How to plan a perfect trip to Colorado National Monument? What are the most breathtaking viewpoints on the famous Rim Rock Drive? What are the best hiking trails in the Colorado National Monument? And what’re more activities to do in these fabulous red rock formations on the area of desert land high on the Colorado Plateau? Check our tips in this detailed Colorado National Monument Visitor Guide.
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What is Colorado National Monument?
Colorado National Monument features intensive reddish and orange colors of fabulous rock sculptures, sheer-walled canyons, and the distant Colorado River valley. It offers outstanding red rock scenery, exciting Rim Rock Drive, great hiking trails, and rock climbing as well. Moreover, you can spot a lot of wildlife as desert bighorn sheep, red-tailed hawks, golden eagles, ravens, jays, and coyotes. It’s worth adding this place to the Colorado road trip itinerary.
Colorado National Monument as a part of Colorado Plateau
Colorado National Monument is a part of the Colorado Plateau on the Four Corners region of the southwestern United States. According to Wikipedia, the Colorado Plateau province covers an area of 130,000 mi2 (336,700 km2) within western Colorado, northwestern New Mexico, southern and eastern Utah, northern Arizona, and little southeast of Nevada. About 90% of the area is drained by the Colorado River and its main tributaries.
Colorado National Monument is the eastern gateway into the Colorado Plateau. Known as Red Rock Country, Colorado Plateau is full of colorful domes, hoodoos, fins, reefs, river narrows, natural bridges, and slot canyons. The Colorado Plateau has the greatest concentration of U.S. National Park units in the country. There are 9 national parks in the Colorado Plateau, including Grand Canyon, Utah Mighty 5 national parks, and Mesa Verde. Moreover, there are 18 national monuments, among which is Colorado National Monument.
History of the Colorado National Monument
This area of Colorado Plateau where now is the Colorado National Monument was first explored by John Otto, who settled in Grand Junction in the early 20th century. John Otto began building trails on the plateau and into the canyons. Earlier, the place was considered inaccessible to people. Authorities have appreciated his work and the scenic beauty of the wilderness area. The area was established as Colorado National Monument on May 24, 1911. John Otto was hired as the first park ranger.
The Colorado National Monument includes 20,500 acres (32.0 sq mi; 83 km2), so it’s a perfect place as a day trip destination. It’s not as popular as famous national parks, so without crowds, you can enjoy it.
This is a hidden gem of Colorado. The park is visited by only 400,000 tourists a year when the Rocky Mountains National Park 3.31 million in 2020.
Where is Colorado National Monument?
Colorado National Monument is located in the Southwest, near Grand Junction and Fruita, Colorado. About 30 miles from the Utah border.
Colorado National Monument is easily reached from highway I-70 W. There are two main entrances to the park, one to the east in Grand Junction and the other west in Fruita. The 23-mile Rim Rock Drive connects the two.
From Fruita, it’s only 8 miles via CO-340 E to Rimrock Drive. From Grand Junction, take Monument Road to get to the east entrance, it’s 6 miles.
But if you don’t have much time for your visit, choose the entrance from Fruita. You will find the most interesting and the largest cluster of unusual rock formations from the Fruita side, close to Saddlehorn Visitor Center.
How much time do you need at the Colorado National Monument?
If you have a shortage of time, two or three hours will be enough to visit the Colorado National Monument. There are two main entrances to the park, one to the east in Grand Junction and the other west in Fruita. The 23-mile Rim Rock Drive connects them. It’s a serpentine route with lots of stunning viewpoints. So, if you have limited time, do only Rim Rock Drive.
But there are also many fabulous hiking trails, so one day or two would be perfect for a visit. We spent two full days in the park, and we still want to revisit it. On the third day in the area, we went to the amazing hidden gem of the Colorado Plateau – Rattlesnake Canyon Arches, which we describe in a separate article. Below we describe the best hikes in Colorado National Monument and the best overlooks worth your stop from Rim Rock Drive.
How much does it cost to get into the Colorado National Monument?
Entrance Fees to Colorado National Monument:
- Private, non-commercial vehicle: $25
- Motorcycle: $20
- Individual (hiker, bicyclist): $15
But, if you have America the Beautiful Annual Pass, you don’t have to pay the entrance fee. Annual America the Beautiful Pass is your ticket to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites across the country, including all U.S. national parks. Pass is valid for 1 year from the month of purchase. Covers entrance for a driver and all passengers in a personal vehicle at per-vehicle fee areas or up to 4 adults at sites that charge per person (kids 15 & under get in free).
