what to see and do in coloroado national monument

Colorado National Monument – What to See and Do

Located on the northeastern side of the vast Colorado Plateau, Colorado National Monument offers dramatic rock formations, red rock canyons and sweeping views without the crowds of some popular national park sites. With its proximity to I-70 and easy access from the towns of Fruita and Grand Junction, we can hardly imagine why anyone passing through would skip this gem!

what to see and do in colorado national monument

Encompassing 20,500 acres, Colorado National Monument offers a spectacular 23-mile scenic drive and over 45 miles of hiking trails to explore the monument’s stunning landscapes. Travel high above the valley floor on scenic Rim Rock Drive and stop at roadside overlooks to see some of the best views in the park. If you have more time, be sure to leave the pavement and hit some trails to experience the monument’s beauty up close.

You’ll need at least a half day to explore the highlights of the park via the scenic drive and check out a couple of short, roadside trails. However, if you enjoy hiking, we recommend taking a full day or two to explore some of the monument’s fabulous trails. We hope our guide will help you prepare for your visit so you can make the most of your time at Colorado National Monument!

Colorado National Monument itinerary

Ahead of your trip, be sure to download a copy of our Colorado National Monument itinerary. We cover the best hikes, expected weather in the park, what to bring, what to see in the area, the best activities and sample 1, 2 and 3 day itineraries.

 

COLORADO NATIONAL MONUMENT HISTORY

When John Otto arrived in Grand Junction in 1906 and found the area that is now the Colorado National Monument, he instantly fell in love with the wild and desolate landscape and made the canyons his home. He envisioned the land as a national park where visitors could view the canyon from a bird’s eye view and campaigned tirelessly to make his dream come true. He spent most of his days building miles of trails on the plateau and into the canyons to make the scenic beauty of the area more accessible to the public.

On May 24, 1911, President Taft signed the proclamation that established Colorado National Monument. John Otto became the monument’s first superintendent, earning a salary of only $1 per month. He continued as caretaker of the monument for 16 years, spending most of his time living alone in a tent in the canyons with his horse and burros while building trails. Today you can hike the remnants of the trails Otto built by hand and see rock formations that are still known by the patriotic names he gave them, such Independence Monument and Liberty Cap.

what to see and do in colorado national monument

 

FUN FACTS ABOUT COLORADO NATIONAL MONUMENT

  • It is one of thirteen NPS sites in Colorado. Colorado has four national parks and nine national monuments.
  • The Colorado Plateau, of which Colorado National Monument is a part, contains one of the densest collections of national park and national forest service units in the United States!
  • The Civilian Conservation Corps helped build Rim Rock Drive until 1942 when the CCC was disbanded. The National Park Service finished building the scenic drive in 1950.
  • One of the three tunnels along Rim Rock Drive is 530 feet long!
  • The soil is alive at Colorado National Monument! The dark, bumpy soil lining some of the trails at the monument is called biological soil crust—a web of moss, algae, lichen, fungi and cyanobacteria. These organisms work together to bind soil and sand and hold water—creating a place where seeds can grow. The living soil is extremely slow growing and fragile, so be sure to stay on established trails.

 

 

ACTIVITIES AT COLORADO NATIONAL MONUMENT

Colorado national monument map

Colorado National Monument map, courtesy of the National Park Service

Visitors will find that most activities at Colorado National Monument are centered around the 23-mile scenic Rim Rock Drive which runs the length of the park. There are two main entrances to the park—one on each end of Rim Rock Drive. The west (Fruita) entrance, located off Highway 340, is just four miles from the visitor center (and campground), and is a good place to start if you are seeking information before exploring the rest of the park. The east (Grand Junction) entrance, located off Monument Road, is a good place to start if you’ve already done your research and just want to get right into hiking—like we often do! The popular Devil’s Kitchen area is just beyond the east entrance.

The scenic drive can be done in either direction. However, when starting at the east (Grand Junction) entrance and driving towards Fruita, most of the viewpoint pull-offs will be on your right, making it easier to stop. Additionally, the views seem to get more impressive as you drive east to west through the monument.

what to see and do in colorado national monument

If you won’t be driving the entire Rim Rock Drive and only have time for a quick, out-and-back trip, starting at the west entrance allows you to concentrate most of your time in the park at some of the grandest viewpoints.

what to see and do in colorado national monument

Regardless of the entrance you choose, these are some of our recommendations for activities at the monument:

