Colorado’s “Secret” National Park Gem – Colorado National Monument
Jason and I have been pretty busy since coming back from our Christmas adventure in Europe. In the two months we’ve been back we’ve been to: Aspen, DC (2 times), Keystone/Summit County, Austin, and Colorado National Monument/Vail. We’ve only been home for 2 weekends out of the past 12! Our original plans for the weekend of March 9 – 12 involved a whirlwind trip to Moab, driving down on Thursday after work to stay at a hotel, waking up early on Friday to drive to the Needles District of Canyonlands, doing a 12 mile hike to a backcountry campground, sleeping there Friday night, hiking back on Saturday and driving back to Moab, driving to Vail on Sunday, Beaver Creek on Monday, and going home Monday afternoon. After some serious thinking we decided that all that driving probably wasn’t worth it for a 24 mile hike, so instead we decided to hit up a new-to-us national park/monument.
Colorado National Monument is about 3 hours closer to our house than the Needles district of Moab and had campsites available. Instead of leaving after work on Thursday, we decided to wake up early on Friday to drive to Colorado National Monument. The drive from Denver seemed to fly by and we quickly set up camp in the campground. After setting up camp we set out along Rim Rock Drive (which was named one of the most spectacular drives) to the Monument Canyon trail. The trail is a wonder of engineering, cut through solid rock and down into the steep-walled Monument Canyon. At the top of the trail, there is a spur trail that leads to the top of the coke oven formation. It’s a short, but worthwhile detour as it gives a great view down canyon.
The rest of the hike meanders along the bottom of the canyon, passing by the famous Kissing Couple and Independence Monument. We could have hiked all the way to Grand Junction (only about 6 miles from the trailhead) but wanted to get some rest before our big hike the next day!
The next morning we woke up early for a dud of a sunrise and then drove to the 10-ish miles to the Ute Canyon trailhead. We had a delicious roadside breakfast while waiting for sun to warm us up. I had mapped out a loop that connected the Ute Canyon and the Liberty Cap trails by a 3 miles walk alongside Rim Rock Drive, but Jason wasn’t sure he was up for that long of a day. The trail down to the bottom of Ute Canyon was steeply switchbacked and covered with slick ice and snow. We slipped and slid our way down to the canyon bottom, wishing we had thought to bring traction. Once at the bottom the trail quickly became a streak of trampled grass next to a trickling spring. At points the trail became a “choose your own adventure” through the boggy, muddy grass, but it always weaved it’s way back to the main trail. Eventually the trail became a well-defined streak of sand and dirt through the desert sage, juniper, and pinion pine and the canyon opened up into a large verdant valley.
As we reached the canyon mouth, the landscape changed again to red dirt and sparse junipers, most of them dry and twisting towards the relentless sun. We decided to make the climb up to Liberty Cap, which had spied poking out above the canyon rim for the past half mile. The trail climbed steeply up the canyon wall, sometimes traversing sandstone benches and other times climbing straight up giant boulders. It was certainly an adventure but we quickly made our way up to the top. At a nice spot next to Liberty Cap that overlooked Ute Canyon we decided to take a little break and eat some snacks. I was hoping to get a good view of a cave I spotted on the canyon wall that looked like it might have ruins inside, but the angle was wrong. Either way it looked like a nice place to live if I was living in Ute Canyon 1000 years ago.
After our snack we decided to stay up high on Monument Mesa and complete the loop instead of reversing our morning hike and dropping back down into Ute Canyon. The Monument Mesa hike was not very exciting and it was easy to see why most people choose to access Liberty Cap from Grand Junction instead of Rim Rock Drive. It didn’t help that the trail was covered in long stretches of mud thanks to the recently melted snow. At one point we came to a small cairn that looked like it might lead to a good view of Monument Canyon where we had hiked the day before. We followed the faint trail until it opened up on a huge sandstone bench. We probably spent an hour playing around on the sandstone and exploring. We later found out that we stumbled on the somewhat famous “Otto’s Bathtub”, where John Otto, the man responsible for making the area a national monument, used to dam a natural hole in the sandstone to make a bathtub. He also carved steps into the sandstone and installed a rope to help himself in and out of it.
After exploring Otto’s Bathtub, we made it back to the main trail and slogged the final 3 miles back to the road. Then we had another 3 miles along the shoulder of the road to go before we made it back to the car. I’m glad we did the loop, because now I can safely recommend that no one else ever do it again. All of the sites are easily seen in relatively short day hikes, and the trail along the top of Monument Mesa and the walk along the highway were pretty boring. Despite that fact, I would highly recommend hiking through Ute Canyon, hiking to Liberty Cap (from Grand Junction), and visiting Otto’s Bathtub.
Colorado National Monument was an excellent escape from the city. The drive isn’t too bad (once you get past ski traffic) and we had the park mostly to ourselves. On both of our hikes we only saw a handful of people and it truly felt like we were in the middle of nowhere, even though it was only a short drive out to Grand Junction and an amazing diner when we left on Sunday. The campground layout looked like it could be a little overwhelming when the whole thing was open, but with only loop A open, it was perfect. The campground even has flush toilets, running water, and a hand dryer! If you’re looking for a little piece of desert heaven outside of a small-sized city, I recommend Colorado National Monument.