25 Amazing sites to see at the Colorado National Monument
Rim Rock Drive revealed mile-by-mile, the best scenic viewpoints, and the best short hikes to go on
Exploring the Colorado National Monument
For most, this means driving the paved 23-mile scenic Rim Rock Drive, stopping at the dozens of scenic viewpoints that overlook colorful canyons with spectacular rock formations, and taking long or short hikes that will take you deeper into the monument to see unique views and special places up close and from better vantage points.
The sheer number of viewpoints along the drive allows you to see the named monuments from different angles and directions. Most of the viewpoints sit right next to the parking area, some have short trails to access better views. There are also a few unnamed viewpoints, worth stopping and exploring if you have the time.
The canyons of the Colorado National Monument were formed over 70 million years ago, when the land here was uplifted almost 1500 feet from the Grand Valley below you where Grand Junction sits.
The canyon has some of the oldest forests on the Colorado Plateau, with 1000-year-old ancient juniper trees and 600-year-old pinyon trees.
The monument comes alive in the early morning when animals are more active such as foxes and coyotes, and desert bighorn sheep are often seen.
At sunset, the warm colors of the Wingate sandstone are enhanced and long shadows help define the unique domes, canyons, and tall formations.
Visitor Center hours are daily 9am-4:30pm, 5:00pm in the summer
Cars $25, Motorcycle: $20, hiker, bicyclist $15
Hiking Poles – for the steeper trails
Binoculars to view wildlife, and see the old steps cut into the Independence Monument
Dogs are not allowed on trails in the monument and must stay on paved areas only. Pets are allowed in the campground.
There is an east entrance and a west entrance, the 23-mile Rim Rock Drive runs between them
Come near sunrise and sunset to bring out the color of the sandstone and define the textures of the rock shapes
Combine a trip to the monument and Rattlesnake Canyon. You have to drive through The Colorado Monument to get to Rattlesnake Canyon. Shoot the sunrise and early light in the monument then shoot the late light and sunset at Rattlesnake Canyon.
Getting to the Colorado National Monument
From I-70 get to the southeast side of Grand Junction via Broadway to Monument Road, or from Redlands Parkway to South Broadway to Monument Road.
John Otto settled in Grand Junction in 1906 and fell in love with exploring the canyons southwest of town, he regularly led fundraising campaigns, collected signatures for petitions, and wrote newspaper editorials and letters to the government advocating for its protection which finally resulted in President Taft in 1911 establishing the monument.
Otto was hired as the first park ranger, at a salary of $1 per month, and spent 16 years living in a tent while building trails. Much of what you are able to access today is the result of John Otto’s exploration and work.
He helped with the first road into the park, now a hiking trail called the Serpent’s Trail. At the time it was known as the most crooked and most dangerous road ever built.
Otto named many of the park’s formations which he called “monuments.” He gave them patriotic names, such as Independence Monument and Liberty Cap.
The year the Colorado Monument was established Otto spent weeks drilling and carving steps and pegs into the solid rock of the 450-foot-high Independence Monument and raise an American flag on its summit on July 4th. The Mesa County Technical Rescue Team continues the tradition today.
Mile-by-Mile Driving Route of Rim Rock Drive
Enter the park from the East entrance, continue along Rim Rock Drive to access the park’s many viewpoints and trailheads, and exit at the West entrance
Devil’s Kitchen Parking Area
Just 0.3 miles from the East Entrance is the first major parking area, with access to a number of hiking trails and a picnic area
Serpents Trail (lower entrance) ~Hiking Trail~ Across the road from the parking lot is a trail that was the original automobile road into the monument started by John Otto in 1911 and completed by the county in 1921. The (1.75-mile trail one way) today covers only part of its original 6.5-mile length, the upper section was incorporated into Rim Rock Drive in 1940.
The original road was known as the most dangerous road ever built, with 52 switchbacks rising nearly 1100 feet in 2.5 miles said to be so steep that some cars had to drive up it backwards due to the risk of their gravity fed gas engines being starved of gas and conking out. This is the lower entrance, the trail can also be accessed from the upper entrance 2 miles further up Rim Rock Drive.
Hiking the trail gives you a glimpse of how early visitors experienced the park. The trail has little shade but has striking views of Grand Junction.
Devil’s Kitchen Trail ~Hiking Trail~
Distance 1.5 miles total out and back
A gradually ascending trail leads to a circular formation of sandstone pillars that you can walk inside of.
At the first fork go right, and you will descend into a nice cactus garden area, continue along the well-trodden sandy trail.
At the second fork, go left. Cross the wash which may be wet or dry.
If you look up to your right you can see the back of Devil’s Kitchen above you.
Climb the stacked stone, and chiseled slickrock steps uphill.
After the steps, the official trail heads left and you’ll end up facing the opening of the devil’s kitchen. But, there is really no wrong way to go, while you can look for rock cairns to help you route find if you want to shortcut and get right inside the Devil’s Kitchen quickly just use the Devil’s Kitchen’s tallest pillar as your landmark and head straight uphill toward it.