Colorado National Monument is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Standard visitor center hours are 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. During the Spring/Fall visitor center hours are 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. In Summer Colorado National Monument visitor center hours are 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
Activities with pets are limited at Colorado National Monument. Pets are not allowed on hiking trails or anywhere in the backcountry.
What is the best time to visit Colorado National Monument?
Any time of the year is good to visit Colorado National Monument. The best seasons for a visit are Spring and Fall. Colorado National Monument rises from 4,000 feet to nearly 7,000 feet. Climate is semi-desert and upland. Temperatures are highly variable. Summer is sweltering, with average summer high temperature is 90º Fahrenheit, so pack a lot of water if you plan hiking. Take a large water reservoir and check our 13 Essentials for Your Day Pack and hiking tips. The average winter low temperature is 20º Fahrenheit. Winters are mild, with temperatures occasionally dipping into sub-zero readings.
Colorado National Monument Map
If you plan a short visit to Colorado National Monument, all you need is a map available on the park’s website. You can also download the PDF versions. A paper-free version of this map you can receive when entering the park.
But if you plan backcountry hiking trails and backcountry camping in Colorado National Monument, which is an amazing adventure, consider the Trails Illustrated Topographic map of Colorado National Monument. This map features detailed topography with shaded relief, elevations, and an accurate road network. Trail use is easy to identify. Moreover, it’s waterproof, tear-resistant paper.
If you like hiking trails and plan more routes in Colorado and New Mexico, we recommend the guidebook Top Trails of Colorado and New Mexico. It features 211 trails includes Mesa Verde, Chaco, Colorado National Monument, Great Sand Dunes, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, and more.
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Best things to do at Colorado National Monument
Take Rim Rock Drive
Rim Rock Drive is a scenic 23-mile road in Colorado National Monument. It is winding like a serpentine from the vicinity of Fruita, Colorado in the west to near Grand Junction, Colorado in the east. What’s interesting, these two points are only eight miles apart in a straight line. The Rim Rock Drive entire road has been designated a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places. Moreover, it is considered one of the most scenic routes in the U.S.
If you have limited time, it is best to start your Rim Rock Drive at the Saddlehorn Visitor Center, from the Fruita side. Above all, you will find there the most spectacular monoliths, canyons, sweeping views, and fairy-tale rock formations. Regardless of which entrance you decide to enter, you with have spectacular views all the route.
The road is challenging, narrow, and steep in some sections with sheer dropoffs. But it’s not a scary route. You don’t need to be afraid of it. Just drive carefully. The maximum speed is 25 mph. But, it’s a paved road, so the regular car is enough to do this drive. Moreover, watch out for cyclists, motorcyclists, and wild animals. Finally, Rim Rock Drive includes three tunnels. Turn on your lights so that other visitors can clearly see you.
Stop and take photos from the best overlooks
Colorado National Monument offers breathtaking photography opportunities. Moreover, the most spectacular shots are possible to take from the scenic vistas along Rim Rock Drive. Starting your trip from Fruita allows you to concentrate on the western half of the road with the best vistas and light for photos.
The best time of the day for a visit is in the morning and the mid-afternoon with sunset. If you like photography, be there before golden hour. So, the best option is to take one afternoon and the next morning to explore the monument.
Below is our subjective list of the best viewpoints in the Colorado National Monument, with photo opportunities.
The best Colorado National Monument viewpoints
We present, in our opinion, the best and most exciting viewpoints in Colorado National Monument from a photographic perspective. The Rim Rock Drive includes 19 overlooks, but we mention only the best. It is worth focusing on them if you have little time to explore. You encounter them starting your Rim Rock Drive from Fruita.
- Fruita Canyon View offers a great morning and mid-afternoon vista of Fruita surrounded by red rocks.
- Book Cliff View is located close to the campground loop road (next to the visitor center). The best is to combine it with Window Rock Trail, which is an easy 10-minute walk. Views are fabulous.
- Independence Monument View is one of the best overlooks of the huge monolith. It’s most impressive when the afternoon light illuminates it.
- Grand View. If you only must select one viewpoint where you can stop during your quick trip to Colorado National Monument, select Grand View. This is the essence of this place. Moreover great light is during mornings and afternoons. You can admire Fruita Canyon with Independence Monument in the foreground.
