Gravity-defying boulders, tunnels carved of stone and red-rock canyons within a canyon define this sheer-walled landscape of Colorado National Monument, situated between Fruita and Grand Junction. The monument’s 32 square miles of quiet, wild country have an otherworldly feel — so much so, in fact, road-bikers nicknamed its Rim Rock Drive “Tour of the Moon.”
Driving along the drive’s 23 miles and stopping at 19 scenic overlooks, visitors can check off a list of wind- and water-sculpted rock formations with shape-inspired names like Window Rock, Pipe Organ, Kissing Couple, Praying Hands and Sentinel Spire. It can be a bit of hide-and-seek to find the best angle and light for a frame-worthy shot of the massive monoliths.
As you traverse the drive, you’ll see bikers looking to add the monument’s challenging climbs to their cycling trophies, campers emerging from backcountry hideaways and binocular-clad hikers who’ve spotted desert bighorn sheep, mule deer, desert cottontails, collared lizards and the many birds who call the area home.
2011 marked the monument’s 100th anniversary, which was celebrated with special programs and recognition of its esoteric first ranger, John Otto. This man, who in 1907 wrote “I came here last year and found these canyons, and they felt like the heart of the world to me,” carved the monument’s earliest trails and encouraged the citizens of Grand Junction to lobby Congress to designate the area as National Park land.
At 450 feet, Independence Monument is the canyon’s tallest freestanding formation and its most iconic landmark. There are several ways to experience it: Drive to Rim Rock’s Independence Monument View pullout; follow the easy, one-mile round-trip Otto’s Trail to another dramatic overlook; or make the 12-mile round-trip hike to its base. True magic emerges each Fourth of July when park rangers lead a group of experienced climbers to its pinnacle, where they unfurl a billowy American flag.