Explore the stunning geological features in the red sandstone canyons of Colorado National Monument.
In this article...
After our crazy adventure at Great Sand Dunes National Park, we had been content to spend a bit of downtime with friends. We stayed near Leadville, CO for a couple weeks before moving over to Durango, CO. We were having a few issues with our truck, and decided to take the truck to Durango Motor Company where we had previously received stellar service!
But before long, we were itching to get out exploring again. And over the past few weeks, we had formulated a plan. A slightly crazy plan, but a plan nonetheless!
It was time for an interstate road trip to visit the Outdoors RV factory up in La Grande, OR and then Battle Born Batteries in Sparks, NV. Along the way we'd pick up a few National Park Units that we were looking forward to visiting!
Our stop first was Colorado National Monument, a unit we had briefly stopped to visit on a skiing trip from San Francisco, CA to Colorado over Christmas 2017. It had been a fleeting visit, and we were looking forward to going back - this time it would be unit number 33 on our quest to visit ALL the National Park Units across the US, and the 7th in Season 3.
We visited Colorado National Monument in mid-August 2019 - a very hot time of year around Grand Junction, CO.
Colorado National Monument is located just a few miles west of Grand Junction, CO in western Colorado along I-70.
Rising more than 2,000ft about the Grand Valley of the Colorado River, Colorado National Monument sits at the edge of the Uncompahgre Uplift. Hence it is part of the Colorado Plateau that is also home to world renowned National Parks such as Grand Canyon National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park and Arches National Park.
The most prominent feature of Colorado National Monument is Monument Canyon which runs all the way through the park. It is carved deep into the rock, exposing the geologic record in the surrounding cliffs.
Nearest the bottom, the oldest layers are Proterozoic rocks dating back more than 1 billion years. The Proterozoic eon is a geologic time that spans from the emergence of oxygen in the atmosphere to the proliferation of complex life on Earth.
At that time, Colorado National Monument would have been deep beneath the sea. Millions of years later, the Earth rose and dinosaurs roamed the land, before the sea returned once again.
Above the dark Proterozoic metamorphic rock is an 80-100ft thick layer of red rock - the so-called Chinle formation. This formed a little over 200 million years ago, leaving a gap in the geologic record of around a billion years - known as an unconformity. These missing layers were eroded in the Monument, but can be seen elsewhere in the surrounding area.
The tall cliffs are made of Wingate Sandstone, a pale red rock. While it makes up the majority of the exposed cliffs you see at Colorado National Monument, it is relatively soft and easily eroded. In places such as Independence Monument, it's capped by a protective layer known as the Kayenta Formation.
Just a few feet of Kayenta are enough to protect vertical cliffs and shafts, and once it erodes the underlying Wingate Sandstone will quickly weather to form rounded domes.
Adding to the already vibrantly colored rocks, colorful lichens and a coating known as desert varnish turn the rocky landscape into a veritable artist's palette!
National Monument Designation
The area at Colorado National Monument was widely considered inaccessible until John Otto, an eccentric recluse, began building trails into the canyons and up onto the plateau.
A keen naturalist and preservationist, Otto spearheaded fundraising campaigns and petitioned politicians to support recognition and preservation of the area. Eventually a bill was introduced by local Representatives to the US Congress and Senate, but its progress was threatened by a Congressional slowdown.
President William Taft had previously visited the area, and appreciating its importance, stepped in using the Antiquities Act to designate the area around the canyons as Colorado National Monument on May 24, 1911, making it the 30th National Monument.
Otto's work didn't end here. He became the park's first Ranger, drawing a salary of $1 per month - he would remain in this post for 16 years.
Many of the park's best known features were named by John Otto, including Independence Monument - the base of which was the spot where Otto married Beatrice Farnham. Unfortunately Otto's eccentric lifestyle did not live up to her dreams and the couple separated just weeks after the wedding - divorcing the following year.
We had given ourselves a couple of days to explore Colorado National Monument. Since it was the middle of August, the weather was crazy hot!
Despite the weather, we managed to pack a lot in.
We arrived in the area on a Friday, having driven from Durango, CO up through Moab, UT. Without really appreciating how hot it was forecast to be, we decided to boondock at the McDonald Creek Cultural Area, about 35 miles west of Colorado National Monument.
In retrospect, this probably wasn't the best decision. The camping spot, while beautiful, was tucked away in a small canyon - essentially an oven during these hot days!
With the benefit of hindsight, we probably should have stayed at James M. Robb - Colorado River State Park in Fruita, just down the road from the monument. Ah well - at $30 per night for the State Park, I guess if nothing else we saved some money by boondocking for free!
Monument Canyon Trail
On Saturday morning, we left camp early and drove to Colorado National Monument - keen to get in some exploration before it got too hot. We pulled into the parking lot for the Monument Canyon Trail just after sunrise - about 6:45am.
We set off on Wedding Canyon trail (named for Otto's wedding) towards Independence Monument. The rising sun was illuminating the trail ahead of us as it wove its way through the canyon.
While the trail stayed down in the canyon and didn't climb up onto the plateau, that didn't mean it was all flat! With a few steep sections thrown in for good measure, we had to climb about 450ft to the base of the Independence Monument.
It was still early but the day was already heating up! Clearly our strategy to explore early in the morning was shared by some locals - despite the early hour, we passed several people out on the trail.
Independence Monument is truly breathtaking - we spent a while just standing there and enjoying the view. From here we could also see a number of other areas we planned to explore later on - up on the plateau.
Instead of returning the way we had come, we joined the Monument Canyon Trail to make it a circular hike.
Shortly after leaving Independence Monument, we passed a couple of hikers coming the other way who told us there were some Bighorn Sheep a little further up. We stayed quiet and found them soon enough - nestled just off to the side of the trail. They posed for a few photos before slowly moving further up the cliffs.
