Colorado National Monument is one of our nation’s grandest landscapes, found along a remote stretch of Interstate-70 in western-Colorado. What you’ll find here is a stunning panoramic of sandstone cliffs at the base of a verdant plateau, where monument features rise like ramparts from the valley.
The crown jewel of the monument is Rim Rock Drive, a 23-mile road that traces the upper perimeter of the park. Photogenic landmarks such as Independence Monument, the Coke Ovens, and the 600-ton Balanced Rock are found amidst the trees and canyon walls that plunge beneath the plateau.
The region is called the Uncompahgre Plateau, which lives in the northeastern corner of the larger Colorado Plateau. The Colorado Plateau is arguably the most scenic part of the United States, and boasts the largest collection of entries into the National Parks Service.
Colorado National Monument encompasses six canyons, each with extraordinary cliffs and sandstone features. Short hikes and wildlife are in abundance, as is an epic trail through the valley below. Mule deer, bighorn sheep and coyotes inhabit the monument, as junipers, pines, cacti, and wildflowers thrive in the canyons.
Petrified logs and dinosaur fossils have also been found in nearby parts. You can observe them at the Dinosaur Journey Museum in Fruita, Colorado.
In this article we share what we believe are ten important pieces of information regarding Colorado National Monument. We hope you enjoy.
An enigmatic man named John Otto was the driving force behind the National Monument designation. Otto famously wrote, “I came here last year and found these canyons, and they felt like the heart of the world to me. I’m going to stay and promote this place because it should be a national park.”
Otto led fundraising campaigns, collected signatures for petitions, and wrote newspaper editorials and letters to politicians in support of national recognition. He had pushed for a National Park designation, but National Monument was a notable consolation.
Upon Colorado National Monument’s designation in 1911, John Otto was hired as its first superintendent. With a pick, shovel, and two burros, Otto carved the first trails through the glorious red rock canyons. Patriotic names such as Independence Monument and Liberty Cap were given to the rock formations.
Every 4th of July he would make the dangerous climb to the top of 450′ Independence Monument — a path he himself had created — to raise a large U.S. Flag for all to see.
Beatrice Farnham was a 20th-century artist who was raised prim in a New England style village in Maine. She graduated from the Hopkins Art Institute in San Francisco, and was notable for her native-American-inspired fashion and handicrafts.
Farnham and John Otto met in 1910 at a camp in the desert. A year later she returned, and renewed her friendship with Otto. They became engaged, but instead of a ring he gave her a burro named Foxy.
In June of 1911, they were married at the base of Temple Rock. After their wedding dinner they changed their clothing and climbed Independence Monument, where they repeated vows of their own devising.
The marriage lasted two months. It would seem that Ms. Farnham wasn’t fully prepared for John Otto’s “Heart of the World.” About their brief union she had this to say, “I tried hard to live his way, but I could not do it. I could not live with a man to whom even a cabin was an encumbrance.”
She left for Boston to gather some effects and never returned. Beatrice Farnham paid John Otto $2,000 in alimony.
Rim Rock Drive at Colorado National Monument belongs on any short list of America’s scenic drives. The road is twenty-three miles and traces the upper portion of the park near the top of the plateau.
The original dirt road overseen by John Otto was called Serpent’s Trail. In the 1930’s it was replaced with the current road, which was part of a federal program created by President Franklin Roosevelt called The Civilian Conservation Corps. The construction lasted 19-years, which included a pause for WWII. Serpent’s Trail remains the park’s most popular trail, with 54-switchbacks in under three miles.
Along the drive are a handful of designated parking viewpoints, all highpoints of the national monument experience. Some have short trails to even better vistas.
Rim Rock Road has long been enjoyed by masochistic bicycle enthusiasts. An competition cycling competition called Tour of the Moon, takes place at Colorado National Monument each year. The difficult course was featured in the classic 80’s movie, American Flyers, starring Kevin Costner.
If you drive from one side to the other without stopping it takes about 45 minutes. We think a worthwhile park experience could last anywhere from 2-6 hours. Longer hikes would push that substantially. Here is a (MAP) of the road from one side of the park to the other.
Independence Monument in the middle of Monument Valley is the most recognized feature in Colorado National Monument. You can see it for miles along the drive.
John Otto carved steps and drove iron rung ladders into the monument so any willing soul could climb to the top of the 450′ monolith. Each 4th of July, Otto would raise a flag from its peak. Today, the Mesa County Technical Rescue Team continue John Otto’s legacy each year.
Many of the better views in the park are different angles of Monument Valley. Of all the views along Rim Rock Road, we believe the Grand View is the best.
The view from the road is great. If you want a better view a short trail brings you to a viewing platform at the precipice. The platform gives excellent vantage in both directions, and is arguably the best view of Independence Monument in the park.
Here is a (MAP) of all the significant viewpoints.
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Independence Monument appears more narrow and tapered from this viewpoint. And photography can be tricky, depending on where the sun is in the sky.
Otto’s Trail is a short walk from the Independence Monument View, and it has its own parking area. We strongly recommend the short, quarter-mile traipse to the viewing platform at the end. It is one of the best views in Colorado National Monument.
Just around the corner of Monument Valley is a broad, windy valley that carves deep into the plateau. Here you will find the Coke Ovens, one of the most interesting features in the park.
What they are is bulbous, monolithic columns arcing outward from the red, sandstone cliffs at the back of the valley. The closer you get the more interesting the coke ovens appear.
A short walk is available at the viewpoint behind the columns. We think its worth the ten minutes to get a closer view.
According to the National Park Services, Colorado National Monument sees over 700,000 visitors annually. The park has a small visitor center with a room full of interesting signage to peruse, and there is a small theater showing an excellent movie, The Heart of Time. The 20-minute film is a recent addition to the visitor center. Park staff will show it on demand.
We recommend you read all the placards and watch the movie. The monument will mean more if you do.
Colorado National Monument boasts 15 hiking trails (short trails and long trails). Some of the more famous ones are the Monument Canyon Trail, Liberty Cap Trail, Devil’s Kitchen Trail, and the Serpent’s Trail.
Hiking in the park is a great way to spot wildlife. The animals most often seen include: coyotes, bighorn sheep, foxes, cottontails, mule deer, mountain lions, and an assortment of birds and rodents.
We drove Rim Rock Road twice. The majority of the “jaw-dropping views” are between the Fruita entrance and the Coke Ovens. If we want to be even more specific, between the visitor center and the Coke Ovens is the best of what you’ll find in the park. This stretch is 4.5 miles of the 23-mile drive.
This speaks nothing to the hiking, as some of the best trails are in the southeastern half of the park. However, when it comes to roadside viewing, you might find the eastern half lacking by comparison.
Colorado National Monument was a pleasant surprise. It’s like a mini-grand canyon with green carpet, or a younger, punier relative of Sedona. We can see how John Otto fell in love with the landscape.
We had no trouble finding our way around. There was no competition for parking (it was early April). The towns of Fruita and Grand Junction are close and offer everything you might need for your visit.
If you want to dive into the park and do the longer hikes, more power to you. I think we spent a total of six hours at Colorado National Monument and it felt like enough.
If we were to return we’d hike the Monument Canyon trail. That’s the one thing we feel like we missed. John Otto would have wanted us to see it. Perhaps some day we will oblige him.
Thank you for stopping by our website! We are the Hoffmann family, a full-time RV family that has split residence in Seattle, Washington and San Antonio, Texas. We have special needs children that we homeschool, and work travel assignments for the Veteran Affairs Hospital. If you would like to learn more about us, check out our Start Here and Biography pages. May God bless you and your travels.
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