- Monument Canyon View should also be your choice if you have limited time for a visit. It’s absolutely breathtaking view of the spires of Monument Canyon. The best light is late afternoon as early morning as well.
- Coke Ovens Overlook is exciting due to the conical shape of the rocks.
- Cold Shivers Point is located near East Entrance. It is further away from Monument Canyon and overlooks Columbus Canyon. The most exciting is that you are 300 feet above the ground off a cliff. You can admire the gorgeous view deep into Columbus Canyon. And if you look right and you’ll see Grand Junction and the desert valley off in the distance. It’s our favorite overlook from East Entrance.
Oversee the rocks to spot wildlife
During Rim Rock Drive look for bighorn sheep and mule deer, songbirds and ravens, collared lizard, and coyotes. Colorado National Monument is full of wildlife. Bighorn sheep may jump out from a rock on a winding road. Therefore, drive very carefully and observe the landscape.
Go for a hike in Colorado National Monument
Even if you only have half a day to visit the Colorado National Monument, you can make 2-3 hiking trails during this time. Trails are accessible from Rim Rock Drive. They are not difficult, quite short, and do not require any special preparation. Surely it would be best if you had shoes with good grip, drinking water, sun protection. Trekking poles will also be useful.
The best easy and short hiking trails
- Window Rock Trail. It is a 0.25 mile long one-way (0.4 km) easy and short trail. So you need about 30 minutes to do it both ways. It offers excellent Monument Canyon and Wedding Canyon views and most of their major rock formations, including Independence Monument. Trailhead starts at the Saddlehorn campground.
- Canyon Rim Trail. It’s a 0.5 miles long one-way (0.8 km) hike. It will take you about 45 minutes up to one hour to do it. It’s easy but offers spectacular views. It’s along a cliff edge above the colorful canyon. If you must pick one hike – take this one. It starts behind the Saddlehorn Visitor Center and ends at Book Cliffs View.
- Alcove Nature Trail is another 0.5 miles long one-way (0.8 km) hike perfect for families with kids. You can admire plants and rock formations from this easy hike. It starts directly across Rim Rock Drive from the Saddlehorn Visitor Center.
- Otto’s Trail is a perfect hiking trail that is only 0.5 miles long one-way (0.8 km). It is a gently sloping trail that leads through pinyon-juniper woodlands to an overlook with views of Sentinel Spire, Pipe Organ, Praying Hands, and Independence Monument. For us, it’s one of the best short hiking trails in the Colorado National Monument. To get to the trailhead from Saddlehorn Visitor Center, turn left onto Rim Rock Drive and proceed 1.0 mile (1.6 km). The trailhead is on
- Coke Ovens Trail is also a great hike, that is only 0.5 miles long one-way (0.8 km). It puts you almost on the top of the softly rounded monoliths. From Saddlehorn Visitor Center, turn left onto Rim Rock Drive and proceed 3.8 miles (6.1 km) to the trailhead on the left. It is also the trailhead for Monument Canyon Trail.
The best moderate hiking trails
- CCC Trail is a 0.75 miles one-way (1.2 km) hike. From Saddlehorn Visitor Center, turn left onto Rim Rock Drive and proceed 3.8 miles (6.1 km). The trailhead is on the right.
- Devil’s Kitchen Trail. It’s a moderate 0.75 miles one-way (1.2 km) hike. The trail is closer to the Grand Junction. It’s just after the east entrance. Limited parking is on the left. So, the best is to park at the Devil’s Kitchen Picnic Area.
- Serpents Trail. It’s a historic trail built in the early 1900s. This historic trail has 16 switchbacks, and it’s called “the Crookedest Road in the World”. But it steep and 1.75 miles one-way (2.8 km) hike. To get to the trailhead from the east entrance, travel 0.2 miles (0.3 km). Limited parking is on the left. For additional parking, turn right into the Devil’s Kitchen Picnic Area.
