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Colorado National Monument: What to Expect in the Winter

by Bonnie
Colorado National Monument

Before our visit, Colorado National Monument was one of those parks that I had heard of but didn’t actually know much about. Upon our arrival, we found one of the most scenic national monuments we’ve visited. With towering rock monoliths and deep canyons, this park preserves a scenic landscape that is fairly characteristic of the western United States. 

That said, the contrast between the high plateau of the park and the Colorado River Valley below it is anything but typical. There’s just something about the dramatic rise of the cliff walls from the valley floor that words and pictures don’t adequately capture.

It is this grand scenic beauty that John Otto fell in love with when he first visited this area in the early 1900s. For several years, he worked to promote and protect the land. Ultimately, it was his efforts that led to the creation of Colorado National Monument in 1911. 

Independence Monument is just one of many great landscapes at Colorado National Monument.
Independence Monument

We visited Colorado NM in December 2020. A blanket of snow only added to the amazing scenic views in the park. Unfortunately, COVID-19 restrictions meant the Visitor Center was closed. Still, we enjoyed our visit and were thrilled to mostly have the park to ourselves.

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What to Do at Colorado National Monument

The main attraction of Colorado National Monument is the 23-mile scenic drive. The park’s location, just off Interstate 70 near Grand Junction, makes it a great detour on a drive east or west across Colorado. 

Coke Ovens rock formation at Colorado National Monument.
The Coke Ovens in Colorado National Monument.

We always encourage visitors to get out of their car and explore national parks on foot. If your time is limited, though, a “drive-through visit” to Colorado National Monument would still be a great visit! And, the park is small enough that you can enjoy a fairly thorough visit in just a half-day.

Rim Rock Drive

If you only do one thing at Colorado National Monument, it should be to drive the entire 23-mile Rim Rock Drive through the park. The road is somewhat reminiscent of Going-to-the-Sun Road at Glacier National Park with tight curves and sheer drop-offs in places. And it is every bit as spectacular, though a much lower elevation.

Rim Rock Drive at Colorado National Monument.
Rim Rock Drive winding its way up the mesa.

We started our drive from the west entrance, just south of Fruita, CO. After passing through the entrance station, the road quickly climbs 1,000 feet before reaching the Visitor Center at about the 4-mile mark. From there, the road continues up another 1,000 feet over roughly ten miles toward its highest point at 6,640 feet. The elevation slowly drops over the final ten miles of the scenic drive heading towards Grand Junction.

Views along Rim Rock Drive in Colorado National Monument.
Views along Rim Rock Drive in Colorado National Monument.

As you drive Rim Rock Drive, you’ll find plenty of turnouts and observation points. Stop at as many of these as time allows. A few spots offer short hikes to really take in the grand views. Others contain just a small viewpoint and maybe an exhibit or two.

Definitely plan to stop at the visitor center, even if it is closed. At the very least, you can enjoy a great view of Monument Canyon. And maybe you’ll see some wildlife, like the bighorn sheep we spotted.

Bighorn Sheet at Colorado NM.
A bighorn sheep in Colorado National Monument.

We spent about 2.5-3 hours driving through Colorado National Monument, stopping at just about every turnout. The park includes a good number of hiking trails. Unfortunately, we had to skip them on our first day since Grant was nursing a toe injury.

Hiking at Colorado NM

My suggestion is that you plan to do a few hikes as you drive Rim Rock Road. There are a number of shorter hikes (less than 2 miles, round trip), most of which are on the western side of the park. Of course, for the serious hiker, there are also several longer hikes (6+ miles, round trip) down into the various canyons.

For those just driving through the park, a few of the overlooks have short trails to a viewpoint. These aren’t really long or difficult enough to be considered trails. They do offer a chance to stretch your legs, though.

Hiking in the snow at Colorado National Monument.
Bonnie hiking out to Ute Point in Colorado National Monument.

Between the snow and Grant’s injured toe, we missed out on a few hikes that we really wanted to do. In particular, we would have loved to do the Window Rock Trail, Canyon Rim Trail, Otto’s Trail, Coke Ovens Trail and Alcove Nature Trail. Based on our itinerary, though, we just didn’t have time to drive back to that side of the park from Grand Junction.

Instead, we chose to stay on the eastern side of the park when we drove back in to do some hiking.

