Easily overlooked in one’s survey of the natural wonders of Colorado is the Colorado National Monument. There’s a lot of competition for one’s attention: four national parks, 54 mountain peaks above 14,000 feet in elevation, splendid vistas, vast plains, and even a few towns and cities worth exploring. Through the middle of it all, Interstate Highway 70 drives a nearly straight east-west line, compelling the traveler to, well, travel faster, farther, and just keep going. But along I-70 at the far western edge of Colorado, near the Utah border, one finds some spectacular natural scenery worth seeing. We were following the course of the Colorado River west, downstream. Steep gorges had given way to a wide, flat valley edged with tall bluffs and mesas. We considered stopping for the night in Grand Junction, the biggest city in the area. But our plan for the next day was to see the Colorado National Monument, then head east and south toward Montrose and the Black Canyon. We determined we’d rather start at the west end of the Monument, then head toward Montrose (the road through the park doesn’t loop — if you go in from one side, you have to come out the other, or turn around). That put us in the smaller town of Fruita (FROO-tuh), which announces itself quite dramatically from an elevator visible from I-70 (click on photos for larger image). Although the big dino attraction lies a few miles to the west, in Utah, at Dinosaur National Monument, Fruita has plenty of saurian connections, too. If you’ve ever seen the big Apatosaurus in the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, it was found in 1900 at a place now named Dinosaur Hill. Stopping at Dinosaur Hill, you find a few displays explaining the history (and prehistory) of the place, and some nifty benches cast in concrete to resemble Apatosaurus thigh bones. Cool. The town celebrates dinosaurs not only on the elevator, but with a Tyrannosaurus statue in the center of a traffic circle and, of course, there’s always plenty of roadside artwork all across America: As all travelers know, if you’re curious, you’ll find interesting things everywhere, but we had to give short shrift to Fruita in order to explore Colorado National Monument. We had great fortune here, because we arrived in town early enough to visit a portion of the park at dusk, and also to start out at first light for a drive through the entire park. Photographically, we were in great shape for wonderful light on the fascinating rock formations. The park is the eroded edge of the Uncompahgre Uplift, and forms the south side of the Colorado valley here. Below is an evening view that shows the relationship of the Monument to the valley, looking northward: The drive through the park, Rim Rock Drive, climbs up to and then follows the edge of the bluffs for 23 miles, with excellent views of steep canyons, eroded hoodoos and arid high country landscape.
One of the appealing things about this lesser-known park is the great flexibility one has in visiting. Rim Rock Drive has plenty of spots at which to stop to catch the views, access to casual hiking trails to explore the edges of the canyon. Avid hikers can venture out into the park to explore it more fully on a great system of trails, but be prepared for arid country hiking. The park is easily accessible from the interstate, so if your primary mission is to zoom across Colorado, you can consider jumping off at either Fruita or Grand Junction to get a brief look at some stunning scenery of the west, without a major detour. You can just cruise part of Rim Rock Drive, or strap on the hiking shoes and load up the water bottles for some backcountry hiking.
One of the joys of travel, especially in wild lands, is being prepared to merge into the world around you. Whether you spend many hours penetrating a canyon or a mountain path, or merely step off the side of the road to let the landscape fill your view, something is waiting there. In a desert place like the Monument, it’s quiet, and the light falls on the rocks and chaparral in a distinctive way. Each stone has been shaped for centuries by sun, water and wind. You may hear birds in the juniper branches; you may catch sight of mule deer or mountain goats, as we were fortunate enough to do.
Even if there’s no wildlife in sight, and if you just see another canyon, another river, another mountain; you never see “nothing.” If you saw nothing, perhaps you were looking with just your eyes, and not your imagination. Another day under western skies.
© Brad Nixon 2012, 2016