  • Saddlehorn Visitor Center. As mentioned earlier, the Saddlehorn Visitor Center is located closest to the Fruita entrance and a great place to start your adventure. Inside you’ll find hiking information, exhibits about the history of the area, a park movie (18-minutes long) and a bookstore. The visitor center and restrooms are open every day except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. A water bottle filling station is also located outside, in front of the visitor center.

what to see and do in colorado national monument

  • Rim Rock Drive and Overlooks. Rim Rock Drive isn’t just a way to travel through the park, it is one of the most spectacular drives in the U.S. and an experience in itself! The serpentine road features views of red rock canyons, towering monoliths, and sheer-walled cliffs. It would take about an hour to drive the length of Rim Rock Drive without stops, but who would do that?! Even if you only have a few hours, you can easily enjoy the scenic drive and have time to stop at several roadside overlooks—where you can take in some of the best views at Colorado National Monument! Rim Rock Drive has 19 signed viewpoints. Since we weren’t short on time, we stopped at almost every single one! Most overlooks require little to no walking. A few have short trails leading to the viewpoints. It’s hard to pick favorites but be sure not to miss these--Independence Monument View, Grand View, Coke Ovens Overlook, Ute Canyon View, Red Canyon Overlook and Cold Shivers Point.

what to see and do in colorado national monument

  • Picnicking. There are two designated picnic areas inside Colorado National Monument—the Devils Kitchen Picnic Area (near the East Entrance) and the Saddlehorn Picnic Area (near the visitor center). Both have picnic tables, shade shelters, charcoal grills, restrooms, and water (available seasonally).

what to see and do in colorado national monument

  • Bicycling on Rim Rock Drive. In addition to being a well-known scenic road, it is also a popular route for cyclists looking for a challenging ride. Adventurous cyclists make a loop that includes Rim Rock Drive and connecting roads between the two park entrances. This full loop is 33 miles long with 2,300 feet of elevation gain. Those looking for a ride without the steep hills can park at the visitor center and cycle across the top of the monument and back. Only road biking is permitted inside the monument. Off-road mountain biking is allowed at nearby recreation areas like McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area. Before visiting, be sure to check out bicycling regulations and safety tips on the NPS website.
  • Rock Climbing. Colorado National Monument’s sandstone cliffs and rock formations attract hundreds of experienced climbers a year. Otto’s Route to Independence Monument is the most popular route. There are several guides approved to operate within the national monument. See the NPS website for more information on rock climbing inside Colorado National Monument.

 

THE BEST HIKING TRAILS IN COLORADO NATIONAL MONUMENT

Hiking. Colorado National Monument has opportunities for hikers of all abilities. Choose from over 45 miles of trails ranging in distance from ¼ mile to over 14 miles. Most trails are accessible from Rim Rock Drive and ALL have stunning scenery!

Before you head out on any hike at Colorado National Monument be safety aware.

  • Plan out your hiking route and carry a map. Cell service varies widely throughout the monument.
  • Since the monument is set in an arid, desert environment, hikers should always carry plenty of water. The only water sources inside the monument are at the visitor center and picnic areas. There are no water sources on trails. For those headed out on long hikes, one gallon per person, per day is recommended.
  • Come prepared with sun protection since there is little shade on most of the trails in the monument.
  • Elevations at the monument range from 4,000 to almost 7,000 feet, so even the shortest trails can seem challenging for visitors not acclimated to high altitudes. Consider the elevation and your fitness level when selecting a hiking trail.

 

These are some of the best short and easy hikes in Colorado National Monument:

  • Window Rock Trail. The short trail to view Window Rock is suitable for almost everyone! Follow the 0.25-mile one-way trail (0.5-miles RT) through a pinyon and juniper woodland to an overlook with spectacular views of both Wedding and Monument Canyons. From the fenced area at the end of the trail, take in views of Window Rock. Erosion formed and continues to shape this natural window in the canyon wall. The marked trailhead for the Window Rock Trail is on the campground one-way road before the Book Cliffs View. Limited parking is available at the Window Rock trailhead. Allow 15 minutes for this hike.

what to see and do in colorado national monument

what to see and do in colorado national monument

  • Canyon Rim Trail. If you only have time for one easy hike while visiting the monument, we highly recommend combining the Canyon Rim Trail (0.5-miles one-way) with the Window Rock Trail (0.25-miles one-way). The Canyon Rim Trail departs from behind the Saddlehorn Visitor Center. Hike along a winding trail that borders the cliff edge of Wedding Canyon and leads to the stunning Book Cliffs View! From here, you can continue hiking on the adjoining Window Rock Trail. We hiked the two trails and then looped back to the visitor center via the campground road, which took us about 40 minutes with LOTS of stops for photos. Roundtrip distance will vary (1-1.5 miles RT) depending on trails hiked and route taken to return to the visitor center. If you can time your hike with the golden hour (like we did), you won’t be disappointed! Just before sunset is a stunning time to enjoy views of the canyons! The Canyon Rim Trailhead is located just behind the visitor center. There is plenty of parking at the visitor center. Allow about 30 minutes to explore Canyon Rim Trail or an hour to combine it with the Book Cliffs View and Window Rock Trail before looping back to the visitor center.

