Colorado National Monument – June 18th – 21st, 2020

We have been to Colorado National Monument a couple times before, but it always seemed like we rushed through it in a day and didn’t really have the time to fully enjoy it. This time around we camped inside the park for three nights and really got to know the area.

We drove from Paonia State Park to Colorado National Monument by heading south on Colorado 133 to Hotchkiss, then west on Colorado 92 to Delta, then west on US 50 to Grand Junction and Colorado National Monument. Colorado 133 is part of the West Elk Loop Scenic Byway. We passed through Somerset on the way to Hotchkiss. Somerset is a historic mining camp. It looked like shacks for houses with residents that were scraping by. We passed two or three coal mine operations. While we were searching for gas in Paonia, we drove down Grand Avenue. Paonia is a cute, little town and has a lovely main street. The area is known for its local fruits and vegetables. As we made our way over to US 50, the landscape changed from forest to dry, sage brush desert.

We came into Colorado National Monument at the East Entrance, stopping at the Devil’s Kitchen Picnic Area for lunch. The picnic shelter, built in 1941, is a large, long shelter that makes an arc facing an interesting rocky cliff. Lots of bluebirds were flying around and talking to each other or us, we’re not sure which. Amazingly, they did not try to approach our picnic table or that of another couple that showed up to eat.

After lunch we drove the Rim Rock Drive road all the way over to the campground. On the initial climb, there is a tunnel. Just before we entered the tunnel, there was a group of big horn sheep scampering away from the road. We stopped at each overlook along the way, except we missed Ute Canyon View. At the Upper Ute Canyon overlook, there is a perfect echo. There is an informational sign about it at the railing to the left of the first one you see. We tried out the echo a few times and all we could think of to say was “hello!”. You would think we could be a little more creative than that.

At Artist’s Point, be sure not to miss the small trail at the left end of the railing which takes you down to a lower overlook. At Independence Monument View, there was a couple of men in a vintage motorcycle with a sidecar. They let RB take a picture of them with their vintage helmets and their little dog. We enjoyed every one of the overlooks as they were all stunning.

We got to our campsite at about 3:30 pm. A lizard greeted us at our site. After a dinner of gazpacho soup, we went for a walk. We took the Window Rock Nature Trail and also followed Canyon Rim Trail over to the Visitor’s Center before taking the road back to our campsite. The setting sun gave a beautiful glow to the canyon walls. As we were returning to the campground, we could see that the large rock formation next to it looked like a saddle horn. We’re assuming that is where the Saddlehorn Campground got its name. We had a good cell signal, so we watched a couple of YouTube videos before going to bed.

We broke camp at 9 am the next morning. On the way to the trailhead, we passed a group of big horn sheep along the road. A little later, Left Buddy (LB) hit the brakes to avoid hitting a couple of quail crossing the road. We started the Ute Canyon Trail around 10 am. We made it to the bottom of the canyon in less than hour. Right Buddy (RB) was surprised how lush it was at the bottom with tall trees, willows, grasses and reeds. We walked down the trail a short ways. It was rather overgrown with the grasses and reeds. We were expecting there to be a stream. Among the grasses and reeds, it looked like there might be a small trickle of a stream a few inches wide just a few feet from the trail, but it was so overgrown it was hard to tell how much water, if any, was in it. We were chasing lizards down the trail as we walked. They eventually headed off into the reeds. We didn't go very far down the trail before heading back up. The Ute Canyon Trail continues down the canyon for a total of 11 miles one way to another trailhead down in Grand Junction off of Wildwood Dr. We did not want to hike that far and just wanted to get down into the canyon to get a different perspective since the main road and overlooks in the national monument are up on the rim.

We parked at the Devil’s Kitchen Picnic Area parking lot and hiked the Devil’s Kitchen Trail. It is a great trail for kids. The trail started out pretty flat and smooth for the first half, then was a climb up slick rock to the room formed by towering rock spires. There were lots of rocks for kids to climb around on. We saw several families with kids hiking this trail. It looked like a pretty popular trail. RB climbed up some rocks in hopes of a great picture through a hole between the rocks. The picture was OK, but she was more excited about filming a lizard with its grasshopper prey on her climb up. It was impressive to be among those giant rocks, yet peaceful to sit in their shade and relax for a few minutes. The trail was a little hard to follow on the slick rock. There were a few rock cairns to guide you, but it was pretty obvious what the destination was, you just had to figure out the best way to get there. We didn’t bring our trekking poles on this hike, but they might have been helpful on the slick rock.