Once you’re inside there are some cool echoes, root around check things out, there are some neat views through rock windows to find.
Photo notes – there is a large slick rock plateau directly facing the opening of the rock formation that makes for a good place to take pictures
Old Gordon Trail ~Hiking Trail~
Distance 4.0 miles one way with 1500 feet of elevation gain.
This steadily ascending trail follows a historic lumber and cattle drive road, that offers vistas of the Grand Valley as you gain altitude, in spring there are many cacti in bloom.
Echo Canyon Trail ~Hiking Trail~
Distance 1.5 miles one way
Echo Canyon is filled with scrub, bushes, trees and wildflowers in the spring, the trail ends at pool and seasonal waterfall. Follow Old Gordon Trail for 0.5 miles to a signed junction directing hikers down the slickrock into Echo Canyon. The shady canyon’s reward is a pool at the end of the trail.
2.3 miles from the entrance, you pass through the first of three tunnels.
Serpents Trail (upper entrance)
2.6 miles from the East Entrance, is the upper entrance to the Serpents Trail, the trail can also be accessed from the lower entrance 2 miles further down Rim Rock Drive.
Cold Shivers Point Overlook
Just after mile marker 19, a pull-out on your right has a 100-foot paved path that takes you to the overlook over Columbus Canyon. There is a rock outcropping you can see from the overlook where brave people stand to get their picture taken and hence the name.
Red Canyon Overlook
Three miles from Cold Shivers Point Overlook, watch for the pullout on your right with an overlook into Red Canyon. This canyon is a hanging canyon, its mouth is higher than the Grand Valley below it.
Lower Ute Canyon Overlook
0.6 miles further stop at the parking area and walk the short trail to a panoramic overlook of lower Ute Canyon. Besides the view to see, there is an a short Ute garden interpretive loop trail you can take to learn about the plants and animals that were important to the Ute Indians that lived in this area.
Ute Canyon Trailhead
1.9 miles further is the parking for the Ute Canyon Trailhead
Distance 7.0 miles one way, 1600 feet of elevation change
From the trailhead, the trail leads steeply down the wall of Ute Canyon on a primitive trail to follow the streambed among cottonwoods and willows, with a few arches to be seen along the way
C.A Richmond Collection
Fallen Rock Overlook
This pull-out gives you a visual reminder that the geological processes that shaped the canyons you see are still going on. The huge chunk of the canyon wall across from the viewpoint sheared off due to the continual freeze/thaw process where water expands in a crack and exerts huge forces on the rock walls, in this case on a section that was undercut and had no support under it.
Upper Ute Canyon Overlook
The upper view of Ute canyon is not that spectacular, but it’s worth stopping to see the rock formation on the opposite canyon wall that looks like a reclining mummy.
Upper Liberty Cap Trailhead ~Hiking Trail~
There are two trailheads for the Liberty Cap Trail, the Upper one is in the park accessed from the Rim Rock Drive roadway. The lower trailhead at ( 39.068100, -108.660120 ) is located outside the park near the suburban streets of Grand Junction.
The entire trail is 7.0 miles end to end, but the highlight of the trail is the Liberty Cap formation, a petrified 160 million-year-old sand dune that is located on a slick rock bench 2 miles from the lower trailhead.
Most people will hike the trail from the lower end steeply uphill to the Liberty Cap formation, (4 miles round trip) rather than the 10 miles round trip from the upper trailhead through the open country of rather mundane pinyon and juniper. The hike from the lower trailhead provides views over the Grand Valley and Grand Junction below.
Liberty Cap formation
Highland View Overlook
Just after mile marker 10 is the Highland View Overlook. Signage explains the relationship of animals and plants with each other in the canyon.
From Highlands View Overlook it is 1.2 miles to the park’s most famous overlook historically, where for over 100 years, artists have set up their easels to paint the canyons and the rock formations. There is an interpretive sign that explains what creates the colors you see in the monument. There are actually two viewpoints here, one closer to road and a lower one below.
Upper Monument Canyon Trailhead ~Hiking Trail~ Distance 6.0 miles one way, 1500 feet of elevation change This is the upper trailhead for the Monument Canyon Trail, the lower trailhead is outside the park. It is a steep 600-foot descent into Monument Canyon where you can get close to many of the park’s major rock formations: Independence Monument, Kissing Couple, and the Coke Ovens.
Coke Ovens Trailhead~Hiking Trail~ This (0.5 miles one way) trail gradually descends along the hillside of the overlook giving you different views of the Coke Ovens formation
C.C.C. Trailhead ~Hiking Trail~ Just up the road, on the left side of the road is the access to the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) trail, a shortcut that descends down a canyon and back up the other side to access the middle of the Black Ridge Trail
Coke Oven Overlook
The overlook gives you a nice view of the Coke Ovens, a series of large round Wingate sandstone pillars all in a line.
