One of the most beautiful stretches of land in the world, Colorado National Monument is comprised of more than 20,500 acres of high desert looming over the Colorado River just west of Grand Junction. Teeming with mind-boggling rock formations, a vast range of wildlife and hypnotizing panoramas, it offers a phenomenal range of adventures. Here are six of the best ways to experience it.
Rim Rock Drive is a paved road that winds up and down through Colorado National Monument for 23 miles between the Grand Junction and Fruita entrances. The route is still sometimes referred to as “Tour of the Moon”, thanks to cyclists from around the world who flocked here in the 1980s for the iconic Coors Classic bike race. The Tour of the Moon ride is still held every year at the Monument. And with a route that winds through cliff walls of colorful sandstone and granite, up and down tight switchbacks, onto the plateau and back down again, it’s easy to see where this celestial moniker comes from. From either entrance, you end up ascending about 2,000 feet along the 23 miles, but most of the climbing is gradual, and you’ll knock out the toughest bit during the first few miles.
Rim Rock Drive is a two-way road, and while motorized traffic is typically light and slow-moving, it’s important to be mindful and respectful by riding in single file when cars are present. The best times to ride the Monument, especially in the summer, are early in the morning and in the evening. Bike lights are required (you pass through several dark, narrow tunnels beyond both entrance areas) and helmets are always recommended, along with plenty of water, sunscreen, and spare tubes. The entrance fee is $5 for cyclists.
Explore more than 60 miles of hiking trails, some as short as a mile and perfect for beginners. Richard Masoner
The Monument offers more than 40 miles of hiking trails, and most feature panoramic views that gaze out upon the Grand Mesa, the Colorado River, or an expanse of plateaus reaching to the Utah border and spectacular rock formations. Trails are available for every level of hiker, from out-and-back jaunts of less than a mile to full-day backpacking treks. A few highlights:
For Beginners, Devil’s Kitchen: Starting from the Devil’s Kitchen parking lot on Rim Rock Drive near the Grand Junction side of Colorado National Monument, this 1.1-mile, out-and-back trail zig-zags along dirt singletrack surrounded by desert shrubs up into a “kitchen” of wide rock columns and stacked slabs of upright boulders. Although the distance is short, the gradient becomes quite steep, climbing a rocky staircases for nearly 250 feet of elevation gain and loss.
For Intermediates, Monument Canyon to Wedding Canyon: Starting from the Monument Canyon parking lot at the end of Fawn Lane outside of Colorado National Monument, this loop showcases incredible views of both canyons and a number of oddly shaped masterpieces of nature—spires, islands in the sky and giant, human-shaped figurines. Beginning on the Monument Canyon Trail, you go left, ascending through cliffs on packed dirt and rocks. After about 2.5 miles, you’ll see the split to Wedding Canyon Trail to your right. Take this right to loop back to the parking lot on a two-mile strenuous trail that descends to the canyon floor and ascends back up again—it’s steep and rocky for nearly half a mile before reaching the smoother trail of rolling packed dirt. You can also extend your hike on Monument Canyon Trail for a mile or so before turning back toward the Wedding Canyon junction. This route offers sweeping views, including the majestic Independence Monument. The short loop is about 5 miles and 800 feet of elevation gain/loss, and the extension takes you just over 7 miles and close to 1,000 feet.
For Experts, Lower Liberty Cap: Beginning at the Wildwood Trailhead outside of the monument, head toward the looming red cliffs of the monument on a smooth, sandy trail that climbs gradually until you reach the cliffs themselves. You’ll be using your hands in places to pick your way through the rocks toward the technical summit of Liberty Cap—an ancient, solidified sand dune that is slowly being subdued by the forces of erosion. Come back the same way—3.3 miles each way and 1,100 feet of climbing and descending.
Colorado National Monument features views you won’t find on most camping trips. Todd Petrie
The stars sure seem closer here—especially when you’re spending the night with an unobstructed view of the night sky. The simplest way to soak it up is by staying at Saddlehorn Campground, located near the visitor center inside the Monument. The campground features an A-loop area of sites for tent campers (be aware there is a maximum of two vehicles, seven people and three tents per site), open year-round on a first-come basis. B-loop and C-loop sites are available for individuals, groups, and recreational vehicles from mid-March through October and can be reserved here. Single nights are available without reservation on a first-come basis; while large groups of 15-plus must make reservations (call 970-858-3617, ext. 300.).
Each site features a picnic table and charcoal grill, and flush toilets are available on-site, but there are no showers and no wood fires permitted. The Saddlehorn camping fee is $22. Backcountry camping is also permitted (no fires) in various places throughout the Monument, but campers must first obtain a permit from the Visitors Center.
4. Rock Formations
Regardless of whether they’re driving, cycling, or walking through the monument, many visitors like to plan their route with a checklist of nature’s masterpieces—the unique granite and sandstone rock formations sprinkled throughout the canyon, some of which are more than a billion years old. A few recommended standouts include the Coke Ovens, Pipe Organ, Kissing Couple, Balanced Rock, and the park’s tallest, Independence Monument, which rises more than 450 feet off of the canyon floor.
Spend time in Colorado National Monument and you’re likely to spot some bighorn sheep. Carol M. Highsmith
Wildlife is abundant here, especially in the early morning and at dusk. Birds can always be spotted serenely circling high above the plateau, including golden and bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, and ravens. You also may spot elk, deer, bighorn sheep, and coyotes. It’s also not unheard of, particularly on warm days, to see rattlesnakes. Always keep a safe distance from all wildlife.
All those beautiful sandstone cliffs and spires have long attracted rock climbers to Colorado National Monument. Most of the routes are of the “traditional” variety, and no new permanent hardware may be installed. First-time climbers in the Monument may want to hire a guide service (some options include Summit Ridge Guides, Glenwood Climbing Guides, or Apex Climbing School). Guides can provide both the equipment and technical know-how to get you climbing right away, as well as suggest the best routes suited to your skill level and interest.
Experienced climbers have a lot to choose from here, including Otto’s Route, a 5.8+ climb up the dramatic desert tower that is Independence Monument via five relatively short pitches, finishing with a dramatic, narrow summit. (The pictures will be impressive.) Wizard I in Monument Canyon is another signature route, with the 5.10+ rated route offering a little bit of everything.
Written by Shauna Farnell for Matcha in partnership with City of Grand Junction.