what to see and do in colorado national monument

what to see and do in colorado national monument

  • Alcove Nature Trail. Another easy option near the visitor center is the Alcove Nature Trail. This 0.5-mile one-way trail (1 mile RT) is perfect for families with young children since it is short and mostly level. Guides are available at the trailhead with information about the plants, animals and rocks at the monument. The Alcove Nature Trail starts across Rim Rock Drive from the Saddlehorn Visitor Center. Allow 20-30 minutes to walk the nature trail.
  • Otto’s Trail. For a short and easy trail with some of the best panoramic views at the monument, head to Otto’s Trail! This 0.7-mile (out-and-back) trail follows a gently sloped descent to an overlook with views across the Grand Valley. Look out towards rock formations that include Pipe Organ, Sentinel Spire and Independence Monument. The trailhead for Otto’s Trail is about a mile past the visitor center on the left side of the road (if coming from the west). Allow 20-30 minutes for this hike.

what to see and do in colorado national monument

  • Coke Ovens Trail. You can take in views of the Coke Ovens from the overlook at the edge of Rim Rock Drive or hike the Coke Ovens Trail to get up close to these massive rock formations! The 5-mile one-way trail (1 mile RT) descends gradually from the roadside overlook, so expect an uphill hike on the way back. The Coke Ovens Trailhead is 3.8 miles past the visitor center on the left side of the road (if coming from the west). It also happens to be the trailhead for the challenging Monument Canyon backcountry trail. Allow about a half hour to hike the Coke Ovens Trail.

what to see and do in colorado national monument

 

Looking for something a little more challenging? These are some great moderate hikes in Colorado National Monument:

  • Devils Kitchen Trail. We didn’t have time to do all the hikes at Colorado National Monument, but this trail was a family favorite! The 75-mile one-way trail (1.5 miles RT) has incredible canyon views and some fun, rocky scrambles! However, it is best known for its namesake, the Devils Kitchen, an area with a dramatic cluster of upright boulders that feels like a giant rock room. The first part of the trail is sandy and flat. Go right at the first fork in the shared trail and take a left at the second fork to continue towards Devils Kitchen. Cross the wash and begin the climb up the slickrock. (Heading up the canyon, you can see the top of the large rock grotto that is Devils Kitchen off to the left.) As you approach the base of the large rock formation (at the top of the climb), go left and hike towards Devils Kitchen. You can walk right through the natural opening and inside the circle of giant upright boulders! The Devils Kitchen Trailhead is located 0.2 miles past the East Entrance (Grand Junction). Limited parking is available at the shared trailhead for Devils Kitchen, No Thoroughfare Canyon and Old Gordon Trails. Additional parking is available at the Devils Kitchen Picnic Area. Allow 1-1/2 hours to enjoy the Devils Kitchen Trail. Since this hike also involves some climbing up slickrock, proper hiking footwear is recommended. Be aware: this trail is not well marked and can be challenging to follow. MANY have been confused by AllTrails and Gaia maps which were misleading at the time this was written. There are steep drop-offs, so do not hike beyond Devils Kitchen.

what to see and do in colorado national monument

what to see and do in colorado national monument

what to see and do in colorado national monument
  • Echo Canyon Trail. Due to the popularity of its neighbor (Devils Kitchen), Echo Canyon is a great place to escape the crowds! The 1.5-mile one-way trail (3 miles RT) leads down to Echo Canyon’s lush and shady interior which can provide some relief from the sun on a warm day. Follow Old Gordon Trail for 0.5 miles to the junction and follow the leftmost trail which leads down the slickrock into Echo Canyon. Due to its longer distance plus several uphill and downhill portions, the Echo Canyon Trail is more challenging than the Devils Kitchen Trail. The shared trailhead to reach Echo Canyon is located 0.2 miles past the East Entrance (Grand Junction). Limited parking is available on the left side of the road. Additional parking is available at the Devils Kitchen Picnic Area. Allow 2 about hours for this hike.
  • Serpents Trail. This historic trail follows the original road that was built to provide access to the Glade Park Plateau--before the completion of Rim Rock Drive in 1950. It was called the “Crookedest Road in the World” due to its many switchbacks. The 1.75-mile one-way (3.5 miles RT) trail climbs steadily until reconnecting with Rim Rock Drive—providing some excellent views along the way! This wide, well-maintained trail is frequented by locals. The trailhead for Serpents Trail is located 0.2 miles past the East Entrance (Grand Junction) on the right side of Rim Rock Drive. Limited parking is available at the shared trailhead for Devils Kitchen, No Thoroughfare Canyon and Old Gordon Trails. Additional parking is available at the Devils Kitchen Picnic Area. Allow about 2 hours for this hike.

