Everything You Need to Know About Exploring the Colorado National Monument
When we decided to spend the month of November exploring the Grand Junction area we knew we had to spend at least one weekend up at the Colorado National Monument — or as Grand Junction-ians call it, “the Monument.” And we are so glad we did because within about the first 5 minutes of driving the famous Rim Rock Drive our draws were just hanging open in surprise and awe at the natural scenery.
The Monument, simply put, is absolutely gorgeous. With its sandstone spires, deep, rugged canyons and amazing views of the surrounding valley (not to mention the Bookcliffs and Mesa), it is totally worth exploring. Plus, the campground is one of the best we have ever stayed at and the visitor center had some of the best exhibits we have ever seen at a national park.
If you are anywhere close to the area we highly suggest taking some time to explore the Monument yourself. Below is everything you need to know to have an awesome adventure in the Colorado National Monument.
\\ Fast Facts
Year Established: 1911
Size: 20,533 acres
Number of Visitors:
Cost to Enter: $25 per vehicle, $20 per motorcycle, and $15 per hiker/biker (all good for 7 days)
Best For: hiking, trail running, climbing
\\ History of the Park
The area was first explored by John Otto, who settled in Grand Junction in the early 20th century. Prior to Otto’s arrival, many area residents believed the canyons to be inaccessible to humans. Otto soon began building trails on the plateau and into the canyons. As word spread about his work, the Chamber of Commerce of Grand Junction sent a delegation to investigate. The delegation would soon be praising both Otto’s work and the scenic beauty of the wilderness area. Within no time, the local newspaper began lobbying to make the area a National Park.
A bill was introduced and carried by the local Representatives to the U.S. Congress and Senate, but a Congressional slowdown in the final months threatened the process. To ensure protection of the canyons President Taft (who had visited the area) stepped in and used the highest powers available to him (via the Antiquities Act and presidential proclamation) to declare the canyons as a national monument.
The area was established as Colorado National Monument in 1911. Otto was hired as the first park ranger (where he would draw a salary of $1 per month). For the next 16 years, he continued building and maintaining trails while living in a tent in the park.
Many of the early visitor facilities at the Colorado National Monument were designed by the National Park Service and constructed by the Public Works Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Several of these areas have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places in recognition of this and in consequence of their adherence to the National Park Service Rustic design standards of the time.
Native American History in the Park
The latest archeological survey of the monument located over 100 Native American sites. The numerous artifacts found at the sites suggest that there has been continual human activity in the region for at least 10,000 years. Evidence found at the sites mostly suggests that shortly after the last ice age, Paleo Indians made their way into the canyons of the Monument. And Clovis and Folsom spear points the people left behind alludes to their nomadic hunting way of life — which mostly consisted of hunting bighorn sheep and small mammals, and collecting a variety of plants for food.
But around 400 A.D. their culture disappeared and a more sedentary way of life began to dominate. The Fremont Indians — groups of farmers that lived throughout the region until around 1250 A.D., left behind corn cobs, hearth deposits, and check dams across small streams in the Monument telling us of their stationary lifestyle.
Although it is not known exactly when they came, the Ute Indians are also known to be longtime residents of the region. Similar to the Archaic Indians, the Utes followed a hunting and gathering subsistence pattern by moving throughout the Grand Valley for food. The Utes were removed from northwest Colorado in 1881 and escorted by the military to the Uintah Ouray reservation in present-day Utah.
\\ The Lay of the Land
National Park or Monument?
The issue of national park status (instead of monument status) has arisen time and time again — usually during bust cycles brought on by the Uranium industry and later oil and gas.
As of June 2014, Congressman Scott Tipton and Senator Mark Udall have carried the process closer to fruition than any other representatives since the initial effort in 1907. The two Representatives appointed an 18-member committee of locals to study the issue and learn the facts in 2011. After a groundswell of support from local residents and business owners, the Representatives then appointed a committee of five local residents to write draft legislation. The draft legislation was announced and released in early 2014. A public comment period on the draft legislation began soon after with an end date of June 2014.
Documentary producer Ken Burns (producer of “National Parks: America’s Best Idea”) has also weighed in on the effort. Burns would eventually endorse the change in status from national monument to national park. He compared the Monument to Seward, Alaska which overcame opposition to create Kenai Fjords National Park in 1980.
Presently, the status is still debated. But as of 2021 it is still the Colorado National Monument, not National Park. But who knows if/when that will change.
\\ When to Visit
The monument is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The only times you cannot really get around the monument is when the famous Rim Rock Drive (pretty much the only road in the monument) closes due to dangerous road conditions (snow, ice, rockfalls). The visitor center also closes on major holidays.
