A wonderland of fanciful rock spires, red-rock cliffs, and canyons within canyons awaits explorers on Colorado’s western edge. Only 19 miles before Interstate 70 enters Utah, the wonder-filled Colorado National Monument unfolds.
Enjoy the relative solitude of the national monument’s otherworldly formations. Fewer than 400,000 visitors enter the 31-square-mile park annually, compared to the 4.6 million people who pour into Rocky Mountain National Park each year. If you still feel crowded, camp in the backcountry, where fewer than 300 people camped during 2019.
“The Monument,” as the locals call it, is a fitting addition to a Utah red-rocks road trip. It’s one of 30 parks on the Colorado Plateau. Or experience the wonderland on its own. Cyclists, hikers, and rock climbers will find a paradise here, as will those who want to encounter spectacular views from their cars. The rocks’ colors range from cream to rust. Sagebrush bushes, juniper trees, and pinyon pine trees speckle the rocks with flecks of green.
Summer temperatures at Colorado National Monument can be brutal, with triple-digit highs. The red rocks reflect heat, and shade is sparse. Start hikes at daybreak during the summer. Spring and fall are more welcoming, and winters are mild. After a snowfall, the white highlighting the rocks is breath-taking. In any season, drink plenty of water, wear a broad-brimmed hat, use sunscreen, and follow the park’s safety tips to ensure your day stays perfect.
Drive The Rim Rock Drive
The historic Rim Rock Drive features spectacular views at every bend in the road. And the road wiggles often. In fairness, switch drivers so that each driver will enjoy the sights. The narrow, winding road hugs the canyons’ cliffs, putting you on top of the scenery. Start at the southern, Grand Junction, entrance for the best experience. The passenger side will see the views better, and the turn-offs will be on the right side. You’ll only have left turns into two overlooks. Many of the stops offer short walks. The route requires an hour without stops, but you must stop.
Pro Tip: If you are towing an RV, leave it at your campground. The road is not trailer friendly. Driving through the park gives lowlanders a chance to acclimate to the altitude before more strenuous activities. Share the road with cyclists.
7 Perfect Overlook Options
The drive includes 19 overlooks, but we thought these were perfect.
Pack a picnic and eat at the Devils Kitchen Picnic Area. Stretch your legs on the moderate 1.5-mile round-trip Devils Kitchen Trail. The kitchen’s rocks loom over visitors like devils.
The edgy Cold Shivers Point feels like riding on a shark’s fin. Cue up Theme From Jaws. I half expected the shark to throw me off its 300-foot fin.
At Artists Point, the Squaw Fingers formation juts from the ground south of the point. I thought the “fingers” looked more like broken teeth. Look for blackish-red desert varnish staining some of the rocks. Indigenous people often carved rock art into desert varnish so it would stand out.
At the Coke Ovens Overlook, the squatty bulbs reminded me of giant wax bottle candies.
You approach Grand View through the claustrophobia-inducing Half Tunnel. Then the curtain rises. The Kissing Couple, Independence Monument, The Island, and the Pipe Organ offer themselves for your viewing delight. The Grand Mesa, the world’s largest flat-top mountain, dominates the horizon. Come early for the fantastic sunrises.
Independence Monument View offers an unobstructed vista of the park’s tallest monolith. Arrive early on Independence Day to watch the Mesa County rescue team plant the American flag on top of the 450-foot fin. The park’s founder, John Otto, began the tradition in 1911.
On the road’s final section, prepare for five hairpin curves in a row, two tunnels, and Dead Man’s Curve.
Pro Tip: Cold Shivers, Independence Monument, Fruita Canyon, and the Historic Trails overlooks, the Devils Kitchen Picnic Area, and the visitor center are all accessible. Consider using trekking poles at the other overlooks. Always stay behind the fences.
Accept The Perfect Road Bikers’ Challenge
Test your legs and lungs on the park’s roads. Riding the entire cyclist’s loop requires all 23 of Rim Rock Drive’s miles, plus 10 more miles of connecting roads. Climb 2,300 vertical feet, with the steepest grades near both entrances. Beware: Many trucks use the southern 4 miles of Rim Rock to supply the Glade Park community. The park has installed a Bicycle Safety Warning System in the area. Allow 3 hours for the full route.
Hiking: Serpents, And Weddings, And Corkscrews. Oh, My!
Otto created many of the park’s roads and trails. The Civilian Conservation Corps continued his work. Nine of the CCC workers died in an explosion. Experience the fruits of their labor on the CCC Trail. Watch for desert bighorn sheep where the trail intersects the Black Ridge Trail.
The steep Serpents Trail slithers through 16 switchbacks in 1.75 miles. The trail was the original park road from the 1900s until 1950. Park at the trailhead near the east entrance or the Devils Kitchen Picnic Area.
Wedding Canyon got its name in 1911 when Otto married Beatrice Farnham at Independence Monument’s base. Wedded bliss eluded the couple because Otto wanted to live in a tent. His wife didn’t. She left.
The Wedding Canyon Trail connects to the Monument Canyon Trail at Independence Monument. Start hiking in Wedding Canyon, which is mostly uphill. In the morning, the rocks provide shade. Monument Canyon is mostly downhill from Independence Monument. Both trails are rated intermediate to difficult. Allow at least 3 hours for the loop.
Think of the route as a metaphor for the Ottos’ short marriage.
The 1.3-mile point-to-point Corkscrew Trail’s name fits well. The switchback-filled difficult trail begins on the Lower Liberty Cap Trail. It weaves into and out of a dry wash, then climbs up slickrock. Enjoy gorgeous views of the metamorphic cliffs, but make sure to watch for the trail cairns. Search for rock art at the Ute Canyon Trail junction. Ute Canyon’s 4.7 miles reaches Rim Rock Drive.
No Thoroughfare Canyon starts as a maintained trail with 400-foot canyon walls towering over you. About a mile into the hike, a small pool awaits. Enjoy a picnic, and continue less than a mile to a waterfall. The unmaintained trail continues to the upper trailhead on Little Park Road. Bring a compass and a topographic map. Check the weather because flash flooding is an ever-present danger.
A Rock Climber’s Dream: 275 Perfect Days For Climbing
For 275 days a year, the monument’s forecast is for perfect rock climbing weather. Park rock climbing begins with Otto’s Route, one of the best routes for beginners. Devils Kitchen cooks up several canyoneering routes, including the Lemon Squeezer.
Pro Tip: Unaweep Canyon, 40 minutes southeast of the monument, is filled with excellent, lightly-used climbing routes.
Your Perfect Day As A Dinosaur Hunter
You can visit Fruita’s Dinosaur Journey museum near the park’s Fruita entrance, but why not improve your game? Join the Museums of Western Colorado’s paleontology expeditions, including the full gamut of experiences, half-day, full-day, and advanced options. Hike the Dinosaur Hill Trail to see fossils in the ground.
The Hilarious Dinosaur
Grrreta is a large green dinosaur sculpture in Circle Park. I asked my husband to mimic Grrreta for a picture. He was wearing a green shirt, and he looked so funny in his dinosaur pose. I doubled over, laughing hysterically. He started yelling, “Take the picture! People are staring at me!”
Perfect Places To Eat And Stay
Fruita’s Comfort Inn and Suites is across the road from Dinosaur Journey and 4 minutes from the park’s northern entrance.
The movie short Life of Pie tells the story of Jen Zenuer and Anne Keller, who own Detroit-style Hot Tomato Pizza. They make their dough by hand and proof it for 24 hours before serving. Try the Badabing Pizza.
Savor delights from the ultimate high country at Karma Kitchen, serving Indian and Nepalese cuisine. Eat the cheese-garlic naan and the lamb vindaloo.
Relax at Camilla’s Kaffe. Eat the Navajo taco or the Southwestern-style Reuben sandwich.
From Rim Rocks Drive’s highest point, Black Ridge Road heads west 13 miles to Rattlesnake Canyon in Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness. Only four-wheel drive, high-clearance vehicles, or all-terrain vehicles should attempt this road. The road is impassable when wet; ask park rangers about road conditions. Your reward for all this effort? Thirty-five stone arches. The collection is the second-largest arch collection outside Arches National Park. On a 6.2-mile hike, you’ll see eight arches. Add a half-mile side trip to see one more.
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