The Colorado National Monument, an unsung treasure near Grand Junction, typifies the Colorado Plateau's distinct and dramatic mesa-and-canyon topography.
The plateau that forms the "mesa" part is a high desert-scape at the edge of the Uncompahgre Uplift, some 6,000 feet above sea level and 2,000 feet above the Colorado River. Side canyons into the mesa by its tributaries make it something of a mini-Grand Canyon -- albeit a smaller, more manageable and less-crowded version.
The "National Monument" designation signifies a natural or cultural feature that is a scaled-down version of a full-fledged national park. Some 700,000 visitors a year find their way to the Colorado National Monument, yet few stay a few days to really get to know it.
A man named John Otto recognized the unique qualities of what is now the Colorado National Monument. He lived amid its rocks, hand-built trails and lobbied for its protection in the early 20th century. Perhaps the word "grand" was used up by 1911 when President Howard Taft signed a bill designating more than 20,000 acres as the Colorado National Monument.
Still, its scenery is grand: sweeping vistas, imposing monoliths, wind- and water-carved pillars, spires and turrets, and layered cliff walls that are a geology text come to life -- all below the big blue dome of the Colorado sky.
The Saddlehorn Campground in the northwestern part of the monument has 80 spaces suitable for a mix of small RVs, campers (no more than 35 feet long) and tents. By far the most popular activity is a leisurely exploration along Rim Rock Drive, a paved 23-mile route with some dozen scenic overlooks and pull-outs. Be sure to read the interpretive signs that explain so much about the monument's unique features. Casual visitors might drive it just once, but campers can easily do so as often as they like.
The best times are when the Colorado red rocks catch the first light of morning or the last rays of the setting sun. Photographers are captivated and painters inspired. Rim Rock Drive also is a stunning bike route. Seeing the canyon clefts at pedaling speed is even more exhilarating.
Need a Suggested Itinerary?
En route to the Colorado National Monument, stop in the gateway town of Fruita and visit the Museum of Western Colorado's Dinosaur Journey Museum, showcasing the creatures that roamed western Colorado, eastern Utah and surrounding areas millions of years ago. Highlights include interactive displays featuring robotic dinosaurs and a working paleontological lab.
Continue to the monument, stopping at the visitor center to become acquainted. There are two audiovisual presentations. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, some kind of ranger program is offered each day or evening. Ask what's on the docket. If you have children with you, ask about the Junior Ranger Program. Then walk the adjacent Alcove Nature Trail, a one-mile interpretive path that explains much about the flora, fauna and geology.
Devote a full day to the Colorado National Monument. Most people drive the 23-mile Rim Rock Drive, stopping at the dozen or so scenic overlooks. Bring a picnic lunch and linger at a particularly engaging spot.
If you are strong of leg and lung, ride a road bike for a more intimate look. Be sure to take enough water, and beware of late afternoon thunderstorms. Whatever your mode of travel, read the interpretive signs that explain the monument's unique features.
Or, to really experience the monument one step at a time, go for a hike. Each of the 13 trails provides a different view. The shorter trails, like Canyon Rim, Coke Ovens Trail, Devil's Kitchen, Otto's Trail and Window Rock Trail (all less than a mile) are suitable for families and casual explorers.
Take your choice of adventures on land or water. Fruita is western Colorado's mountain biking Mecca, with access to hundreds of miles of trails. They range from strictly local loops to storied, 140-mile Kokopelli's Trail, between nearby Loma to Moab, UT. The folks at Over the Edge Sports can point you to the best routes for your interests, ability and stamina. Located downtown, one block east of Town Square, the shop also rents bikes and can refer you to a mountain biking guide.
The Colorado River is gentle enough for canoeing, floating and tubing in some stretches and wild enough for whitewater rafting and kayaking in others. Rimrock Adventures has all the details and runs trips. The outfitter also offers horseback rides in the nearby McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area and the Little Bookcliff Wild Horse Area.
For more information on the Colorado National Monument, call 970-858-3617 or visit www.nps.gov/colm.