what to see and do in colorado national monument

 

Seeking a long, challenging trek through Colorado National Monument? Check out these backcountry hiking trails:

  • Corkscrew Trail Loop (Liberty Cap Trail, Ute Canyon to Corkscrew Trail). 8-mile loop. 2 ½ - 3 hours. Moderately strenuous. Steep drop-offs.

what to see and do in colorado national monument

  • Monument Canyon Loop (Wedding Canyon and Monument Canyon Trails). ~6-mile loop (counterclockwise recommended due to some steep/loose rock sections on Wedding Canyon Trail). 3-4 hours. Moderately strenuous.
  • No Thoroughfare Canyon Trail. Length and estimated hike time varies. 8.5-miles one-way; however, most hikers turn back at the first pool/waterfall (seasonal) which is 1.1 miles one-way from the trailhead). Moderate to strenuous depending on the distance hiked. Past the first pool, the trail is unmaintained and primitive. Spring is the best season for this hike.
  • Ute Canyon Trail. 11 miles RT (out-and-back hike from Wildwood Trailhead). Liberty Cap to Corkscrew Trail to top of Ute Canyon Trail and then back. Strenuous. 5-6 hours.
  • Monument Canyon Trail. 6 miles RT (out-and-back hike from Lower Monument Canyon Trailhead to Upper Monument Canyon Trailhead). Strenuous. 5 ½ - 7 hours.

 what to see and do in colorado national monument

See the NPS website more information on these backcountry hiking trails and others. 

 

MORE PLACES TO VISIT NEAR COLORADO NATIONAL MONUMENT

If you have extra time while visiting Colorado National Monument, check out these nearby attractions. Our recommendations include:

  • McInnis Canyons National Conservations Area. Located west of Grand Junction, the 123,000-acre McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area is home to more stunning red rock canyons, plus the second largest concentration of natural arches in the US! Visitors can enjoy a variety of recreational opportunities including hiking, mountain biking, boating, and camping. This is also a great place to explore if you happen to be traveling with a pet. Dogs are allowed on trails but must be leashed or under voice control.
  • James M. Robb - Colorado River State Park. James M. Robb – Colorado River State Park is one park split into five distinct sections. Visitors can enjoy activities like boating, fishing, swimming, hiking, and camping at different locations along the Colorado River.

Planning a grand southwest road trip? There are lots of great national parks, monuments and recreation areas that can be paired with a trip to Colorado National Monument. Moab is about 100 miles to the west and is great base from which to explore Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, plus Dead Horse Point State Park. Or follow Route 50 to the southeast to explore Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park (85 miles from CNM) and Curecanti National Recreation Area (110 miles from CNM).

what to see and do in colorado national monument 

HOW TO GET TO COLORADO NATIONAL MONUMENT AND OTHER TRAVEL INFORMATION

Colorado National Monument is in west-central Colorado, about 30 miles from the Utah border. The largest city near Colorado National Monument is Grand Junction. There are no public transportation services for getting to or around the monument, so you’ll need to have your own transportation.

There are two entrances for Colorado National Monument. Follow signs through Grand Junction to reach the East Entrance or drive through Fruita to reach the West Entrance. The Saddlehorn Visitor Center and Saddlehorn Campground are located about four miles from the West Entrance.

 

ENTRANCE FEES AND REQUIRED PASSES FOR COLORADO NATIONAL MONUMENT

An entrance fee is required to enter Colorado National Monument, and it’s on the more expensive side at $25 per vehicle/$20 per motorcycle/$15 per bicyclist or hiker. However, if you are a national park enthusiast like we are and plan to visit many in a given year, we recommend purchasing an Interagency Pass (America the Beautiful Pass).

what to see and do in colorado national monument

WHERE TO STAY IN COLORADO NATIONAL MONUMENT

Colorado National Monument Lodging: There are no hotels or lodging options within Colorado National Monument. For nearby accommodations, check out both Grand Junction and Fruita. Between those two cities, there are a variety of options to suit all types of travelers. However, there’s a wider variety in Grand Junction. There are no restaurants or gas stations within the national monument, so be sure to fuel up and grab food while in town.

