5 miles roundtrip
Why we love it:
Sandstone spires, slickrock, and sunshine galore—need we say more?
When to go:
Any time, although it’s best to hike early or late on hot summer days
Pre-hike buzz:
Located just a few miles east of the trailhead, the Monument Village Coffee Shop features locally roasted coffee, tempting pastries, and hearty, post-hike lunches
Outhouse at trailhead
Not allowed on national monument trails

In 1906, when John Otto first visited the beautiful redrock canyons that today comprise Colorado National Monument, he became obsessed with promoting and preserving them. He lived alone in the canyons, laboriously hand-building trails to increase public access and leading endless fundraising and publicity campaigns. His steadfast efforts ultimately paid off in 1911, when President William Taft proclaimed it our state’s first national monument. Otto became the park’s first superintendent, earning the whopping salary of $1 per month.

One legacy of Otto’s handiwork is the Monument Canyon Trail, a beautiful path whose lower 2.5 miles offer nonstop vistas en route to the base of Independence Monument, the national monument’s most famous sandstone tower. From the trailhead, the route heads south, paralleling a fence along the park’s eastern border for about a mile before bending west to enter Monument Canyon. From here, the route steadily gains about 600 feet in elevation, although you barely feel the climb thanks to the well-constructed trail, stunning sandstone cliffs, and fleeting glimpses of nimble bighorn sheep.

About 1.5 miles from the canyon mouth, the trail reaches the base of 450-foot Independence Monument, which Otto became the first person to ascend about a month after Taft’s declaration. A devout patriot, Otto established a tradition of flying the American flag atop the monument on the Fourth of July, a custom that modern rock climbers carry on to this day.

From the monument’s base, there are sweeping views in every direction, including lower Monument Canyon towards the Colorado River and upper Monument Canyon, where a continuation of this trail climbs up to the scenic Rimrock Drive. This loop, however, turns right to return to your car via the slightly rougher, but equally scenic, trail through Wedding Canyon, where Otto married artist Beatrice Farnham in 1911. But Otto’s lifestyle apparently didn’t appeal to his new bride, who split just a few weeks after the ceremony—the ultimate example of love “on the rocks.”

Getting there: From Colorado National Monument’s West Entrance, drive east for 2.1 miles on Highway 340 (Broadway) and turn right at the signed dirt access road that leads to the small trailhead parking area.

Terri Cook
Terri Cook
Terri Cook is an award-winning freelance writer based in Boulder. More of her work can be found at down2earthscience.com.