Devils Kitchen Trail

If you are visiting Colorado National Monument in the winter, be prepared for snow and ice if you plan to do any hiking. That is especially true for Devils Kitchen Trail. I’ll admit, this probably was not the best trail for us to hike in the snow but we did it and, overall, enjoyed the hike. It did test our navigation skills, though!

Hiking Devils Kitchen Trail
Selfie on the Devils Kitchen Trail

We had no problems on the first half of the 1.5-mile round trip trail. From the parking lot, the trail is very easy to follow, even in the snow, and the two turns are well-marked. As you climb up into the canyon and onto the red rocks, though, the snow made it difficult to follow the trail.

Thankfully, there were plenty of footsteps for us to follow. Eventually, though, we must have followed the wrong set of footprints. At one point, we ended up putting on our shoe traction devices to help us navigate the icy rock ledges. After checking AllTrails, looking at various tracks through the snow and the terrain, we finally figured out we were headed in the wrong direction.

Hiking Devils Kitchen Trail with YakTrax.
Grant using his YakTrax on the very slick rocks on the trail.

Ultimately, we found the rock feature known as Devils Kitchen. Honestly, though, we weren’t 100% sure at the time. The snow and ice definitely made it difficult to walk in some places. And, not being familiar with the terrain, we weren’t interested in trying to forge our own path.

Devils Kitchen at Colorado National Monument.
The Devils Kitchen

While we had some difficulty getting to our destination and confusion when we got there, it wasn’t a bad hike. We certainly would do the hike again, in better conditions. My best advice is to leave this one for a time when the trail is clear unless you have someone with you who is already familiar with the path.

Where to Stay 

Grand Junction is an obvious place to stay when visiting Colorado National Monument. You’ll find a variety of hotels and restaurants there. Fruita is a little farther west and also has a few hotels.

DoubleTree suite in Grand Junction, CO.
The junior suite at the DoubleTree… We enjoyed the extra space we got from the upgrade.

Since we are generally loyal to Hilton, we chose to stay at the DoubleTree in Grand Junction. We managed to get upgraded to a large room with a nice living room and desk. This was great for us, since we generally have to work while on the road.

Read Trip Advisor reviews and book a hotel in Grand Junction.

While we didn’t get to truly enjoy the hotel amenities due to COVID-19, we found the hotel to be comfortable and clean. Breakfast was easy to pick up at the front desk. The downstairs restaurant and bar were perfect for ordering in on New Year’s Eve.

Where to Eat

When traveling during COVID-19, we generally don’t eat out a lot. If we do, we usually pick up something to take back to our hotel. In Grand Junction, we found better public health safety precautions in place and opted to dine in at Rockslide Brewery. I have to say, it was nice to sit in a restaurant and get a beer, even if it was still a little nerve-wracking.

In terms of food, I ordered the Burnt Ends BBQ Mac-n-Cheese. The cheesy pasta topped with crispy BBQ was decadent and delicious. Seriously, it was worth every calorie! Grant opted for the Rockslide Dip, their version of a French Dip. 

Burnt Ends BBQ Mac and Cheese at Rockslide Brewery.
Bonnie’s dish at the Rockslide Brewery was BBQ burnt ends atop mac and cheese… It was quite tasty.

We tried several different beers, all of which were tasty and refreshing. Non-beer drinkers will even find a nice variety of wine and mixed drinks. 

Overall, we certainly recommend Rockslide Brewery for dinner and drinks. We felt OK eating in, though is was a bit more crowded than I initially had hoped for. The tall-backed booths made up for that, though. If you prefer to get food to go, you can do that, too.

Check out our tips for road trips during a pandemic.

Final Thoughts on Colorado National Monument

Colorado National Monument is, in some ways, a nice little hidden gem of a park. Though, with its location right off the interstate, it really isn’t all that hidden! It’s not a big park and there isn’t a ton to do – you can certainly enjoy the highlights of the park in a couple hours. There are some absolutely fantastic views, though. Most parks with views this great are much farther off the beaten path.

Colorado National Monument.
Independence Monument from the Grand View overlook.

If you are visiting Colorado National Monument in the winter, keep your itinerary flexible. The area does get quite a bit of winter weather and the scenic drive could be closed temporarily while the park works to clear the roads. Generally, though, the park is open in the weather without too many restrictions.  

For those with a full day or more, you will have plenty of time to drive Rim Rock Drive and do a few hikes. Even if you only have a couple of hours, though, we encourage you to at least drive through the park and enjoy the fantastic views.

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