In total, the 5 mile round-trip hike took us about 2 hours 15 minutes.
Since it was now a slightly more sociable hour, we could head to the Visitor Center - up on the plateau.
Along the way we stopped in at a few spots, first to take our photo by the entrance sign, and then at Balanced Rock. Some of the names are unapologetically obvious.
It should come as no surprise that Balanced Rock was, indeed, a balanced rock. And Distant View was, as you might imagine, a view into the distance! The information sign at Distant View had some great information about the geology of the Grand Valley, and visibility was great!
Inside the Visitor Center, we stamped our passport and had a wander around the museum. While Colorado National Monument is famous for its incredible geologic features, the museum also shares the human story.
Building roads in this inhospitable environment was no mean feat, and the story of how they were built (and rebuilt) was fascinating to learn!
The Serpents Trail was completed in 1921, just 10 years after the Monument was established. With 16 switchbacks, it was known as the "crookedest road in the world" but still only allowed access to the East side. It wasn't until the Rim Rock Drive was opened in 1950 that visitors could access the majority of the park.
We were getting a little peckish, so we drove the short distance from the Visitor Center to nearby Saddlehorn. Along with the campground there is also a large parking lot and picnic area here. We found it almost completely empty and enjoyed an early lunch!
Window Rock Trail
Refreshed after lunch, we hiked out onto Window Rock Trail. This is a short hike out on the Kayenta Sandstone Formation, winding along the cliffs and offering vast panoramic views of the canyon extending far below.
Rim Rock Drive
The final item for the day was to drive the scenic Rim Rock Drive. This is a slow, twisty and stunningly beautiful road winding its way through the monument. We took our time, stopping at all the pullouts and enjoying the different perspectives out across Monument Canyon.
The full drive is 23 miles (one-way), so once we reached the bottom we decided to head back to our RV, hoping the afternoon sun would soon start to ease. We had plans for the next day and needed to prepare!
Saturday might have been an early start, but Sunday morning took it to a whole new level!
Diana was planning to cycle the entire 23 mile Rim Rock Drive, plus the extra 10 miles or so to make it a full loop back to the start. I would be in the truck as a support vehicle with snacks and water - plus trying to get some epic photos of both Diana and the monument at sunrise!
Having spoken with the staff in the Visitor Center the previous day, their recommendation was to start as early as possible. We timed it so that Diana would start riding at first light, about 45 minutes before sunrise. That way she would be cycling before the day got too hot.
The previous night we had prepared everything, so we left the RV at 5:15am with Diana's bike in the back of the truck cab and set off for the start point at the North end of Rim Rock Drive.
We unloaded the bike and Diana set off. The first 10 miles are an unrelenting climb up to the Plateau, followed by a couple miles of downhill and then another couple miles back up to the high point on the ride.
I had to move quickly to get into place to take the sunrise photos - my destination was Grand View. I had seen only one other person, another cyclist, on my drive up there - it was incredible to have this place to myself at sunrise.
The cloudless blue skies served as the perfect backdrop as the sun climbed above the horizon, casting a yellow glow on the red rocks, illuminating them in magnificent bright orange.
With every second, the light changed. Shadows slipped away as new parts of the canyon shimmered into life.
I could have stayed for hours, but I had to fill our water bottles at the Visitor Center and check on Diana.
Diana was making great progress, and for the next hour or so I followed up - driving a little ahead to a viewpoint and waiting for her to arrive, using the time to take as many photos as possible.
Before long, Diana had reached the high point on Rim Rock Drive at 6,640ft, shortly before Ute Canyon View. A few miles after that, Glade Park Road joins from the south. We had been advised by the Visitor Center staff the day before that the stretch of road after that intersection can be dangerous to cyclists. It is used by local traffic, who don't always give cyclists as much room as they should when they're in a rush.
We had decided that I would follow Diana all the way down in the truck. If Diana saw a vehicle behind me, she would find a convenient place for both of us to pull off the road to allow it to pass. That way, the vehicle would have to wait, or risk overtaking the truck as well as the cyclist.
Fortunately, maybe by virtue of it being a Sunday, we only encountered one car on the way down and it passed us without incident. At the bottom, we both turned left onto South Camp Road, and followed the road back towards the start.
Diana finished the ride in 3 hours 50 minutes, arriving at the finish just after 9:45am. The ride clocked in at 32.9 miles with 2,625ft of elevation gain! Considering much of the ride is over 5,000ft and 12 miles are over 6,000ft, I think that's a great effort!
Palisade Peach Festival
As luck would have it, the nearby town of Palisade was hosting its annual, world famous Peach Festival the weekend that we were visiting.
I can honestly say I've never seen so much peach-related produce in one place before - it was a pretty cool event!
Colorado National Monument is strikingly beautiful. Even if you're just passing through the area, find a couple of hours to take a detour along Rim Rock Drive and enjoy the incredible views.
If you have a little longer, hike some of the trails too. There are far more hiking opportunities than we explored, and we barely scratched the surface. And if you're a cyclist then the Rim Rock Drive is surely an opportunity that can't be missed.
Summer weather can be unbearably hot, as we discovered, so consider arriving as early in the morning as possible and don't feel bad about escaping the midday heat!
As a photographer, Colorado National Monument is such a treat. The red rocks contrast beautifully against the blue summer skies, and the canyons are draped in shadow by the high cliffs.
We loved spending time at Colorado National Monument. But now it's time to continue our road trip and head further north to explore Dinosaur National Monument.
If you enjoyed this blog post and still want to learn more, visit our dedicated Colorado National Monument page with a map and links to lots more useful resources!
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