 

COLORADO NATIONAL MONUMENT CAMPING

If you prefer to stay inside the park and enjoy camping, Saddlehorn Campground has sites available year-round! It is the only established campground within the monument, and we can’t imagine staying anywhere else. The views from some of the sites are unbelievable!

Saddlehorn Campground:

  • Location: The Saddlehorn Campground is located near the Saddlehorn Visitor Center (4 miles from the west (Fruita) entrance station and 19 miles from the east (Grand Junction) entrance.
  • Accessible via: Car.
  • Reservations: From mid-March to mid-October, reservations for Loops A and B can be made via recreation.gov. C Loop is only open during this time as needed on a first-come, first-served basis. Loop A is open year-round and on a first-come, first-served basis from Mid-October to Mid-March.
  • Capacity: 80 sites within three loops (A, B and C).
  • Electricity / Water Hookups / Dump Station: No / No / No.
  • Toilets / Showers: Flush toilets and water (available during the summer) but no showers.
  • Additional details: No hammocks, tarps or tents can be attached to any vegetation. No wood fires are permitted. Cooking in charcoal grills and camp stoves only. Pets are allowed at the campsite and on paved roads but must always be leashed. There are campsites to accommodate tents, trailers, and RVs but some sites are small, and many are not level.

what to see and do in colorado national monument

what to see and do in colorado national monument

what to see and do in colorado national monument

 

 

BEST TIME TO VISIT COLORADO NATIONAL MONUMENT

Colorado National Monument is open year-round, as are the Saddlehorn Visitor Center and Saddlehorn Campground. Temperatures are highly variable in the monument with elevations ranging from 4,000 to nearly 7,000 feet—supporting both semi-desert and upland climates.

If you enjoy hiking and exploring, the best seasons to visit Colorado National Monument are spring and fall when temperatures are mild. April and May tend to be the busiest months at the monument. Spring is also the best time to witness the cactus blooms!

The summer season brings extreme heat with temperatures averaging around 90°F. However, high temperatures can soar to over 100°F during the daytime. If you plan on any extended hikes, the NPS recommends carrying one gallon of water per person per day. Fortunately, minimal hiking is needed to experience some of the best views in the park which can be accessed from the scenic drive. We visited in the summer and found easy parking at overlooks. We enjoyed hiking in the evening and early morning when temperatures were lower and had the trails to ourselves!

Winters at the monument are generally mild with lows averaging around 20°F and highs around 40°F. Expect to encounter some snow since the monument receives an average snowfall of 31 inches every year.

 

VISITING COLORADO NATIONAL MONUMENT IN THE WINTER

When visiting the monument in the winter, visitors should be prepared for the possibility of snowy, icy, and muddy conditions on roads and trails. Check the NPS site or call the monument for updated road and trail conditions. During periods of heavy snowfall, some sections of Rim Rock Drive may experience closures. All trails remain open in the winter, but road closures could limit access to some trailheads at higher elevations. Be sure to bring trekking poles and possibly micro-spikes to navigate snow-covered trails and icy rocks.

 

IS THERE CELLULAR SERVICE IN COLORADO NATIONAL MONUMENT?

Public WiFi is available at the Saddlehorn Visitor Center. Cell phone coverage varies throughout the monument. Expect dead zones in canyons and on some longer trails.

 

ARE PETS ALLOWED IN COLORADO NATIONAL MONUMENT?

Pets can be brought into Colorado National Monument but activities with pets are limited. They are not allowed on any trails or in the backcountry. Leashed pets are allowed in developed areas only—on paved roads, picnic areas and in the campground. They must not be left unattended in vehicles since car temperatures rise quickly in the sun, even on cool days. If you are visiting the area with a pet, consider using a boarding kennel or dog day care facility in Grand Junction or Fruita.

 

RELATED INFORMATION ON COLORADO NATIONAL MONUMENT AND THE SURROUNDING AREA FROM JUST GO TRAVEL STUDIOS

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what to see and do in colorado national monument

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About Just Go Travel Studios

We are Amy & Pete Brahan. Very simply, we are passionate about our National Parks and Public Lands and explore them with our three kids whenever we can.

As much as we enjoy traveling, we also love sharing our knowledge and helping others create everlasting memories through our custom-made travel posters, downloadable travel itineraries and detailed blog articles.

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