Colorado National Monument was the first stop during my summer 2016 road trip, and I quickly realized that this area of Colorado is best visited at literally any other time of year than when I went in June with my husband. (Ok, July and August are probably even hotter)
But the scenery? Totally worth the 6 a.m. wake up call.
This post was updated during the COVID-19 pandemic, so please recreate responsibly. Follow all CDC and local guidelines for traveling, and at the absolute bare minimum, bring and wear a mask properly (that means over your nose and your mouth). I would recommend skipping the inside of the Visitors Center during the pandemic to avoid indoor spaces with others.
How do I get there?
Colorado National Monument is in between Fruita and Grand Junction on the Western Slope of Colorado.
From Denver, it’s a four-hour drive across the state on I-70. If you’re coming all the way from Denver, I recommend camping at Saddlehorn the night before so you can get an early start. This obviously isn’t a day trip from Denver, and spending a night under the stars in Saddlehorn is a great road trip stop!
Admission is $25, or included if you have an annual National Park Service pass (aka the America the Beautiful pass). You can pay by credit card or cash at either entrance. If you are entering the park before rangers are manning the entrances, please make sure to pay on your way out!
The hiking options covered in this guide are closer to the West Entrance outside of Fruita. If you spent the night in Grand Junction or Palisade, you can make it a day trip to Fruita by driving in the East Entrance, hiking along the way, and then getting breakfast or lunch in Fruita. My breakfast go-to is Best Slope Coffee, and lunch is a no-brainer. You have to stop at Hot Tomato Pizza!
Where do I go?
The most beginner-friendly option is taking several short hikes at different points around the monument. Each of these hikes are half a mile one-way (or less!), with only one involving any sort of descent/uphill hiking.
Stop 1: Window Rock Nature Trail
Starting at the West Entrance, begin at the quarter-mile (one-way) Window Rock Nature Trail. You get incredible views of the monument and sweeping panoramas of the Grand Valley.
Stop 2: Visitors Center and Canyon Rim Trail
Next, hit up the visitors center (for gifts or for guidance). This is a great place to fill up your water bottles and make a pit stop at the bathrooms. The Canyon Rim Trail leaves from the back of the Visitors Center and follows the rim of the Monument.
Stop 3: Otto’s Trail
Hop back in the car and drive to Otto’s Trail, which takes you out on one of the rock formation you can see from Canyon Rim. This trail also has incredible views at the end, but the overlook is a doozy if you’re afraid of heights. It’s completely safe, and in my opinion, totally worth pushing yourself out of your comfort zone.
Stop 4: Upper Monument
Next stop is the Upper Monument Trail parking area. This trailhead will take you to the Coke’s Oven area. It looks like a straight line on the map but is actually pretty switchback-ey at first, descending pretty quickly into the canyon. You don’t get to the floor, and it flattens out after a few minutes.
Don’t panic, you won’t accidentally ending up on the super long trail that goes down to the bottom of the monument (I totally didn’t panic about that. TOTALLY). The trail is still manageable for beginners – the climb back up on your way out is short and very doable.
Coke’s Oven was also the best trail for viewing the monument’s most plentiful wildlife, the collared lizard. I couldn’t get any good photos of them, but they were everywhere! In a cool way, not in a make-your-skin-crawl kind of way. And this is coming from someone with a pretty big reptile phobia.
Stop 5: Ute Canyon Overlook
Those four trails took Billy and I about an hour and a half. If you have one more scenic view in you, stop at the Ute Canyon Overlook on your way back to the East Entrance. (Or, if you’re starting at the East Entrance, stop here first!)
The views are incredible, and just a short walk from the car (you can almost see the overlook from where you park).
What are the trails like?
Each of these trails is no more than a half-mile in length (one-way). With the exception of the Coke’s Oven trail, they’re all also completely flat. You can see the Coke Ovens from the Overlook just west of the Upper Monument Trail parking area if you don’t want to do any hills.
The trails aren’t paved, but they aren’t rocky either. You either hike along fairly even dirt, or on smooth rock (like in the above picture from the Ute Canyon Overlook). The Canyon Rim Trail at the Visitors Center is the only one that’s tricky to follow. Since everything is the same color in the desert, it’s not always super obvious where the trail is. Keep an eye out for a slightly more worn path. Luckily, you’re always between the canyon rim and the road, so it’s not nearly impossible to get lost.
What should I wear and bring?
Above all else, sun protection and water. There is no shade anywhere and it is extremely dry (you’re in the desert, after all!). Here is what I bring every hike >>
If you have them, binoculars are also a great companion. There is a ton of bird life in the Monument, plus binoculars can help you explore the rock formations from afar.
Is it crowded?
Not particularly. Colorado National Monument is still a hidden gem, so you won’t have to contend with many crowds (especially compared to Front Range trails near Denver).
Anything else I should know?
We visited for the first time in June, which in retrospect was not the best time of year. The highs were in the upper 90s, so we were on the trail by 6:30 a.m. It turned out we not only needed to beat the heat, but also the insects. The early wake-up call was totally worth it – by 8:30 a.m. it was blazing and the bugs were out in force!
Spring or fall are much more mild times to visit. I’ve since been back to the Monument in April, which I think is the best time to go. You get a little break from the chilly winter! Fall would also be a lovely mild reprieve before winter really sets in!
In both shoulder seasons (fall and spring), snow is a possibility on your drive from Denver. You have to drive through the Eisenhower Tunnel as well as over Vail Pass. Check the weather across the state before you leave. It can be snowing on one part of your drive and perfectly sunny on another!
If you’re looking to spend more time in the Grand Valley, Palisade has wineries, vineyards, and of course, peach orchards (the best time of year for peaches is the hottest, though). Grand Junction’s Main Street is very cute and Fruita is a renowned mountain biking destination. The Colorado River meanders through the entire valley, making it a prime spot for beginner-friendly, laid-back rafting as well!