Whether you make the trip specifically to Grand Junction, Colorado, or if you’re simply passing through, spending a day here, taking time to visit the Colorado National Monument is well worth your time.
Located only a few minutes outside Grand Junction, the Colorado National Monument is arguably the town’s most famous natural attraction. However, there are other reasons to visit Grand Junction, including one of its many vineyards or scenic byways crisscrossing the area.
We had planned to pass through Grand Junction along the way from the Rocky Mountains to Durango to see family. The Colorado National Monument has always intrigued me, specially ever since I added it to my list of parks that should be reconsidered for National Park status.
So, in preparation for this visit, I put together this itinerary for our one day in Grand Junction, and we stuck with it pretty close once we visited. We stayed in a hotel downtown (I think it was either the Doubletree or La Quinta Inn), but it was fairly cheap for my family of five. If you need a campsite, nearby Colorado River State Park in Fruita, CO has nice amenities and spaces available.
8:00 AM – Arrive at the Park
There are two entrances to the Colorado National Monument, but I recommend entering via the west entrance, located in Fruita. While both entrances work perfectly fine, the only visitor center in the park is right past this entrance, so – to me – it makes sense to start here first.
To get to the western entrance of the park, take Highway 340 north towards Fruita. It will take about 20 minutes (12 miles), until you reach the entrance, which is down Rimrock Drive.
There is a fee to get into the park, which is $25 per vehicle, or $15 per person. An America The Beautiful Pass can be used here to gain entry as well.
From here, we will work our way south back towards the city of Grand Junction.
8:00-9:00 AM – Stop at the Overlooks
Between the entrance station and the Visitor’s Center, you’ll pass a handful of great overlooks that you can stop and admire. They are listed in the order you’ll pass them. Between Redlands view and Balanced Rock, you’ll go through two separate tunnels.
- Redlands View – Named after the Redlands fault, this overlook has views of the town of Fruita off in the distance.
- Balanced Rock View – Above this viewpoint sits Balanced Rock, 600 ton boulder that sits atop a formation that seems likely to tip over at any moment (but it has instead stood for generations).
- Historic Trails View – Overlooking the valley below, this spot details the trails that historic ranchers used to guide cattle from the valley up to Mesa Top and back each year.
- Distant View (Grand Valley Overlook) – The impressive view from here is the same as the Fruita Canyon overlook, but from a different vantage point.
- Fruita Canyon View – A very impressive spot that overlooks Balanced Rock and Rim Drive below inside Fruita Canyon.
9:00 AM – Saddlehorn Area
About 4.4 miles from the entrance, turn left into the Saddlehorn Parking area.
The visitor’s center will be right next to Rim Drive, but instead, head immediately to the back of the parking lot to where Book Cliffs View is. This is one of the most famous spots in the whole park. The view overlooks the valley below, and shows off multiple formations including Sentinel Spire, Praying Hands, Independence Monument, and Kissing Couple.
From here, there are two trails that you should take. The only optional one is Window Rock Trail, which is a less than 1/2 mile round trip, and has around a 200ft elevation change. This trail is rated easy, and is out-and-back. You’ll turn around after seeing the famed Window Rock arch.
Once back at the parking lot, find the Canyon Rim Trail. The most popular hike in the park, the Canyon Rim Trail is easy and 0.5 miles one way. The trail stretches between Book Cliffs View and the Saddlehorn Visitor Center. The trail is level, and follows the cliff’s edge above colorful Wedding Canyon. The trail does have two pairs of switchbacks, and railings when the trail is close to the canyon’s edge.
At the end of the trail, you’ll find yourself right at the Visitors Center. Head inside for some history exhibits, ranger demonstrations and some much needed A/C. The visitor center hours are 9:00 AM to 4:30 PM, with extended hours in the spring and summer (9:00 AM – 5:00 PM).
11:30 PM – Lunch
At this point, you may be getting hungry. There are a few options:
- If you packed a lunch, relax at the Saddlehorn Picnic Area. Since you’re probably on vacation when visiting here, do what we did: before entering the park – grab some food in Fruita. Store it in a cooler while you hike the beginning half of the day.
- If you just need something light, the Visitors Center has water, coffee, and some snacks to hold you over.
- If you need more substantial food options, head back outside the park and find a place to eat in the town of Fruita. From numerous pizza and Mexican restaurants, there is no shortage of places to eat here.
After lunch, and if you have time, consider hiking the Alcove Nature Trail. The entrance to this easy 1-mile out-and-back hike is across Rim Rock Drive from the visitor’s center. It usually takes less than 30 minutes to complete, and has numbered markers along the way denoting descriptions of what you’re seeing.
12:30 PM – Continue Along Rimrock Drive
Sitting at Saddlehorn Visitor Center, you’re only about 1/5th of the way through Rim Rock Drive. This 23-mile scenic drive bisects the park, and follows along closely with the canyon edges. This drive is considered one of the grandest drives in all of the American West.
If you were to drive straight through the rest of the park along Rim Rock Drive, it would only take about 40 minutes to reach Grand Junction from here.
However, this is definitely NOT what you’re going to do… right?
Stop along the drive to check out Independence Monument View, Grand View, and Monument Canyon View. All three of these viewpoints are similar in that they show you the same valley below, but each are from a different viewpoint. However, if I had to choose one to stop at, it would be Grand View. It is the closest of all the overlooks to the famed Independence and Kissing Couple formations.
1:00 PM – Hike the Coke Ovens
About 4 miles from the Visitor Center, you’ll come to the Coke Ovens Overlook & Trail. Named because of their similar appearance to the conical-shaped coke ovens built by early miners to convert wood and coal into charcoal and coke for industrial uses.
These coke ovens, however, are not from that. These series of rounded domes were created when a ridge between two canyons began to erode. The giant domes of Windgate Sandstone are the remnants of earlier monoliths that have lost their protective cap rock.
From the overlook, there is a short path that gives you a better view of the coke ovens, but this is not the official Coke Ovens Trail. The trailhead for this is a little further down Rim Rock Drive. Look for signs of the Monument Canyon Upper Trailhead. The Coke Ovens trail is the first part of this trail. It is easy, and is only about a 1-mile round trip.
2:00 PM – Finish Rim Rock Drive
Presuming you have a place to be once you leave Colorado National Monument, you can finish the rest of the Rim Rock Drive in about a half hour from here. For us, we were on our way to see The Black Canyon of the Gunnison the next day, so we had about a 1.5 hour drive from Grand Junction to get to our next stop.
There are a number of other overlooks along the rest of the route, but the two best, in my opinion, are the Artists Point and the Upper Ute Canyon View.
If you have extra time, and are up for a moderate hike, I’d highly suggest the Devils Kitchen Trail towards the end of the Rim Rock Drive. This moderate trail is 0.75 miles one way, or 1.5 miles round trip. The trail takes you to a surreal and natural opening formed by a circle of upright boulders. This is the best trail for a moderately easy walk among the rock formations.