We had lunch at the picnic shelter again. RB talked with the ranger who was cleaning the shelter. Visitation to the park has been down this year despite the fact that they were one of the first national parks to open after the lockdown. Business has been picking up lately. Loops A and B in the campground were booked full for this weekend for the first time. Loop C is first come, first serve, so we’re guessing it was closed because Loops A and B were not full yet on Thursday.

After lunch we hiked Serpents Trail. This trail follows what was originally the entrance road to the park from 1921 to 1950. It is much narrower and windier than the current road. Back when it was in service, cars did not have fuel injectors, so many cars had to go up the road backwards to keep the fuel flowing into the engine. We could not imagine driving a car up this road, let alone backwards! However, it made for a great cruising hiking trail since it was relatively smooth and wide. It ends at the current road, just above the end of the tunnel. Amazingly, there was a woman who looked like the grandmother pushing a child in a stroller with large rubber wheels up the trail with what looked like the mother of the child walking alongside. Now that’s a workout! It also looked like some locals might be using the trail as a workout, as they were going at a good pace and not stopping to check out the views. One person was jogging up the trail. The panoramic views alternated between looking out over Grand Junction and out over the canyon in the park as the trail serpentined back and forth up the incline.

There was a rock formation visible from the Serpents Trail that reminded RB of a chocolate kiss every time she looked at it. She had forgotten to pack the Dove dark chocolates on this trip, so we believe she was in chocolate withdrawal. Her thoughts along the trail kept returning to chocolate and how good a piece of chocolate would taste. She had visions of plucking that chocolate kiss off the top of the cliff and eating it. OK, back to reality.

On our drive back, we stopped at the Ute Canyon overlook that we missed the day before. In addition to the overlook, there was a short nature trail with informational signs explaining the local plants and animals, such as piñon pine, serviceberry, Mormon tea, piñon jays, bighorn sheep, and ringtails.

Our last hike for the day was Coke Ovens Trail. Having visited the coke ovens in Redstone just a few days earlier, we could see the resemblance in the rock formation (see our Paonia State Park post). As we started down the trail, there was a big horn sheep on the switchbacks about 30 yards below us. As we stopped to take a picture, he looked up at us and started up the slope towards us. Just as we were starting to panic, worrying he was going to charge us and not knowing exactly what to do, he made a right hand turn away from us. We don't know if we were too close for his comfort, we had overstayed our welcome, or he just wanted to head that direction. It definitely was a reminder that we need to respect wild animals and give them their space. The trail takes you out to an overlook at the end of the Coke Ovens rock formation so you can peer over the tops of the Coke Ovens. A nice little hike.

We counted all the hikes for the day as hike #35 in our 52 Hike Challenge, a total of 8.4 miles, 1876 foot elevation gain, in four hours and 57 minutes. It was 5 pm by the time we got back to our campsite. We had breakfast sausage with peppers, onions, and brown rice. It was a little dry, so we added several spoonfuls of salsa which made it much better.

We spent the following day in Fruita. We drove down to the Welcome Center and emptied our gray tanks at the dump station since the Saddlehorn Campground does not have a dump station. We headed over to Fruita Paleo Area off of Kings View Road. There is a half mile loop with interpretive signs. It mainly talks about the fossils that had been removed from the area. There are two active quarries there, but you really can’t see them. No fossils except for one mold fossil. But we did see a colorful, collared lizard. Then we went back to the Welcome Center, bought lunch from Qdobe nearby, and ate under a picnic shelter at the Welcome Center.

After buying some supplies from City Market, including RB's Dove dark chocolates, we headed over to Dinosaur Hill. Dinosaur Hill is on Colorado 340 and is a one mile loop with interpretive signs. They list it as a strenuous hike, but it is not that bad, just a little rocky with some elevation change. You can see the tunnel opening where Riggs and his crew excavated the apatosaurus fossil. Again, no fossils other than one mold fossil and a replica of a fossil. There are good views from the top of the hill, though.

