Away from the summer crowds and throngs of tourists that file into the Rocky Mountain and Great Sand Dunes National Parks is another part of Colorado just waiting to be explored: the Western Slope. Encompassing most of the Western part of the state, this area has lower elevations, warmer temperatures and far fewer tourists than other parts of Colorado. One of the most amazing parts of the Western Slope is Colorado National Monument, a beautiful desert park covered in red rock canyons and rugged terrain. Located just a few minutes from the town of Grand Junction, this stunning and spacious park is perfect for your next summer camping trip.
In 1911, then-President Taft made Colorado National Monument a federally protected area, covering than 20,000 acres. That proclamation brought federal funding and protection to the region first put in the public eye by explorer and outdoor advocate John Otto. Otto was a native Missourian who dedicated his career to promoting and protecting the land. He lived in the monument for several years, mapping and digging out many of the earliest trails by hand. He also named several of the peaks in the park and served as the park’s chief custodian after the federal monument designation was granted.
Though the park is currently a national monument, state-wide efforts have been made to attempt to turn it into Colorado's fifth national park.
How to Get There
Colorado National Monument has two main entrances: the Eastern gate, near the town of Grand Junction, and the Western entrance (which is actually more to the north) near Fruita. Regardless of where you enter, the closest nearby airport will be the small Grand Junction Regional Airport, a great low-hassle airport. There’s a small ranger gate at each entrance, though they may not be manned during the off-season. A seven-day entry pass is $20 per vehicle, which you can buy in advance online. If the ranger stations are closed, There’s a visitors center near the Saddlehorn campground, and it takes about an hour to drive from one entrance to the other.
What to Expect
After visiting Colorado National Monument, you likely leave with an understanding of why John Otto fell in love with this rugged, unique terrain. In the southern area of the monument, you’ll find the Devil’s Kitchen rock formation, a short trail that leads to a colorful rock outcropping. From the same trailhead, you can access No Thoroughfare Canyon, which goes by all three of the park’s waterfalls (though keep in mind they’re more of a drizzle during the peak of summer.)
In the center of the monument are some of the highest and lowest points you can access. Liberty Cap is a challenging hike to the top of one of the monument’s most prominent formations, with amazing views of the entire region. To explore the bottom of the canyons, hop on the Ute Canyon trail, which descends almost 1,000 feet in elevation as you hike through a surprisingly lush landscape.
No matter where you go, expect hot temperatures in the summer (90 degrees Fahrenheit / 32 degrees Celsius is common), cold temperatures in the winter (at or below 20 degrees Fahrenheit / -7 degrees Celsius) and a dry landscape. You’ll need to bring plenty of water and a hat and sunglasses as many of the hikes offer very little shade. It’s essential to keep an eye on the weather as flash floods can occur in the canyons, and while they’re rare, they can be very dangerous. You should also be aware of proper protocols on the off-chance you encounter some of the monument’s potentially harmful fauna, like mountain lions or rattlesnakes. You can find educational guides on all these topics on the monument's website.
Remember that only a few of the trailheads have bathrooms or water, so come prepared. You’ll also need to carry out everything you carry in to the trails, including toilet paper and food scraps.
Activities and Things to See
Hiking: Colorado National Monument is a hiker’s dream as its far less crowded but just as beautiful as the terrain you’ll find in more popular destinations like Moab and Crested Butte. Hikes range from the nearly level, 0.25-mile-long Window Rock Trail to the 17-mile round-trip No Thoroughfare Canyon Trail, which is rough and unmarked after about half of the way in. The Lower Monument Canyon Trail is known for frequent bighorn sheep sightings, while the Corkscrew Trail Loop follows the first trail built by John Otto.
Rock climbing: Outdoor climbing is popular in the monument, which is home to some well-known climbing sites. Some of the more famous ones go directly up Independence Monument, including the popular “Otto’s Route.” Unless you’re an experienced climber, you should go with a guide, and there are many in the area. The park website recommends a few, and local Chicks Climbing offers some fantastic clinics specifically for female climbers.
Viewpoints: Getting to a viewpoint is no problem if you’re not a hiker, since the park offers many excellent and easily-accessible viewpoints. Take a drive on the 23-mile Rimrock Drive, a windy and scenic road with more than a dozen viewpoints and pullouts along the route. Drivers and bikers will be treated to stunning views as they drive atop winding canyons, along steep rock faces, and through two narrow rock tunnels.
Where to Stay
There’s one campground in the park; half of the sites are available for reservation online in advance, while the other half are first-come, first-served. You can also backcountry camp throughout the park, but keep in mind there won’t be any facilities, including water. Wood fires are not permitted anywhere in the monument. If you’d like to stay outside the monument, the newly reopened Spoke & Vine Motel, about 10 miles from Grand Junction, provides comfortable and modern, hipster-inspired rooms, as well as a bottle of custom-blended local wine always on pour in the trendy lobby. There are also a few state-managed campgrounds around the outskirts of Grand Junction.
When to Visit
The monument and campground within the monument are open year-round, but due to the land’s extreme temperatures, spring and fall are the most pleasant times to visit. That means there are fewer crowds in the summer and winter, and that you can arrive to the campground later in the day and still manage to snag a first-come, first-served site (be sure to pay at the self-pay station.) It’s best to avoid the windy Rimrock Drive when it’s snowing and all hikes through narrow canyons should be avoided if there’s rain in the forecast. There’s a slightly higher chance of being unable to see some of the tallest peaks in the winter as temperature changes in the air can cause what looks like clouds in the canyons. The Junior Ranger program, Visitor’s Center, and educational videos are offered year-round, though the “Walks and Talks” programs offered through the Colorado National Monument Association are generally not offered during the winter months (November-March.)