Colorado National Monument, a national park just outside Grand Junction, Colorado, is perhaps one of the West’s great hiking spots you’ve never heard of. This relatively off-the-beaten-path park has it all: sweeping panoramic views, one-of-a-kind rock formations, unforgettable hiking trails, and vibrant plant and animal life. Colorado National Monument’s proximity to the world-famous Arches National Park makes a weekend excursion to Grand Junction from Denver a must: spend one day at Arches, another day at Colorado National Monument.
Trust me, doing so will make for an unbelievable, super-outdoorsy weekend – and if you love taking photographs like I do, these two parks offer wonderful “Wild West” scenery perfect for capturing on film.
Colorado National Monument is also ideal for off-season travel; Kevin and I visited on a sunny but chilly Sunday morning in early December and had the park nearly all to ourselves. We spent approximately five hours in the park and hiked numerous trails, yet we encountered only about half a dozen fellow visitors.
Chances are, your hotel will be in or around Grand Junction, Colorado, a bustling town that serves as the gateway to the world-famous parks of western Colorado and eastern Utah. Therefore, I recommend arriving at Colorado National Monument via the park’s East (Grand Junction) Entrance – although the visitor’s center is on the opposite end of Rim Road, the park’s primary thoroughfare, this entrance does have a ranger’s station where visitors can pay the reasonable admission fee and receive a park map.
Below, I share my five trail recommendations for visitors heading to Colorado National Monument, and I’ve listed them in the order one would hike while driving west along Rim Road (after entering at the East Entrance). However, this order can easily be reversed for travelers heading east along Rim Road!
Devil’s Kitchen Trail
While there are so many benefits to traveling during the off-season when crowds are at a minimum, there tends to be one unexpected drawback for those who hike in the winter months: the lack of fellow hikers means poorly-marked trails become even less obvious. While we had no problems whatsoever elsewhere in the park, Kevin and I struggled to make out the route of Devil’s Kitchen Trail, one of the first trails visitors entering from the East (Grand Junction) Entrance stumble upon.
I’m not sure we quite succeeded in finding the trail – signs and markers are indeed sparse after the initial quarter-mile or so, and we had no fellow travelers or obvious footprints to take cues from – but the scenery is spectacular and I highly recommend it. We never did find the large rock grotto (Devil’s Kitchen) that gave the trail its name, but even so, Devil’s Kitchen Trail is the perfect place to kick off a visit to Colorado National Monument. I’d rate the difficulty of this trail as easy to moderate, and the trail is one and a half miles round trip – it took Kevin and I, fairly experienced hikers, about forty-five minutes to complete.
Aren’t these rock formations amazing? The bold desert reds, so heavily associated with Colorado, only add to the splendor. Amateur photographers, this is the park for you. Unlike Arches, Colorado National Monument remains relatively off-the-beaten path, meaning you can break out your camera as often as you’d like without fellow hikers hijacking your photo. I must have taken, oh, at least one hundred photos on the Devil’s Kitchen Trail alone. What can I say? I’m a sucker for blue skies and red rocks.
Coke Ovens Trail
Coke Ovens Trail is my favorite in all of Colorado National Monument, hands down. It features everything I love about the undeveloped landscape of the West: sweeping panoramas, unique rock formations, and rugged landscape perfect for hiking and photographing. This relatively easy one-mile (both ways) trail takes hikers to an incredible scenic overlook. For visitors coming from the park’s East (Grand Junction) Entrance, the trailhead will be on the right:
These tent-shaped rock formations in the above photograph are the “Coke Ovens” referenced in the trails’ name.
The view from the scenic overlook (above) makes the hike well worth the effort!
Otto’s Trail, a flat, easy half-mile (both ways) trail takes hikers to a scenic overlook that offers jaw-dropping views of some of the most iconic rock formations in Colorado National Monument. The trail only takes about twenty-five to thirty minutes to hike, making it ideal for those without too much time to devote to the park.
Independence Monument, the massive rock formation featured in the above photo, is arguably the most famous at Colorado National Monument. I found the overlook at the end of Otto’s Trail to be provide the best view and photo opportunity of Independence Monument!
Canyon Rim Trail
Canyon Rim Trail, another easy yet rewarding hike in Colorado National Monument, starts behind the Saddlehorn Visitor Center (which, in addition to bathrooms, also offers travelers the opportunity to purchase gifts and souvenirs such as postcards and desert-centric stuffed animals) and is only one mile round-trip. The trail culminates at yet another scenic overlook, Bookcliff Overlook, and offers endless photo opportunities for those who want to snap a shot of the expansive canyon.
Alcove Nature Trail
We finished off our visit to Colorado National Monument with the easiest trail of the day: Alcove Nature Trail, a mile-long (both ways), mostly level trail that starts across the street from the Visitor’s Center. This trail is perfect for travelers with limited hiking experience or those traveling with small children, as it features some of the park’s more unique rock formations alongside a wide range of plant life without requiring much physical exertion. Die-hard nature lovers can pick up a detailed trail guide in the visitor’s center – otherwise, Alcove Nature Trail is a quiet, simple stroll with wonderful views.
I was absolutely obsessed with these vibrant and intricate sandstone-hued rock formations. Typically, I prefer trails that are strenuous and require a workout, but these Middle Jurassic-era formations made the Alcove Nature Trail my second favorite ]in all of Colorado National Monument. If you’re interested in the geological history of the park, do check out this page on the park’s official website. Doesn’t the detailing rock formation above look human-made? I thought so at first, and was surprised to learn it was merely nature at work.
For assistance in planning your visit to Colorado National Monument, please refer to the park’s official map here. Prior to arriving at the park, I recommend all visitors pack at least two or three water bottles per hiker and dress in layers – temperatures can vary greatly in desert climates, and travelers should be prepared for strong winds and hot heat, since not every trail offers refuge from the bright sun. Sunscreen is a must! Also, cell service is spotty throughout most of the park; I recommend printing off a map ahead of time and, if you’re hiking alone, let a friend or family member know of your plans prior to departure.