This climb is excerpted from 100 Hikes in Colorado, by Scott S. Warren, published by The Mountaineers, Seattle. ©1995 by Scott S. Warren. All rights reserved.
Embracing a ruggedly beautiful cross-section of canyons, cliffs, and mesa tops, Colorado National Monument offers some wonderful hiking opportunities within a short drive from Grand Junction. The hike described here follows the Monument Canyon Trail to the base of Independence Monument, the monument's flagship landform.
To reach the beginning of this hike, drive west from Grand Junction on Interstate 70 to the Fruita exit and follow the signs for Colorado National Monument. Continue south on Colorado Highway 340 for 2.4 miles to the entrance to the Colorado National Monument. Follow the monument's only road, Rim Rock Drive, south for 8.2 miles to the signed trailhead. There is limited parking for hikers on the left side of the road.
From the trailhead the Monument Canyon Trail begins dropping immediately into the head of a side drainage that eventually feeds into Monument Canyon. Within 200 yards is the turnoff for the 0.5-mile trail to the Coke Ovens a cluster of beehive-shaped formations of Wingate Sandstone. Created by the erosion of the softer sandstone beneath caps of more resistant Kayenta Sandstone, these monoliths are clearly visible from the Monument Canyon Trail, which turns left at the trail junction.
Beyond the turnoff for the Coke Ovens, the Monument Canyon Trail begins to really drop in elevation as it negotiates steep switchbacks, areas of loose rock, and exposed drop-offs. In about 0.5 mile the route descends some 600 feet before reaching the relatively level canyon bottom. Originally built by John Otto shortly after the turn of the century, this route was part of his one-man campaign to bring attention to this scenic area. His efforts paid off, and Colorado National Monument was established in 1911 by a stroke of President Taft's pen.
Along this descent you may want to stop and take in the geology of the canyon. Like the Coke Ovens, the canyon walls consist of Wingate Sandstone, a rock that tends to form sheer cliffs several hundred feet high. Wingate Sandstone was deposited as sand dunes during the Triassic period more than 200 million years ago. Atop the Wingate Formation is a layer of Kayenta Sandstone, and above that a layer of pinkish rock known as Entrada Sandstone. Like the Wingate Formation, Entrada Sandstone was formed from wind-blown sands. Although Entrada Sandstone forms the rimrock in most of the national monument, younger layers of substrata are identifiable in the higher terrain west of the trailhead. Included among them is the Morrison Formation, which has produced most of the dinosaur bones found in the Colorado Plateau region thus far.
Upon reaching the canyon bottom the Monument Canyon Trail heads east through forest of pinyon pine and Utah juniper. Such an ecosystem is standard for this elevation as semi-desert conditions predominate here. Other plants include mountain mahogany, Mormon tea, yucca, and a renegade cottonwood tree or two stashed away along the dry streambeds. Among the resident fauna of the monument are mule deer, desert bighorn sheep, antelope ground squirrels, coyotes, and mountain lions.
After continuing 0.5 mile east from the bottom of its descent into the canyon, the Monument Canyon Trail begins to bend north as it follows the canyon wall. A little more than 2 miles from the trailhead the trail passes almost directly beneath an interesting formation called the Kissing Couple. From this up close vantage point, the landmark is quite impressive. By this point you may have also noticed some dark metamorphic rock along the lower reaches of the canyon. Dating back 1.5 billion years, these Precambrian schist and gneiss form the core of the Uncompahgre Plateau, which reaches its northern terminus at Colorado National Monument.
After passing beneath an additional tower of Wingate Sandstone, the Monument Canyon Trail reaches the base of Independence Monument. While a spectacular view of this 450-foot-high monolith can be enjoyed from Rim Rock Drive above, the rock's base provides an equally impressive but very different vantage point. Once part of a large dividing wall, Independence Monument was worn away by erosion on both sides, leaving the freestanding flatiron behind. This whole scenario can best be envisioned from a low saddle just west of the formation. From this point you can see how Independence Monument separates Monument Canyon from Wedding Canyon to the north. From here you can also see the Pipe Organ, Window Rock, and Sentinel Rock on the far side of Wedding Canyon. And, framed in the mouth of Wedding Canyon just as it is framed in the mouth of Monument Canyon, is the verdant patchwork of farmlands that spread across the Grand Valley beyond.
Although the 6-mile Monument Canyon Trail continues for another 3 miles from the base of Independence Monument to reach a trailhead just east of the national monument boundary, this hike turns around here to return to the upper trailhead. Don't forget that you have a 600-foot climb back to your car before finishing this hike.
Water is not available along this hike, so bring plenty, especially in the hot summer months. Although rattlesnakes tend to shy away from people, watch out for them anyway.ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Scott S. Warren has been exploring Colorado for over 20 years, both on his own and in his earlier work for the U.S. Forest Service. An avid photographer, he holds a bachelor of fine arts degree in photography from Utah State University. His images have appeared in Audubon, Outside, Sierra, Travel & Leisure, and various National Geographic publications.