Below is an outline of what to expect during each season:
- Summer: quite hot — temperatures can reach 100 degrees F, afternoon thunderstorms are common
- Fall: temperatures cooling off, trails still open, fewer people, afternoon storms somewhat common
- Winter: can be quite chilly (10–45 degrees F), especially in the morning, a bit of snow and frost is possible, much fewer people
- Spring: great temperatures (daytime highs between 70–85 degrees F), everything is green and blooming
\\ How to Get There
The national monument is located right on the edge of Grand Junction, Colorado. There are two entrances into the park: the west side entrance near the town of Fruita, and the east entrance near the town of Redlands. The west entrance is the one closest to the only visitor center, as well as the Saddlehorn Campground (see more below).
The monument is located just over four hours from both Denver, Colorado and Salt Lake City, Utah.
\\ What to Not Miss
Among the monuments mammals, the mule deer are the most commonly sighted by visitors. However, coyotes, mountain lions, and desert bighorn sheep are also occasionally seen — the latter of which increasingly so. Smaller mammals, like grey foxes, desert cottontails, rock squirrels, and Hopi chipmunks, are often seen scampering off the sides of the Rim Rock Drive or along hiking trails.
Once in danger of becoming extinct, the desert bighorn sheep have made a dramatic comeback in parts of western Colorado. In the late 70s, a small population was reintroduced to Colorado National Monument. Today, around 40 bighorn sheep thrive in and around the Colorado National Monument (and more than 230 sheep have been sighted and monitored across the public lands of the larger Grand Valley).
While mammals are commonly spotted, you also have a great shot of viewing some majestic birds for the towering walls of the various canyons in the monument are the perfect place for raptors and songbirds to raise their young. Golden eagles, red-tailed hawks, and turkey vultures are often seen soaring aloft on the air currents.
Similarly, reptiles are generally seen in the monument from early March to late October. They are most visible in May and June and are active on warm, sunny days and mild evenings. While snakes do exist in the Monument, only one — the midget rattlesnake — is venomous (and it is rarely seen).
Vegetation in the Monument and surrounding lands consist primarily of pinyon-juniper woodland, grasslands, and upland shrubs. These landscapes are very typical of the larger Colorado Plateau biome.
Big sagebrush, rabbitbrush, and greasewood plants are often scattered in canyon bottoms. Other common plants include single-leaf ash, broom snakeweed, Utah serviceberry, yucca, Mormon tea, mountain mahogany, and cliffrose.
Points of Interest
Rim Rock Drive
One of the most common ways to experience the Monument is to head out on Rim Rock Drive — a 23-mile drive that follows the upper rim of a series of canyons and extends from the vicinity of Fruita in the west to Grand Junction in the east.
The detailed design for the road was developed in 1932 by the National Park Service Branch of Engineering. Its overall design is said to have focused primarily on maximum scenic impact. Most of the road was constructed with almost entirely manual labor by the Works Progress Administration, Public Works Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The road represents one of the most significant Depression-era public projects.
GOOD TO KNOW: the entire Rim Rock Drive has been designated a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places. Most of the buildings and infrastructure are in the National Park Service Rustic style.
One of the best things about the road is the ease of exploring the colorful geology of the monument. You will be able to view rock layers dating from 1.7 billion-year-old pre-Cambrian gneiss, schist, and granites at the bottom of the canyons, all the way up to the much younger sandstones and shales at the top of the road. Some of the best places to see the different geology are at the numerous pull-offs along the way. We especially like the Independence Monument View and the Grand View.
INSIDER TIP: the average drive, without stops, takes 45 minutes to one hour. But we highly suggest planning for more time and making sure to stop at the various overlooks, short scenic trails and of course, at the visitor center (in our opinion one of the best in the whole National Park system).
This historic trail was built by John Otto, the visionary behind the Monument. While today it is more of a trail, in the beginning it was actually a road meant for cars. It traveled from Grand Junction through No Thoroughfare Canyon all the way up to the rimrock near Cold Shivers Point. It had an elevation gain of nearly 1,100 feet (340 m) over 2.5 miles (4.0 km). From Cold Shivers Point the road proceeded at a gentler grade for 4 miles (6.4 km) to Glade Park.
Otto began his survey of the area in 1911 with the help of civil engineer J.F. Sleeper. Otto’s grand plan was to link Grand Junction and Moab, Utah with a scenic road, and that road was meant to be part of a much larger transcontinental road system. Construction began in 1912 and continued sporadically until 1921 when Mesa County took the project over. Engineer J.B. Claybaugh would complete the project in 1924. But the construction of Rim Rock Drive eventually destroyed portions of the Serpents Trail and today only a 1.6-mile (2.6 km) portion has been preserved as a hiking trail.
