Colorado National Monument
Soaring red rock pinnacles, imposing cliffs, and vertigo-like viewpoints make Colorado National Monument special. Although it is one of the United State’s National Parks, relatively few go to see the Monument. Located near Grand Junction and Fruita, Colorado, this park is open year-round and worth a visit.
The best way to see the park
Most visitors will be content to drive along the 23-mile (37 km) Rim Rock Drive. This road is where over a dozen pullouts allow safe viewing of vistas, wildlife, and unique red rock formations. Great camping, hiking, bicycling, and other pursuits are available also. A fee for entry is charged like most national parks. For just 20 USD you can enter in your non-commercial vehicle stuffed with as many passengers you desire. Hikers and cyclists pay 10 USD, and motorcycles 15 USD. All of the fees mentioned above are valid for seven consecutive days!
The recommended route for first-timers is to drive Interstate 70 to the Fruita exit, then turn south following the signs to Colorado National Monument. After crossing over the Colorado River, notice the cliffs looming ahead as you start to climb up the road. The park is open 24 hours a day, seven days per week all year long, but the gate shack isn’t always staffed. If no one is working the gate, drive to the Saddlehorn Visitor Center which is open between 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. At the Visitor Center you can consult with a ranger to plan your visit and pay the entrance fee. Outback from the visitor center is a short trail with a spectacular overlook down into a canyon and beyond.
Wildlife on the rocks
Watch for desert bighorn rams near the visitor center on the roadway or on the shoulder. Although it’s rare for one of these red rock dwellers to attack a human, you should keep a safe distance. As you drive towards the city of Grand Junction from the visitor center, the road offers several scenic pullouts. Stop at all or just the ones those that seem enticing and take a short walk with your camera ready. If you are lucky, you might see a magnificent golden eagle soaring overhead looking for a hapless rodent.
The main visual treats are the colors of the red rock walls and towers that change colors throughout the day. Shades of red, purple, magenta and orange decorate the sandstone rock features offering moments of thoughtful contemplation on how this natural spectacle was formed. Interpretive markers in the visitor center and along the Rim Rock Drive explain the geology of the Monument. Wind and water are the main architects of the Monument and are still shaping the rocks today. Some of the ancient rocks like the Burro Canyon Formation are from the Lower Cretaceous Period and estimated to be 140 million years old. Even older are the Precambrian formations said to be over 1.5 billion years old.
Hiking and picnics
Hikers get the best up-close views of the Monument. Choose from a range of short or long trails and be sure to bring a hat, water, sunglasses, and sunscreen. The park’s website mentions biting gnats and suggests bringing bug spray in summer. During my numerous visits to the Monument I’ve never been bothered by gnats or other insects, but you might want to heed the bug spray advice to be safe. It’s important to note that the hiking trails are off-limits to pets and bicycles.
Some of the trails offer access to rock climbing, both easy and challenging. Be sure and bring the proper gear if you plan to climb the rocks.
Picnics are popular at the Monument. Several uncrowded places like the Devils Kitchen, Saddlehorn, or undeveloped places are excellent for having lunch with a view. The Saddlehorn Picnic Area has charcoal grills, drinking fountain, and public restrooms nearby. A warning about fires is warranted as Colorado has a dry climate, and some years the fire danger is high. Fires are only allowed in approved areas and some years are banned if conditions warrant extra precautions.
You might be interested in these Airbnbs!
Not Just for Summer
The Monument is spectacular year-round. Some of the most beautiful scenes are after a recent snowfall has cast a white crown on the sandstone formations and trees. The views of the distant Book Cliffs or Grand Mesa are especially gorgeous after a snowstorm or rainstorm. Sometimes a rainbow will arch over the valley providing a priceless photo. It is not advised to hike after rainstorms or snowstorms as some of the trails have significant drop-offs and could be slippery. It’s best to enjoy the after-storm views from the safety of your automobile.
Where to Stay and Eat
The Grand Valley has dozens of decent places to stay, both expensive, and inexpensive. Consider Airbnb properties for good budget options, or the Colorado Wine Country Inn for more luxurious digs. There are several chain hotels in the area of which I’d recommend the Courtyard by Marriott for clean and modern rooms near the airport.
Lots of great restaurants are available in Grand Junction. Try Café Sol in downtown for excellent breakfast and lunch, or for a good brewpub, consider the Rockslide Brewery. Another tasty lunch place is Spoons, a café that helps support the Hopewest Hospice by providing good food at reasonable prices. For fine dining, check out 626 on Rood and Bin 707 Foodbar in downtown Grand Junction.
A hidden gem
Why the Colorado National Monument is not more popular is a mystery. Maybe it’s because Rocky Mountain National Park and Mesa Verde attract most of Colorado’s park visitors and few think to consider Grand Valley? But now that you know what waits, you will be one of the lucky visitors to find this hidden gem.
Get Trip101 in your inbox