Take a backcountry hiking trails
If you have more time and are well prepared to trek, consider backcountry hiking trails in Colorado National Monument. These are already a few hours and all-day hikes, of moderate and difficult degree. Often steep. But you will have plenty of opportunities to admire wildlife and unusual rock formations. Therefore, it is obligatory to prepare well for them. Take plenty of water and a lot of hiking snacks with you. Dress appropriately for the season. Hiking boots with great grip are a must. Also, trekking poles will help you a lot. You can check our Day Hiking Packing List and adapt it to your needs. We only did most of the part of the Ute Canyon Trail. And it’s a fabulous trail, but pretty strenuous, especially when it’s hot. Next time we are going to explore more backcountry trails. The best routes are briefly listed below. Detailed descriptions you can find on the official website. Before you go on a long hike, it is worth getting a detailed map.
Backcountry hiking trails in Colorado National Monument:
- Black Ridge Trail
- Monument Canyon Trail
- Liberty Cap Trail
- Ute Canyon Trail
- Old Gordon Trail
- No Thoroughfare Canyon Trail
- Corkscrew Trail Loop
Backcountry camping in Colorado National Monument
The perfect option if you have more than two days is a spending night under the stars. Backcountry camping is allowed in Colorado National Monument and might be a fabulous adventure. But you must have a backcountry use permit. You can obtain your permit at Saddlehorn Visitor Center. For more details, you can call (970) 858-2800 or visit the official website.
Rock climbing in Colorado National Monument
Rock climbing is becoming more and more popular every year in the Colorado National Monument. No wonder, because the sandstone cliffs and spires of the Colorado National Monument are fabulous. It’s a perfect place for climbing, which attracts hundreds of climbers a year. Most routes in the park require “traditional” climbing techniques. The installation of new permanent hardware in the Colorado National Monument is prohibited. Before you go, check the current climbing regulation.
If you plan climbing, check Rock Climbing Colorado: A Guide To More Than 1,800 Routes, including routes in Colorado National Monument. You will also find here big cliffs and faces of Rocky Mountain National Park and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison and the smaller crags and outcrops of Pikes Peak, Boulder, Rifle Shelf Road, Elevenmile Canyon, and more.
Cycling in Colorado National Monument
Bicycling the Rim Rock Drive is very popular. But it’s challenging. Bicyclists are required to obey all traffic laws including speed limits, passing zones, stop signs, and stay on roads. So, respect all the rules and check regulations before you go. Off-road mountain biking is not permitted in the Colorado National Monument, but several adjoining areas near Fruita and Grand Junction are ideal for it.
Enjoy a Picnic
If you have a little more time after sightseeing at Colorado National Monument, you can stop for a picnic. A great place for a picnic is Devils Kitchen Picnic Area. It’s located by the East Entrance. It offers picnic tables, a shade shelter, charcoal grills, a drinking fountain, bathrooms, and garbage/recycling. On the opposite side of Rim Rock Drive, you can rest at Saddlehorn Picnic Area near the Visitor Center. It has picnic tables, charcoal grills, a drinking fountain, bathrooms, and garbage/recycling.
Where to stay while visiting Colorado National Monument?
If you prefer camping, the best option is to reserve a Saddlehorn Campground. It is located near the Saddlehorn Visitor Center, four miles from the west entrance, near Fruita. It is the only established campground within the Colorado National Monument. There are no electric hookups or showers. It offers 80 sites year-round. It has restrooms with flush toilets and sinks, drinking water, charcoal grills, and picnic tables. Check details and make a reservation.
Campgrounds in Fruita and Grand Junction
You will also find campsites around Fruita and Grand Junction. Especially if you are traveling in an RV and need electricity or other facilities it is worth booking a site in advance. We recommend Monument RV Resort, which is the closest park to Colorado National Monument & Dinosaur Journey. There are 88 spaces available, also with full hookups, tenting area, and cabin rentals.
Accommodation in Grand Junction
In our opinion, you will find the best accommodation in the Colorado National Monument area in Grand Junction. The town has a wide range of lodging on a very different budget. In addition, there are plenty of attractions, great restaurants, and souvenir shops. Nearby are the Book Cliffs and the largest flat-topped mountain in the world, the Grand Mesa.
We stayed in Days Inn by Wyndham Grand Junction and had a nice room and service for two nights. The price was also affordable.
Accommodation in Fruita
Fruita is also interesting and worth seeing, but accommodation here is definitely more expensive than in Grand Junction. But check the prices, maybe you will find some specials. You will find here La Quinta by Wyndham Fruita or Super 8 by Wyndham Fruita. Both have great reviews.
It is definitely worth stopping in Fruita for a moment while visiting Colorado National Monument.