperatures start to climb and everything begins to bloom. During the day, you can expect the highs to be between 70° and 85° F / 21° and 28°C. This is a great time of year to look for desert wildflowers, wildlife and head out on the numerous hiking trails in the Monument.
\\ How to Get to the Colorado National Monument
The national monument is located right on the edge of Grand Junction, Colorado. There are two entrances into the park: the west side entrance near the town of Fruita, and the east entrance near the town of Redlands. The west entrance is the one closest to the only visitor center in the Monument as well as the Saddlehorn Campground (see more below).
The monument is located just over four hours from both Denver, Colorado and Salt Lake City, Utah. To reach the monument from Interstate 70, you need to get off in the town of Fruita on Hwy 340 and drive 2.5 miles until you get to Rimrock Drive. You will see a sign and the entrance booth for the Monument right off of Hwy 340. From the entrance station (where you will pay the entrance fee) it is just under 4.5 miles to the visitor center.
\\ The Top Adventures in the Colorado National Monument
There is a nice mix of short and long trails to explore within the Monument. A few good hiking trails to check out are:
DEVILS KITCHEN TRAIL
0.75 miles one-way
This trail follows a gradual ascent to a natural opening formed by huge upright boulders. At the first fork, go right. At the second fork, go left. Follow the trail across the wash. As you proceed up the canyon, you will see the large rock grotto that is the Devils Kitchen.
This historic trail was built by John Otto, the visionary behind the Monument. While today it is more of a trail, in the beginning it was actually a road meant for cars (it was actually nicknamed "the crookedest road in the world," due to it having16 switchbacks). The road traveled from Grand Junction through No Thoroughfare Canyon all the way up to the rimrock near Cold Shivers Point. It had an elevation gain of nearly 1,100 feet (340 m) over 2.5 miles (4.0 km). From Cold Shivers Point the road proceeded at a gentler grade for 4 miles (6.4 km) to Glade Park.
Otto began his survey of the area in 1911 with the help of civil engineer J.F. Sleeper. Otto's grand plan was to link Grand Junction and Moab, Utah with a scenic road, and that road was meant to be part of a much larger transcontinental road system. Construction began in 1912 and continued sporadically until 1921 when Mesa County took the project over. Engineer J.B. Claybaugh would finally complete the project in 1924.
But the construction of Rim Rock Drive eventually destroyed portions of the Serpents Trail and today only a 1.6-mile (2.6 km) portion has been preserved as a hiking trail.
➳ You can find more short hiking trails within the Colorado National Monument here.
BLACK RIDGE TRAIL
5.5 miles one-way
This nice singletrack trail has great views of the surrounding landscape including, west to Utah canyonlands, east to Grand Valley, and south to the San Juan Mountains. The Black Ridge Trail is actually the highest trail in the park - though it never really climbs that much. It is also a great route for trail running.
MONUMENT CANYON TRAIL
6.0 miles one-way
The main draw of this longer trail is the ability to walk beside many of the park's major rock sculptures: Independence Monument, Kissing Couple, and the Coke Ovens. Do note though, you do have to first descend 600-foot from the plateau into the actual Monument Canyon.
➳ You can find many longer trails in the Colorado National Monument here.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: there are NO water sources on any of the trails within the Monument. Also, the area is an arid, desert environment - meaning there are very few shady spots. Therefore, it is very important that hikers carry all of the water that they need with them. A good rule of thumb is 1 gallon of water per person.
While bicycling the Rim Rock Drive is definitely a challenge, the stunning views make it all worth it.
Actually, the only road cyclists can ride on is Rim Rock Drive (the main road). This scenic road is 23-miles long and travels between the park's east entrance in Grand Junction and the west entrance in Fruita. But cyclists can actually turn their ride into a 33-mile loop by using connecting roads outside of the monument.
