From the Rocky Mountains to the Mile High City, Colorado is home to a plethora of amazing attractions but yet there are still many that are frequently left in the radar because of the iconic aforementioned places that attract so much attention. One of these lesser-known locations we would argue is the Colorado National Monument, located in the western half of the state close to the state line with Utah and in the city of Grand Junction. Colorado National Monument may not be the first place you think about visiting when considering a trip to the “Centennial State” but after reading this post, we are convinced that this will likely change!
Whether you are exploring Utah’s Mighty 5 national parks or taking a road trip from Denver to Moab to explore everything in between, Colorado National Monument is located in the perfect spot to explore what I consider to be a real hidden gem. Magical panoramic landscapes are not uncommon to various areas of Colorado but when you stumble across an area that could quite easily be considered the fifth National Park in the state, you know you are experiencing a place of beauty.
Before visiting this area consisting of 23,000 acres of spectacular natural beauty, we had no idea what to expect and honestly only anticipated spending a short time exploring this “monument”. However, how wrong could we be? Let’s take a look at the journey we took and how our experience made us quickly fall in love with the Colorado National Monument.
How to Explore Colorado National Monument
As you approach the city of Grand Junction, it’s worth establishing how you intend on exploring Colorado National Monument. Dependent on whether you are an avid hiker, mountain bike aficionado or simply prefer to enjoy leisurely scenic drives through places of beauty, you are in luck because this area has something for all the above. For us, this was a slight detour from our final destination of Arches National Park in western Utah, so we only had a few hours to discover the inherent beauty of Colorado National Monument.
For those of you intrigued by the thought of hiking some of the best trails in Colorado, there are definitely plenty to choose from. From easy to moderate to challenging, Colorado National Monument has something for every hiking standard. Devil’s Kitchen is perhaps one of the easiest but definitely one of the most spectacular. Serpent’s Trail is an enjoyable short hike with incredibly rewarding views at the end.
Here is a list of trails that you should consider adding to your itinerary if you have time:
- No Thoroughfare Canyon – Moderately Difficult Hike
- Ute Canyon – Moderately Difficult Hike
- Coke Ovens – Easy Hike
- Serpent’s Trail – Easy Hike
- Devil’s Kitchen – Easy Hike
Of course, there is no better way to explore any destination that on foot but the reality is, unless you are planning on spending several days in this part of Colorado, time will likely be against you and so exploring via the scenic drive is perhaps the best way to experience the very best things to see in Colorado National Monument.
Scenic Drive Route
The historic Rim Rock Drive, one of highlight scenic drives anywhere in the United States, takes you through the heart of Colorado National Monument and is definitely one of the best drives we have taken anywhere in the world. There are two entrances to this drive – the East entrance at Grand Junction and the West entrance at Fruita. Regardless of which entrance you enter, you will immediately see the breathtaking beauty that we will describe through the rest of this post.
Many of the most spectacular scenic drives that we have taken are through national parks and they generally start with a fairly “normal” landscape and gradually reach a climax of spectacular beauty. As mentioned, Colorado National Monument bypasses all of the normality and you are immediately faced with the sight of Redrock canyons and other natural attractions.
Frequently renowned as one of the “crookedest roads in the world” with 16 switchbacks along the 23 miles, Rim Rock Drive is undoubtedly an experience you won’t forget. I cannot believe we almost bypassed this experience but so glad that we stumbled across this location.
Our journey started at the East entrance close to Grand Junction. The winding roadway meanders along an almost unbelievable route on the rim of Monument Canyon. For those of you driving between Grand Junction and Fruita, forget all about the interstate and take this drive…you won’t regret it! Here are some of the highlight attractions we saw throughout the 23-mile stretch of road.
Although your eyes will be wandering around the epic scenery as you start the drive through Colorado National Monument, it won’t be long before you are ready to venture out of your vehicle and take a short hike along Serpents Trail. This trail measures 3.4 miles but there are several options to take a much shorter walk if you are focused solely on admiring the epic scenery overlooking the canyon.
Popular for being a haven for a myriad of wildflowers, Serpents Trail is perhaps the best trail for every standard of hiker because you have the opportunity to admire breathtaking views across Grand Junction.
A word of warning, be careful along this trail because there is nothing to protect you from the overlooks except for your own common sense. There is one particular spot if you are willing to climb the rocks where you can peer over the edge and look back down on the road that winds through. This is not the best spot for anyone with a fear of heights but if you can overcome that, it’s a pretty incredible view.
Red Canyon Overlook
If you are intrigued by geology and erosion, the overlook at Red Canyon will be a spot you won’t want to leave. Take the short stroll down to the rock wall overlook and admire the incredible scene from the head of Red Canyon through the valley to Grand Junction.
As you can peer over the edge of the overlook, take a moment to notice how erosion has taken effect on this landscape over thousands of years. To one side, vertical cliffs are still standing while on the opposite side, it’s much shallower with cliffs having eroded away over the years.
