Colorado National Monument, perhaps one of Colorado’s best-kept secrets, is truly a desert wonderland. This lesser-known park covers over 20,500 acres of deep canyons, sweeping valleys, and towering stone monoliths. Some 2,000 feet above the Colorado River at its highest elevation, the maze of canyons make it something of a mini-Grand Canyon – only a less crowded version.
The "National Monument" designation signifies a natural or cultural feature that is part of the National Park Service of the USA. 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.
John Otto was one of the first settlers to recognize the uniquely striking beauty of what is now the Colorado National Monument. He lived amid its rocks with a tent and his animals, hand-built many of the trails you still find today and lobbied for its protection in the early 20th century. “I came here last year and found these canyons, and they feel like the heart of the world to me. I’m going to stay and build trails and promote this place because it should be a national park”, and his vision was recognized in 1911 when President Howard Taft signed a bill designating the area as Colorado National Monument.
Today, more than 100 years later you can experience the land that John fell in love with: 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.
There are many ways to explore Colorado National Monument, all of them incredible, and all offer their distinct perspective.
Rim Rock Drive:
Rim Rock Drive is a 23-mile snake of a road that elegantly carves its way through the Monument, leaving no grand vista or breathtaking formation out of sight. Driving over the sweeping switchbacks is one of the best ways to experience as much of the Monument as possible in a shorter amount of time. Dozens of pull-offs are spaced along Rim Rock Drive at some of the most breath-taking spots, and you’ll find yourself wanting to visit each one.
Road biking over Rim Rock Drive is also a popular activity. On any given day, you can see cyclists pedaling over the steep inclines and cruising the smooth downhill sections. The view from the seat of a bike is truly unmatched, and all that pedaling makes each unfolding view all the grander.
Over 40 miles are covered by 14 different trails that span the Monument. Some are short (less than a mile) and take you just down a gentle trail for a more immersive view than you would get in a car. Some are longer, anywhere from four to 14 miles, and take you to the hidden gems within Colorado National Monument. No Thoroughfare Canyon is an exceptionally remarkable trail that follows a creek bed surrounded by lush vegetation deep into the canyon. During the spring runoff, a 100-foot desert waterfall can be found at the end of the trail. Learn more about hiking in Colorado National Monument here.
Trekking through these splendid wild west canyons on horseback will bring out your inner cowboy and have you yearning for the days where you ride into own and tie your horse up in front of the saloon. Horses are allowed on the Old Gordon Trail, Lower Monument Canyon trail, and Upper Liberty Cap into Black Ridge Wilderness. Learn more about horseback riding in Colorado National Monument here.
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. The red rock canyons and towers might look otherworldly during the day, but at night under dark skies filled with stars, they become even more alien. A Loop is open year-round on a first come, first serve basis while B and C loop are reservable mid-March through October. Backcountry camping is also allowed in the Monument, stop in at the Visitor Center to get a free backcountry permit! Learn more about camping in Colorado National Monument here.
Starting from the valley floor and climbing hundreds of feet up stone towers is an experience unlike any other. Independence Monument is a 450-foot fin that John Otto used to climb every year on the 4th of July to plant an American flag at the top. Today that tradition lives on, and you can climb the same route that Otto used to climb back in the early 1900s. While all the climbing in the Monument requires placement of safety gear and recommended only for experienced climbers, there are several guide companies in Grand Junction that are experts at Monument climbing and can help you summit anything you set your sites on. Learn more about climbing in Colorado National Monument here.
Photography and Painting:
Photographers and painters have long been inspired by the Mother Nature’s artistic masterpiece that is Colorado National Monument. The valleys seem to roll on forever, and the intricate rock towers create endlessly interesting photographs. Stop at Grand View for one of the most spectacular views in the whole Monument, and be prepared to snap away. Plein air artists have been frequenting Artist’s Point for generations to interpret the landscape before them. The best times are when the Colorado red rocks catch the first light of the morning or the last rays of the setting sun. Learn more about photography in Colorado National Monument here.