For the 33 mile loop, the total climb for a complete trip is 2,300 vertical feet - though most of that elevation change is found on the steep grades just inside either entrance. Otherwise once atop the rim it is relatively flat. You should give yourself 3 hours for the ride.
Some rules and regulations that cyclists must follow:
| Bicyclists are required to ride single file at all times within the monument.
| You must always ride as far to the right as safely possible and stay alert for animals and rocks in the road.
| It is important to slow down on sharp curves to avoid drifting into oncoming traffic or going off the road. Rim Rock Drive is narrow, with steep drop offs and going over the edge on some sections of the road can be fatal.
| Bicyclists are required to pay the entrance fee ($15 per person). Annual passes are available and all National Park passes are accepted.
The sandstone cliffs and spires of the Colorado National Monument attract hundreds of climbers every year. Most routes in the park require traditional (trad) climbing techniques - meaning you bring your own gear and take it all with you when you are done. The installation of new permanent hardware is absolutely prohibited.
One thing climbers do need to know is that the sandstone in the Colorado National Monument is fragile and can very easily be damaged when wet. All climbers should wait for the rock to dry prior to climbing, for wet sandstone can be a real safety concern when placing any gear.
The best climbing season is fall through spring (summers are often too hot and winters can be quite cold).
The most historic climbing route in the park is definitely Otto's Route up Independence Monument. Otto, after years of hard work, eventually made the first ascent of the massive spire in 1911. He mainly did so by first chopping steps into the soft sandstone and then drilling and installing metal rungs for ladders. While the rungs today are gone, the holes and the steps remain (though slightly more eroded). Due to Otto's modifications, the route has a moderate free rating of 5.8+. While his tool use would not fly today, without his previous work the route might be rated a 5.11 or higher.
| RATING: 5.8+
| PITCHES: 5
| START: park at the Monument Canyon Trailhead parking lot (here) and then hike out around 2 miles to the base of Independence Monument.
➳ Learn more about the climbing route here.
\\ Where to Stay in the Colorado National Monument
CAMPING IN THE MONUMENT
Saddlehorn Campground, located near the Saddlehorn Visitor Center (the only visitor center), sits four miles from the west entrance and is the only established campground within the Monument. But man what a campground it is. In fact, while we have never been big into camping in national parks (especially when there are good BLM spots nearby) staying here one night totally made us into converts. The views of not only the massive Grand Valley below, but also of the surrounding canyons and rock walls, are absolutely stunning. We highly, highly recommend either getting a reservation or coming in early to snag a spot when visiting.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: we aren't the only ones who fell in love with the campground - in 2017 the Colorado National Monument was rated as the best campsite in Colorado in a 50-state survey conducted by MSN.
A couple of important things to know about the campground: there are 3 loops (A, B and C - see more below), the campground restrooms have flush toilets and potable water available and each campsite includes a picnic table, charcoal-only grill, and a parking area (some sites do have tent pads). Finally, it costs $22 to camp in any of the three loops (you also have to pay the entrance fee).
A & B-Loop: are open year-round (definitely A) and sites are reservable from mid-March through mid-October (up to 6 months in advance). During the winter/off-season sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. RVs are allowed in the two loops but there is a length limit of 40 feet.
C-Loop: C-Loop is the oldest of the loops and as such has tighter turns and smaller sites. Therefore C-Loop is limited to tent camping and those in smaller vehicles (such as single vehicles with top-mounted camper shells or tents, small vans or small RVs ~less than 20 feet). C-Loop is 100% on a first-come, first-served basis - so we highly suggest getting there early during the busy season.
While there are not a ton of super long trails within the Monument, if you are looking to stay within the boundaries and not at the campground you do have the option to backcountry camp. To do that you do need to first pick up a backcountry permit at the visitor center (it is free). Also, one important thing to know for planning is that ALL water must be packed in (there is none to be found on the trails). It is recommended to have one gallon/4 liters per person.
➳ Get a better idea of the backcountry trails in the Colorado National Monument here.