\\ Top Adventures
There is a nice mix of short and long trails to explore within the Monument. A few good ones to check out are:
Devils Kitchen Trail: 0.75 miles one-way, the trail follows a gradual ascent to a natural opening formed by huge upright boulders. At the first fork, go right. At the second fork, go left. Follow the trail across the wash. As you proceed up the canyon, you will see the large rock grotto that is the Devils Kitchen.
Serpent’s Trail: 1.75 one way, called “the crookedest road in the world,” due to the historic trails16 switchbacks. The trail climbs steadily from east to west through Wingate Sandstone.
Find more shorter trails here.
Black Ridge Trail: 5.5 miles one-way. This nice singletrack trail has great views of the surrounding landscape including, west to Utah canyonlands, east to Grand Valley, and south to the San Juan Mountains. The Black Ridge Trail is actually the highest trail in the park — though it never really climbs that much. It is also a great route for trail running.
Monument Canyon Trail: 6.0 miles one-way. The main draw of this longer trail is the ability to walk beside many of the park’s major rock sculptures: Independence Monument, Kissing Couple, and the Coke Ovens. Do note though, you do have to first descend 600-foot from the plateau into the actual Monument Canyon.
Find more longer trails here.
GOOD TO KNOW: there are NO water sources on any of the trails within the Monument. Also, the area is an arid, desert environment — meaning there are very few shady spots. Therefore, it is very important that hikers carry all of the water that they need with them. A good rule of thumb is 1 gallon of water per person.
While bicycling the Rim Rock Drive is definitely a challenge, the stunning views make it all worth it.
Actually, the only road cyclists can ride on is Rim Rock Drive (the main road). This scenic road is 23-miles long and travels between the park’s east entrance in Grand Junction and the west entrance in Fruita. But cyclists can actually turn their ride into a 33-mile loop by using connecting roads outside of the monument.
For the 33 mile loop, the total climb for a complete trip is 2,300 vertical feet — though most of that elevation change is found on the steep grades just inside either entrance. Otherwise once atop the rim it is relatively flat. You should give yourself 3 hours for the ride.
Some rules and regulations that cyclists must follow:
- Bicyclists are required to ride single file at all times within the monument.
- Always ride as far to the right as safely possible and stay alert for animals and rocks in the road.
- Slow down on sharp curves to avoid drifting into oncoming traffic or going off the road. Rim Rock Drive is narrow, with steep drop offs and going over the edge on some sections of the road can be fatal.
- Bicyclists are required to pay the entrance fee ($15 per person). Annual passes are available and all National Park passes are accepted.
The sandstone cliffs and spires of the Colorado National Monument attract hundreds of climbers every year. Most routes in the park require traditional (trad) climbing techniques — meaning you bring your own gear and take it all with you when you are done. The installation of new permanent hardware is absolutely prohibited.
One thing climbers do need to know is that the sandstone in the Colorado National Monument is fragile and can very easily be damaged when wet. All climbers should wait for the rock to dry prior to climbing, for wet sandstone can be a real safety concern when placing any gear.
The best climbing season is fall through spring (summers are often too hot and winters can be quite cold).
The most historic climbing route in the park is definitely Otto’s Route up Independence Monument. Otto, after years of hard work, eventually made the first ascent of the massive spire in 1911. He mainly did so by first chopping steps into the soft sandstone and then drilling and installing metal rungs for ladders. While the rungs today are gone, the holes and the steps remain (though slightly more eroded). Due to Otto’s modifications, the route has a moderate free rating of 5.8+. While his tool use would not fly today, without his previous work the route might be rated a 5.11 or higher.
| RATING: 5.8+
| PITCHES: 5
| START: park at the Monument Canyon Trailhead parking lot (here) and then hike out around 2 miles to the base of Independence Monument.
Learn more about the route here.
\\ Where to Stay
Campground in the Park
Saddlehorn Campground, located near the Saddlehorn Visitor Center (the only visitor center), sits four miles from the west entrance and is the only established campground within the Monument. But man what a campground it is. In fact, while we have never been big into camping in national parks (especially when there are good BLM spots nearby) staying here one night totally made us into converts. The views of not only the massive Grand Valley below, but also of the surrounding canyons and rock walls, are absolutely stunning. We highly, highly recommend either getting a reservation or coming in early to snag a spot when visiting.
GOOD TO KNOW: we aren’t the only ones who fell in love with the campground — in 2017 the Colorado National Monument was rated as the best campsite in Colorado in a 50-state survey conducted by MSN.
A couple of important things to know about the campground: there are 3 loops (A, B and C — see more below), the campground restrooms have flush toilets and potable water available and each campsite includes a picnic table, charcoal-only grill, and a parking area (some sites do have tent pads). Finally, it costs $22 to camp in any of the three loops (you also have to pay the entrance fee).