For those interested in hiking in Red Canyon, this is one of the more challenging in Colorado National Monument. With steep cliffs surrounding the head, you may find it easier to start lower down and try and climb into the heart of the canyon. A word of caution, this is likely only suitable for the more adventurous hikers.
Fallen Rock Overlook
A short drive from Red Canyon will lead you to another iconic landmark – Fallen Rock! Along with nearby Ute Canyon Overlook and Red Canyon, this trio of attractions is a popular spot for advanced hikers but are equally spectacular viewed from Rim Rock Drive. Although the overlook only has a small parking lot for seven or eight vehicles, those fortunate to find a spot will enjoy amazing views across the canyon.
Obviously, the reference to a “fallen rock” is likely why you choose to visit this location and so you are likely intrigued to hear about the story of this geological phenomenon.
Fallen Rock was located on the cliff above and was a large mass of Wingate sandstone that eventually fell after erosion took place in the softer lower levels at the base of the cliff. But the beauty of this overlook, just like many of the other locations along this drive, will leave you focused on so much more than just a single rock.
Ute Canyon Overlook
Ute Canyon is worth visiting if you are ready to hop out of your vehicle and take a short 0.1-mile hike through a juniper woodland to a fenced overlook above a 300-foot vertical cliff. This viewpoint looks directly into the west arm of Ute Canyon while you can also catch a glimpse of Fallen Rock in the distance.
You could be forgiven for thinking that many of these overlooks will blend together because I 100% attest that each and everyone is breathtaking. But the inherent beauty of Colorado National Monument is that there is something unique that helps distinguish each landmark and Ute Canyon is no different. You will notice as you peer down through the canyon that this has much more woodland than any of the aforementioned overlooks.
Highland View Overlook
Throughout the road trip along Rim Rock Drive, you will climb to over 6,500 feet and there are several spots that provide epic panoramic landscapes across the whole of Colorado National Monument. One of the highest overlooks is at Highland View above Monument Canyon and only 1/2 mile north of the second-highest point along this drive at 6,593 feet. The overlook is guarded by a semi-circular stone wall so again, please be careful when trying to capture the perfect pictures.
Highland View is one of the popular spots among photographers to capture sunrise and sunset shots. In fact, all of Colorado National Monument is a photographer’s dream with such a plethora of different shades of red providing epic artistic beauty. Just a short distance from Highland View Overlook is Artists Palette but I would argue the whole of this landscape should be designated as such.
When it comes to panoramic scenery, there are not many spots along this scenic drive that offer more attractions than Highland View. From here, you can embrace the scenery featuring Monument Canyon’s iconic cliffs, the city of Grand Junction in the distance and of course, Grand Valley canyon with the Colorado River meandering through it.
If you fell in love with Highland View, the short drive to Grand View will reward you with perhaps even more breathtaking scenery as you admire spacious vistas overlooking Monument Canyon, Independence Monument, and the incredible Grand Valley.
By now, you have probably established that the majority of overlooks throughout Colorado National Monument require plenty of care and attention, given the lack of secure fencing but you don’t need to worry about this at Grand View as there is a fenced overlook allowing even those with serious height phobia to enjoy this scenery.
Memories of Bryce Canyon came to mind as we peered out over Monument Canyon, identifying a plethora of gorgeous geologic formations such as the 450-feet high Independence Monument, Pipe Organ Spire, Organ Pipe Spire among many others.
For those of you interested in learning about the intricacies of this geological phenomena, there is an interpretative sign at the overlook offering an explanation of the various rock layers, how erosion has played such an integral role in shaping what you see in front of you and of course, the formations themselves.
Arches National Park may be home to the infamous “Balanced Rock” but visitors to Colorado National Monument have an opportunity to see Colorado’s counterpart – a 600-tonne boulder perched on top of a rock pedestal. For those of you entering the park from the West entrance at Fruita, this will likely be your first stop while those heading out will have fond memories thanks to this amazing natural attraction.
Located 2.7 miles from Saddlehorn Visitor Center, you cannot help but appreciate how nature has created such a unique formation. Whether it’s a matter of time before erosion continues to take its toll and Balanced Rock is no more is perhaps inevitable, but for now, visitors can enjoy this magical formation in all its glory.
This is another iconic spot for avid photographers to capture sunrise shots as the sun first meets Balanced Rock and creates an awe-inspiring view at the top of the bluffs overlooking the Colorado landscape.
Colorado National Monument has quickly become one of our favorite locations – albeit after only spending a few hours exploring this beautiful natural landscape. But as you can see from our experience, this is a place full of natural beauty, epic panoramic views and hiking trails that lead to incredible overlooks.
Driving through this landscape is definitely one of the best scenic drives anywhere in the United States (perhaps the world!) and although this is a pretty bold statement to make, I am sure after you visit here for the first time, you will likely have similar thoughts.
Have you visited Colorado National Monument? What other landscapes around the United States do you consider to be spectacular yet they haven’t quite reached the status of “National Park”? Share your thoughts below and as always, we are intrigued to learn about new places and new adventures that we can take!