Colorado National Monument is near Grand Junction and Fruita in Western Colorado. This area of high desert is on the Colorado Plateau. It was established as a National Monument back in 1911. From Grand Junction you will see the towering walls, spires, and a maze of canyons beckoning travelers to take a closer look. Though the view from outside is also lovely, don’t merely drive by.
Heed the lure of the rocks and head on inside!
What is the Colorado National Monument best known for?
The Colorado National Monument is known for its position high on the Colorado Plateau and the stunning views this affords visitors. It reveals its fascinating rock sculptures to those who enter including Balanced Rock, Window Rock, Sentinel Spire, Kissing Couple, Independence Monument, and many more. With names like that, how can you not be inspired to visit and then moved by the sight!
You can learn about its various geologic formations and step back into long past periods of geologic history as you see the different types and layers of rock. We are by no means geologists, but it fascinates us to see and learn about what others have gleaned from the story of the rocks.
The flora and fauna of this park include things like juniper and pinyon pine trees, sagebrush, yucca, mule deer, bighorn sheep, coyotes, mountain lions, lizards, frogs and toads, rabbits, squirrels, and chipmunks. Raptors soar high above, utilizing the updrafts and undoubtedly enjoying the views as well.
Another fun sounding event for which the park is well-known is called the Tour of the Moon. That name gives you a visual of the amazing and fantastic landscape. You may feel like you’re taking a tour of an otherworldly place just in your car, but those competing in the Tour of the Moon are on bicycles. This is an annual bike race through the park. Racing through the park originated in the 1980’s when Colorado National Monument was a stage in the Coors Classic race.
What is the main thing I should plan on doing to see the best sights?
The main thing you should do on a trip to Colorado National Monument is drive the entire length of Rim Rock Drive from one end of the park and out the other. If you’re extra ambitious and have the time you could drive it in the other direction on another day as well. I find landscapes always look a bit different from the opposite perspective. We drove the road from west (Fruita entrance) to east (Grand Junction entrance) and it was lovely. However, I do wonder if we’d had even better sunset views going the other way.
We completed the scenic drive at the tail end of the sunset. If you can, time it that way as well and catch the changing colors on the formations. We certainly thought the sunset gave a whole new depth and character to the rocks.
Rim Rock Drive is 23 miles long and twists and turns throughout the monument. Simply driving along the road provides beautiful views up at the cliff walls, down into the canyons, and across the landscape. You’ll be able to stop at numerous overlooks to pause and take in the scenery more slowly and thoroughly. There are places for picnics to linger for a while.
What are the best ways to get out and hike a bit of the Colorado National Monument?
Doing a bit of hiking is a great way to see more of the park. Check the NPS site for the full list of hiking trails. Here are some of the ones we did or would like to do if we get a chance to visit the park again.
There are several short hikes that really enhance your experience of the park even if you’re mainly focusing on the scenic drive. Rather than just getting out at overlooks, looking around, and continuing your drive, take the opportunity to do one or more of the trails that spur off of Rim Rock Drive out to additional views and rock sculptures.
Kevin and I got the kids out of the car at some stops. After one of them fell asleep or we wanted to see it but not take all day to do the hike we took turns jogging out to the end and back while the other parent stayed at the vehicle. If you’re visiting with friends we’ve found another option is to take turns with the other couple so you can get a brief hike in and a quick bonus “day date”! These hikes are each 0.25-0.5 miles each way and include:
- Window Rock: loop trail out to this window in the rock
- Canyon Rim: hike along the canyon rim with views of many formations in Wedding and Monument Canyon
- Alcove Nature Trail: leads to an alcove in a box canyon
- Otto’s Trail: see Sentinel Spire, Pipe Organ, Praying Hands, and Independence Monument
- Coke Ovens: get a closer view of these rounded sandstone monuments that look like man-made coke ovens, which turned coal into coke, a form of fuel
These next few are slightly longer or a bit more strenuous. We didn’t get a chance to do these but would love to come back to do more hiking.
- Devils Kitchen: hike to a rock grotto that sounds like a magical place to let kids do a little exploring
- Serpents Trail: lots of switchbacks along this trail which was part of the original park road
We only saw the park from the level of the Rim Rock Drive. If you have the time and energy, a hike either down into the valley or higher up onto the ridge would be an excellent change of perspective. These two sounded the most fascinating to us for a future visit:
Monument Canyon Trail
This trail is 6 miles one way if you hike all of it through both Upper and Lower Monument Canyon. There is a steep descent down to the valley from Rim Rock Drive. You could also start on the opposite end and just go out and back to Independence Rock which is 2.5 miles each way. On the full hike you get to see lots of the formations close up and from below including Independence Monument, the Kissing Couple, and the Coke Ovens.
Liberty Cap Trail
The entire Liberty Cap Trail is 7 miles one way, and 5.5 miles from the Rim Rock Drive side. It is shorter from the Wildwood Drive side. The ascent up to Liberty Cap from here is a steep 1,100 feet. The exposed rock at the top makes this look like a great spot to enjoy views all around. From the pictures it looks like a mini Yosemite Half-Dome to me, albeit a “full-dome” version. We’ll have to put this hike on our to-do list if we get a chance to return with older children.
Rock Climbing Colorado National Monument
You can rock climb in some areas. Since we had the park mostly to ourselves, we also didn’t see anyone rock climbing. This is an activity we really enjoy but is mostly on hold during this season of our lives as our children are so young. We have started doing a little bit as Klara is now able to wear a rock climbing harness so we are looking forward to doing more in the future. New permanent hardware installation is not allowed at the park. So you’ll have to use trad climbing techniques for most routes. Check the park regulations for more info.
What are the best things to do in the surrounding area?
There is so much else to do and see in the area. Therefore, here are just a few ideas of the things we enjoyed.
Eat Palisade Peaches
Palisade Peaches are so delicious. This yummy fruit is available in the summer for purchase at various orchards and farm stands. You can also find U-Pick locations if you would like the experience of picking them for yourselves. I know we greatly enjoy these picking experiences with our own kids.
We were lucky enough to get to talking with local orchard owners and hear more about the growing and harvesting. They were incredibly welcoming and friendly. You can tell they love what they are doing.
Sample the Breweries & Wineries
This area also has numerous breweries and wineries. We checked out Edgewater Brewery, Rockslide Brewing Company, and Palisade Brewing Company. We also went to Two Rivers Winery and Grande River Vineyards. This is also Colorado Wine Country. The underlying artesian wells for irrigation and sunny days, low humidity, and cool nights all contribute to great grapes and consequently to great wines. Taste them for yourselves!
Visit the Waterfront
Checkout Riverbend Park and Riverbend Trail. The park and trail are right on the Colorado River. The trail is part of the Riverfront Trail System and paved for easy walking and biking.
Check Out the Towns
Go into Grand Junction, Fruita, and Palisade where you can do some shopping, eating and drinking or just stroll and people watch. We found many fun gems like a street piano, a fun spinning thing, statues, and an ice cream shop with play area. Likewise, you never know what you might find!
Go Bike Riding
If you want to combine this and all of the above tips, you can ride your bike along the Palisade Fruit & Wine Byway. Riding our bikes has been a nice way to see an area, get some fresh air and exercise, and stop to experience local food, drink, and activities. It’s a slower paced way of exploring. Furthermore, we feel it puts us a bit more in touch with our surroundings and helps immerse ourselves in exploring a region.
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If you’d like to read more about Colorado adventure destinations, check out these posts about some of our other favorite places in the state: