Colorado National Monument

Hi everyone,

Thanks for all the comments on last week’s post, a preview of coming attractions. If you missed that episode, click here for a look see.

I begin this series of posts with our visit to the Colorado National Monument located just off I-70 in far western Colorado between Grand Junction and Fruita. We left Denver mid afternoon, after a visit with my sister and brother-in-law, encountering snow and a traffic slow-down at the pass over the Rockies. It was pitch dark when we arrived at our motel in Fruita.

This town of over 13,000 residents was founded in the mid 1880’s. Originally, the area was known for it’s fruit farms and other agricultural endeavors. More recently Fruita is a mecca for mountain biking, hiking, rafting, birding, and horseback riding. This accounts for the several bike, sporting goods, and tack shops we saw on our drive through town. There are a few good coffee shops too. You might wonder why the prehistoric creature is painted on the side of the now closed grain elevator. This is due to the many dinosaur specimens found nearby, some nearly intact and quite rare.

We were up early the next morning, had coffee and a quick breakfast, anxious to explore the first park on our long list. We’d been to the Colorado National Monument in the fall 2015. Then, we were fortunate to snag the very last campsite in the area, site 14 in the Saddlehorn Campground. We remember looking over the valley below and the starry skies above. We vowed to return when we weren’t towing a trailer and a deadline to be home on a certain day. This was our chance.

The entrance to the Colorado National Monument begins on the south edge of Fruita in the valley near the hard working Colorado River. The road quickly rises over 2000 feet through canyons, switchbacks, and tunnels to reach the top and the visitor’s center. This road was built by the WPA and CCC during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The weather was cool and overcast with occasional spits of rain. Later in the day, the sun did come out and quickly warmed the air, making us shed our heavy jackets.

On the drive to the top, we stopped at the Balanced Rock Viewpoint. It’s hard to imagine but the boulder on top of the pedestal is estimated to weigh 600 tons! This is just one of the many masterpieces created by the forces of water and wind erosion over millions of years. Eventually, Balanced Rock will too succumb to the forces of nature, but for now, we can enjoy it’s beauty.

Once at the top, we stopped by the visitor center to pick up a map, stamp our national park passport book, and talk to the staff. We learned that the Colorado National Monument is part of the Colorado Plateau encompassing about 150,000 square miles between the Rocky Mountains and the Great Basin in Nevada. This land mass is centered about the four corners of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. This area is mostly public lands including 27 units of the National Park Service. Over the next couple of weeks, we would visit many of the national parks, monuments and state parks in southern Utah. At the visitor center, we chatted with a friendly volunteer. We asked questions about the must see things and the best sites for photography. On this trip, we encountered several volunteers at the national parks. They provide a necessary service to the public, freeing the over-worked paid staff to concentrate on other activities.

Soon we were on the 23-mile Rim Rock Drive through the park. There are plenty of roadside overlooks to view the many canyons and rock sculptures. This park features about 45 miles of hiking trails, we walked a few of the easily accessible short trails between spurts of drizzle. We pretty much had the place to ourselves, not many other visitors, nearly every parking lot was empty. Granted it was early November, not the high tourist season, this park receives about 400,000 visitors per year. Given all that, this is one our favorite parks; the simplicity, the majesty, and the quiet contributed to a wonderful park experience.

Below is the largest free-standing rock formation in the park, Independence Monument (AKA, Rock). John Otto, one of the early proponents of setting aside these canyons for future generations to enjoy, planted an American flag on top of Independence Monument on June 14, 1911. He presented this flag to then President William Howard Taft who used his powers through the Antiquities Act to create this monument. Otto was hired as the first park ranger and continued to climb Independence Monument to plant the flag every July 4. Each year, climbers continue this patriotic tradition.

It didn’t take me long to realize there was photo around every corner, so I took them while I could! The photo below offers a close up of one of the many formations we saw in the park.

We enjoyed Artists Point where artists often stop to make plein-air paintings of this panoramic view.

Note the rounded rock dome formations in the right center of this photo. They are called the Coke Ovens that resemble old charcoal or coke ovens. They are created by erosion of the sandstone below the capstone.

As we drove along, we noticed the cottonwood trees with their bright yellow leaves standing out against their neighbors, the evergreen pinyon and junipers. I made several stops for photos, these were but a couple!

We also stopped on our short walks to admire the woodgrain and artwork on the decaying trees. To me this looks like the eye of a horse, you might see something else!

One of our favorite stops on the Rim Rock Drive was at Ute Canyon. This canyon features colorful, shear cliffs 300 feet high overlooking the wide valley below. The Ute and Fremont Tribes were early inhabitants of the Grand Valley and present day Colorado National Monument. They hunted big horn sheep and gathered plants for food and medicine in the surrounding canyons. The Utes were removed in the 1880s and now dwell on a reservation on the Colorado/New Mexico border.

It didn’t take me long to be enthralled by the yellow cottonwoods that grow along the now dry stream at the bottom of the canyon. The top photo looks to the west and the other two look to the east of the this vast canyon. Maybe in another life, I’ll hike to the bottom of this canyon for some close-up photos!

Our final stop before leaving the east entrance of the park was at Cold Shiver Point. The viewpoint overlooks the Columbus Canyon with a 300 foot drop that gives visitors with a fear of heights, “the shivers!”

We relished every minute of our time at the Colorado National Monument. We vowed to return yet a third time for more exploration of this beautiful park. For more information on the Colorado National Monument, click here.

It was early afternoon when we exited and headed down I-70 West into Utah. Stay tuned next week for the scenic drive along the Colorado River.

Until then, happy travels!