A & B-Loop: are open year-round (definitely A) and sites are reservable form mid-March through mid-October (up to 6 months in advance). During the winter/off-season sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. RVs are allowed in the two loops but there is a length limit of 40 feet.
C-Loop: C-Loop is the oldest of the loops and as such has tighter turns and smaller sites. Therefore C-Loop is limited to tent camping and those in smaller vehicles (such as single vehicles with top-mounted camper shells or tents, small vans or small RVs ~less than 20 feet). C-Loop is 100% on a first-come, first-served basis — so we highly suggest getting there early during the busy season.
While there are not a ton of super long trails within the Monument, if you are looking to stay within the boundaries and not at the campground you do have the option to backcountry camp. To do that you do need to first pick up a backcountry permit at the visitor center (it is free). Also, one important thing to know for planning is that ALL water must be packed in (there is none to be found on the trails). It is recommended to have one gallon/4 liters per person.
Get an idea of backcountry trails here.
Camping Outside the Park
Due to the monument's location near the edge of Colorado, not to mention the fact that it is surrounded by mostly public land, you can very easily find free camping nearby. This includes both established BLM campgrounds and boondocking sites.
Established BLM Campgrounds
A few great campgrounds to head to if you are looking to camp for free but still want some services (mainly a bathroom) are Jouflas Campground (25 miles away), Rabbit Valley Campground (26 miles away) and Road 18 Campground (21 miles away).
If you don’t need any services and are just looking for a safe place to stay, your best bet is to head to the Road 18 area (around 40 minutes from the monument) and anywhere off of the Rabbit Valley exit (33 minutes away). You can find even more spots on our favorite app iOverlander.
Motels & Lodges
The nearby towns of Fruita and Grand Junction have plenty of lodging options to fit every budget. The closest spots to the Monument are:
La Quinta in Fruita
Comfort Inn and Suites in Fruita
Tru by Hilton in downtown Grand Junction
\\ Must-See Spots Nearby
The Grand Mesa
Easily seen from the top of the Monument, this flat-topped mountain is actually the largest in the world. Known locally as “the mesa”, this popular outdoor recreation spot has an area of about 500 square miles or 1,300 square kilometers and stretches for around40 miles (64 kilometers) east of Grand Junction between the Colorado River and the Gunnison River. The mesa rises about 6,000 feet (1,800 meters) above the surrounding river valleys, including the Grand Valley to the west, and reaches an elevation of about 11,000 feet or 3,400 meters.
If you are looking to do some more hiking, then we definitely suggest checking the mesa out. While the Monument is a quintessential desert landscape, the mesa in contrast is much more forested — you can even do a number of hikes to lakes and rivers. And because most of the mesa is part of the Grand Mesa National Forest, you can not only hike but also mountain bike, ride ATVs and OHVs (on some roads) and camp. Find more trail information here.
INSIDE TIP: in the winter, the mesa actually gets enough snow to have a running ski resort — Powderhorn. You can also cross country ski and snowshoe atop the Grand Mesa.
The mesa is just over an hour and a half away from the Monument down Interstate 70.
If you are looking for even more desert adventures then consider heading around an hour and 45 minutes away to the hopping town of Moab, Utah. From town you can easily reach Arches National Park — a great spot to explore massive sandstone arches and canyons, Canyonlands National Park (the Island in the Sky area), Dead Horse Point State Park and tons of BLM areas.
Another great area to explore near the Monument is the cute little farming town of Palisade, located about 40 minutes to the east. Palisade is home to some of the best wineries in all of Colorado as well as some of the best fruit around: the famous Palisade peaches. Stop in for a relaxing wine tasting, head out on the Colorado River Trail or just take a nice stroll through town.
INSIDE TIP: you can stock up on Palisade peaches between late June all the way to early October. There is also an annual peach festival in the middle of August (usually the 15th — 18th).
Even though the two of us grew up in Colorado, neither of us had ever given much thought into visiting the Colorado National Monument. After all, the state is home to 4 national parks, so why would we take the time to drive 4.5 hours just to visit a monument? Well we can assure you that that sentiment is totally wrong. The Colorado National Monument is 100% worth visiting — even if it requires a 4+ hour drive.
With its towering sandstone spires, deep, rugged canyons and interesting history, the Colorado National Monument is for sure a place to add to every adventure bucket list. Hopefully, this guide not only inspires you to do so but also helps you once you actually arrive.
If you have any questions or comments about the Monument then please leave them below! And if you want to explore even more national park and adventure travel inspiration then consider subscribing to Backroad Packers.