Detour: Colorado National Monument

Monument Canyon

Colorado National Monument was established in 1911 during the administration of William Howard Taft to protect over 20,000 acres of the northeastern portion of the Uncompahgre Plateau in western Colorado. Erosion has carved this part of the plateau into a series of dramatic redrock canyons overlooking the Grand Valley of the Colorado River. True redrock country, the Uncompahgre Plateau rises above the easternmost portion of the immense Colorado Plateau, home to some of the most storied National Park landscapes, among them Arches, Canyonlands, Zion, and Grand Canyon. In fact, Arches National Park’s entrance is less than a 90-minute drive from Colorado National Monument’s western entrance.

On Wednesday, September 1 (2021), our plan had been to tour Colorado National Monument for the day as we drove between Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and Dinosaur National Monument. It turned out, though, that this first day of September was very wet. It was the only rainy day of the trip. Having packed up a wet tent and wet gear that morning, we decided to take the day bit by bit and see what we wanted to do. First off: meeting up with Jimmy in Grand Junction to get some coffee and some food.

Jimmy had moved from Denver to Colorado a few months before. He actually lives half a block from us, so we see him often in Chicago, but it happened that a visit to his brother and sister-in-law’s spread outside Grand Junction overlapped with ours. We overtook him on the road. There he was at a stoplight on US-50, practically hanging out of his blue Subaru, waving. We followed him into the sprawl of Grand Junction and found a Starbucks.

We gabbed and shared stories from our respective trips before deciding to get tacos for lunch.

Sean checked Eater Denver, and we decided to go to Taco Party. If you’re ever in Grand Junction, check it out because it was first rate: skirt steak, yellowtail tempura, and yam tacos, guacamole and salsa, and homemade sweet corn flavored soft serve for dessert.

After lunch, we said goodbye to Jimmy and weighed our options. Visibility was shitty, and the rain did not look to be letting up. Both of those counted against driving up into the National Monument. Also, we wanted to be sure to get to our campsite in Dinosaur before too late in the evening so we could dry out our tent and rainfly.

On the pro side for going was that the eastern entrance was literally ten minutes away. We decided to go and see what we could see. If the conditions were truly shitty, we could just come back down and continue on our way.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Image: Sean M. Santos

Rim Rock Road is a 23-mile paved route through Colorado National Monument. We drove it from the eastern, Grand Junction entrance to the western, Fruita entrance.

In my notes, I wrote this:

Scary and wet as fuck, but also magical.

The road climbs some 1,000 feet up via a series of switchbacks and a tunnel. Topping out on the plateau, we pulled over at the first overlook, Cold Shivers Point. It was aptly named for a chilly, rainy afternoon. We pulled on our rain jackets and went to have a look.

Columbus Canyon

The dramatic views of Columbus (sigh) Canyon on this moody day were a great start.

Columbus Canyon

Utah Juniper

Image: Sean M. Santos

Columbus Canyon

Red Canyon

Next up was Red Canyon Overlook, even better than Columbus (sigh) Canyon.

Utah Juniper

Red Canyon

The complete lack of visibility into the distance obscured Grand Valley and Grand Mesa beyond it, but at least we could see the scenery near-at-hand.

Red Canyon

Ute Canyon

At Upper Ute Canyon Overlook, the near-at-hand vistas opened up a bit, although the rain was worsening.

Ute Canyon

Prickly Pear

Yellow Cryptantha

Utah Juniper

Utah Juniper

Utah Juniper and Big Sagebrush

Ute Canyon

Ute Canyon

Ute Canyon

Ute Canyon

By now, the inside of the Subaru was pretty wet from our hopping in and out to look at the views. Oh well.

An array of antennae west of the Monument’s boundary was a reminder of how small the Monument actually is. In 1911, they only protected the most scenic portion, not the whole surrounding area of the plateau.

Monument Canyon

The rain let up a bit as we reached the overlooks above Monument Canyon, with its fins, monoliths, spires, and other formations.

Monument Canyon

Coke Ovens

Coke Ovens

Coke Ovens

Independence Monument

Monument Canyon

At the Monument’s most iconic spires in Monument Valley, mist rose rose and swirled and danced, sometimes revealing and sometimes obscuring the formations.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Kissing Couple

After a few more hair raising curves and we reached the visitor center. It was raining in earnest again as we ducked inside.

Pipe Organ

The back deck, protected from the rain by an overhanging roof, offered a more comfortable way to take in the views. It was about a quarter after three. So we sat and had a snack before stamping our passports and checking out the exhibitions.

Pipe Organ

It was cozy and warm in the visitor center. If they’d had concessions, I’d proabably have gotten a cup of hot chocolate.

While we were there, the German family we’d seen earlier in the day at Black Canyon arrived to get their Junior Ranger swearings in.

As we began our descent from the plateau, the visibility was truly terrible. I was a little nervous about the descent since by all accounts this part of the road was the most frightening, but I actually didn’t mind it. I think it was because the distant views were so obscured.

Fruita Canyon

Fruita Canyon

Balanced Rock

We dropped down to the western entrance station, pulled over, and entered Dinosaur National Monument into the GPS. On to the last National Park unit of our Colorado adventure!

Leave a Reply