Colorado National Monument - the National Park You've Never Heard Of

Everyone who visits Colorado National Monument claims, “it’s more of a national park!” Just six miles away from Downtown Grand Junction, Colorado National Monument consists of more than 20,000 acres of striking canyonlands beckoning to be explored. The area was designated as a national monument in 1911 and has since expanded into a mecca for outdoor adventure enthusiasts.

 
 
 
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John Otto was a miner who was passing through western Colorado when he stumbled upon the vast canyons and stone monoliths that are now Colorado National Monument. He immediately fell in love with the land, calling it "the heart of the world." He decided to stay here, and for years lived in the rugged canyons while petitioning for the area to be declared a national park. Otto wrote hundreds of letters to congress and other politicians pleading his case, desperately trying to describe the wonder of this place. Before his arrival, many locals who lived in Grand Junction believed the area to be inaccessible. Otto built miles of trails by hand to some of his favorite spots within the canyons so that they could become accessible to everyone. He even helped construct a large section of the original road that is now called Rim Rock Drive.

Otto’s efforts and persistence paid off in 1911 when President Howard Taft, who had visited the area for himself, signed an order declaring a small section of these wild and untamed canyons a national monument. John Otto celebrated this feat by scaling Independence Monument for the first time on July 4th, 1911. He summited this 450-foot rock tower and planted an American flag at the top, a tradition he continued every year and is still carried out today.

In the early 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps began constructing a main road through the Monument that would connect the east and west entrances. Working by hand, the men of CCC used pickaxes to carve away at the rock and wheel barrels to transport it. The CCC completed Rim Rock Drive in the early 50s. The drive takes visitors along a 23-mile scenic “hike in your car” that clings to the edge of the canyon walls. Nineteen overlooks along the way provide stunning views of the valley and the unique rock formations that define Colorado National Monument.

 
 
 
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As you drive along, you're looking back in history. The tremendous forces of erosion have slowly exposed the intricate layers that run through the rocks. Wind, rain, and flash floods have carved away at the land over millions of years. The stone visible today are over two billion years old – more than half the age of the Earth.

 
 
 
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While Rim Rock Drive provides excellent opportunities to see some of the most spectacular sights in the Monument, there is nothing better than getting up close and personal. Fourteen trails cover over 40 miles and will take you to some of the most famous sights throughout Colorado National Monument. Venture to the base of Independence Monument, or hike along the edge of the canyon to look out at the Coke Ovens. Trails range from short, easy out-and-back hikes to challenging all-day treks. Cyclists also flock to Rim Rock Drive for one of the most exhilarating and beautiful roads to ride that you'll find anywhere. The film, American Flyers featured Colorado National Monument in all its glory.

Colorado National Monument is also bordered by two more feats of nature. McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area covers an additional 123,430 acres of impressive canyons along the Colorado River. You will find incredible hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding in McInnis Canyons. Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness lies on the northern edge of the Monument, a rugged and untouched space holds the largest collection of arches in the country outside of Utah.

 
 
 
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Since Colorado National Monument is the national park you’ve never heard of, it remains uncrowded. Enjoy a scenic drive through the park or hike along any of its trails without being distracted by over-visitation. You can sleep in, grab breakfast from one of Grand Junction’s trendy restaurants, like Dream Café, and still find a parking space at the trailhead. While you can drive through the Monument in a few hours, you'll need a few days to really explore everything it has to offer.  You might even want to extend your stay and take advantage of Grand Junction's affordable lodging

Want to learn more about Colorado National Monument? Check out page 10 of the Grand Junction Visitor Guide.