We went back to the Welcome Center for a third time to have ice cream from Enstrom Candies and enjoyed it at a picnic shelter at the Welcome Center, again. Then we were off to Riggs Hill. Riggs Hill was rather disappointing. There were no interpretive signs, only numbered posts which apparently corresponded with a brochure that you could pick up at the museum, which we did not have. The trail was much rougher than Dinosaur Hill, especially the spur that led up to the top of the hill and the final descent back to the parking lot. It was steep with loose gravel. We just had tennis shoes on and no trekking poles, so we took it slowly and carefully planted our feet, trying not to slip. There is another plaque indicating where Riggs crew excavated a brachiosaurus. Both are in the museum in Chicago. We guess, if you want to see fossils, you need to visit the Dinosaur Journey Museum in Fruita.

We headed back to the campground where we enjoyed a cold Coke and had chicken salad sandwiches for dinner. After working and a quick walk around the campground loops, we were ready for bed. The views were the best from the campsites on the far side of Loop B and at the ends of both Loops A & B, but they were not the most level of sites. Pick your poison. We also noticed that the bathrooms in the campground and at the picnic shelter at Devil’s Kitchen (the only bathrooms we visited in the park), both had the main doors to the bathrooms propped open. Perhaps this was to increase the air flow within the bathrooms and reduce the risk of spreading COVID. Each campsite has a charcoal grill. There was a good cell signal. RB was able to upload a video fairly quickly.

A couple of lizards scurried around at our feet while we enjoyed our breakfast on the final morning in Colorado National Monument. We parked at the Visitor Center and hiked Alcove Trail. It was only one mile round trip. There were numbered signposts, but no brochures in the box at the trailhead. We did not go to the Visitor Center to ask for one. The first half of the trail is wheelchair accessible. The trail ends in a dead end. It felt like the temperature dropped a couple of degrees back in the alcove. There were several alcoves in the cliff side that looked like they would be great places to take shelter in to get away from rain, wind or the sun.

We drove to the last short trail we had not done yet: Otto’s Trail. It was another one mile round trip down to a point with an overlook. It was close enough to Independence Monument rock formation that we could see two people rock climbing it. There was a sign posted that showed the route to get to the top. The tradition of planting a flag on top every fourth of July started in 1911 by John Otto, the same person who pursued protection for the area as a national park.

On the drive out of the park, we originally planned on stopping at all of the four remaining overlooks that we had not yet visited. However, most of them looked like views out over Fruita instead of the canyons which did not seem as interesting to us, so we only stopped at the Balanced Rock overlook. It was not that exciting either or we were just getting tired of looking at rock formations.

Since we didn’t see any fossils the day before, we drove the twenty minutes west on I-70 to the Trail Through Time. There is an active quarry there as well, but there wasn’t much to see at the quarry since they called off the dig for this summer. We did hike the 1.5 mile loop trail which did have three fossils to see. We also saw another colorful collared lizard. Along the trail there are a handful of benches with shade structures over them. We had been at this trail before, quite a few years ago when our son was pretty young and we don’t remember there being any shade structures back then. We remember the trail being very hot, in the 100’s if we remember correctly, along with a whining little boy. There were a couple of small trees along the trail, with circles of cow patties around them. Thank goodness they chose the trees to seek shade instead of the shade structures!

For lunch we headed back to the Welcome Center in Fruita (where else!) where we ate our picnic lunch with the hopes of having Enstrom’s ice cream for dessert. However, we discovered that they were closed on Sunday! A quick Google search revealed that there was another Enstrom Candies store in Grand Junction that was open. Naturally we headed over there so LB could have his vanilla shake on Father’s Day.

We would not really recommend the dinosaur trails in Fruita (Fruita Paleo Area, Dinosaur Hill, Riggs Hill, and Trail Through Time). However, if you want to do one, go to Trail Through Time and skip the others. We normally do not like indoor museums, but if it is a hot summer day, especially if you have small children in your group, go to the Dinosaur Journey Museum and skip the dinosaur trails. The kids will be much happier. On the other hand, we would definitely recommend Colorado National Monument. Whether you have three hours or three days to enjoy Colorado National Monument, the beautiful canyons are definitely worth the time you have to explore them.

Check out our related video: Colorado National Monument

(RB)