Photo note – The best light is in the late morning, in the afternoon the sun is behind them
Monument Canyon View Overlook
This is a bigger area to explore than just the area near the parking pullover. There is a wide bench below you that you can walk down to and walk near the canyon edge from the far left to the far right which will reveal much more than you can see from above. From the parking area, you are really only going to see the formations to your left, the rest will be hidden from view. To the left, all in a row is Airport Tower, Dirty Old man, and Bell Tower, also known as Kissing Couple. In the far distance to the left of the kissing couple is Independence Monument.
Directly in front of you will be Egypt Rock.
To the right is Rainbow Tower and further would be the Coke Ovens.
Just before you go around the last bend to reach the Grand View Overlook is a section of the road that runs straight with a tall cliff face to your left and a sheer drop off to your right, called the Half Tunnel due to how originally the cliff face hung out over the road bed.
Most of the Rim Rock Road was hand built with picks, shovels and jackhammers and healthy doses of dynamite by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) workers desperate for work during the Great Depression and (LEM) Local Experienced Men.
Working in the CCC was similar to military life, the camps were run by military officers, men were up by 6:30am and lights out was at 10:30pm. The pay was $30.00 per month, with $25 being automatically sent home. Building of the Rim Rock Rock employed over 800 men, many of whom were as young as 16.
50 new men had been hired in December and they were overjoyed to have jobs, instead of a bleak Christmas a paycheck meant they could buy food, clothing, and presents for their families.
Tragedy struck at this location on December 12, 1933. After a blast, workers came in to clear the rock, the overhanging rock gave way and instantly killed 12 of these new men.
Grand View Overlook
The views are not at the parking area, you need to walk about 500 feet out to the official lookout for the best views. From the lookout to the left is Independence Monument, behind it and to the left is the Pipe Organ, and to the left of that is the finger that juts out into the canyon with Otto’s Trail on its top. The best view of the Pipe Organ from the other side is from the short Canyon Rim Trail from the Visitor Center. Directly in front of you is the Grand View Spire.
To your right is the other side of Airport Tower, Dirty Old man and Bell Tower formations that you would have seen at the previous stop at the Monument Canyon View Overlook.
Continuing for 0.5 miles you come to the Independence Overlook with views of the Independence Monument, first summited by John Otto on June 14, 1911, he returned on July 4th to fly an American flag presented to him by President Taft. The tradition continues today, however, Otto’s pipes he drove into the rock to create his climbing ladders were removed in the 1950s.
From this viewpoint, if you look with binoculars you can clearly see John Otto’s steps he cut 100 years ago into the spine facing you just below the summit. Just above these steps but below the summit would have been a series of pipes he drilled into the sandstone to create a climbing ladder to the summit.
John Otto higher and Rae Kennedy lower, just below the summit of Independence Monument
Otto’s Trailhead ~Hiking Trail~
0.2 miles further from Independence Monument View is a good place to pull over and take a short 1.0 mile (total out and back) trail that gently descends through pinion and juniper to an overlook with views of the Sentinel Spire to your left, the Pipe Organ and Praying Hands directly in front of you, Monolith Spire across the canyon, and get a side view of Independence Monument over to the right.
Photo tip – as soon as you enter the trail if you head off to your right keep going to the cliff face and you’ll have a view of the Independence monument with the mountains directly behind it
Saddlehorn Visitor Center /Saddlehorn Campground
Opened in 1963, with displays of the monument’s geology, history, and wildlife, and a short film is available for viewing. There are excellent short hiking opportunities from the Visitor Center and the Campground, visitors who want to explore deeper and see more should plan on spending time here and at the nearby sites
Canyon Rim Trailhead ~Hiking Trail~ Distance 0.5-miles one way This easy trail starts behind the Visitor Center, runs along the cliff edge above Wedding Canyon, and ends at the Book Cliffs View Shelter, it has nice views for photography.
Window Rock Trailhead ~Hiking Trail~ Within the campground leaving from the Book Cliffs View Shelter, this 0.25 miles–level loop trail goes through pinyon-junipers with views of Monument Canyon and Wedding Canyon and most of their major rock formations, including Independence Monument.
Black Ridge Trailhead / Alcove Nature Trail ~Hiking Trail~ Across the road from the visitor center is the Alcove Nature Trail (0.5 miles one way) that travels to an alcove in the rock wall of a box canyon. Trail guides at the trailhead explain the flora and fauna in the area. The Black Ridge Trail also has a trailhead shared with the Alcove Nature Trail. This is a (5.5-mile one-way) trail with the highest elevation in the park following the up-and-down terrain of the Black Ridge with expansive views.
Fruita Canyon Overlook
This overlook offers a good look at the road making an interesting shape at the canyon bottom below you, with Grand Junction and the Book Cliffs beyond.
A small pull-out with a big view out over Grand Junction
Historic Trails Overlook
Walk down a short trail about 100 feet to see how cattle ranches moved their cattle from the valley to the mesa top in fall and summer via a narrow trail on the side of the sheer rock walls
The 2nd and 3rd tunnels on the route
Balanced Rock View
From the pull out look above you to see a dramatically balanced rock formation
A view and information about the Redlands Fault and how the land was pushed up here over 70 million years ago.
West Entrance Overlook
Turn around here and go back to see anything you missed from a new angle or head out of the park