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5280’s Essential Guide To Colorado National Monument

The oft-overlooked sanctuary delivers isolation, desert mystique, and some of the West’s prettiest scenery. Here's your playbook for exploring the Centennial State gem.

One of many prime photo stops on the hike through Monument Canyon. Photo by Jason J. Hatfield

Most national parks are famous for what they contain. Mesa Verde has its cliff dwellings, Yellowstone prizes its geysers, and Glacier possesses glaciers (for now). The beauty of Colorado National Monument (CNM), on the other hand, lies in what’s missing: Its cliffs, monoliths, and impossibly shaped stone formations are the remnants of massive rock walls that wind, weather, and time have eroded away.

It’s also, blissfully, missing crowds. The 32 square miles of high desert draw just 375,000 visitors per year, a million fewer people than nearby Arches National Park in Utah. Perhaps that’s because Colorado National Monument isn’t a national park, but rather a monument, a mostly semantic distinction largely based on who does the designating: Typically, Congress creates parks and presidents make monuments.

Certainly, though, the fact that CNM is relatively deserted isn’t due to a lack of spectacular scenery. For those who’ve come to know it well, it’s a sanctuary holding all the neck-craning desert allure of any tourist-choked national park. From the top of this roughly 2,500-foot-tall plateau, the Book Cliffs provide a pastel horizon line that matches any ocean equivalent. At the bottom of its canyons, sagebrush, juniper, and piñon pine flash Everglade-worthy green hues. And to the north and east, Fruita and Grand Junction promise quaintness, community, and culinary delights for trail-weary, hungry hikers and cyclists.

Although COVID-19 has forced changes at the monument, prospective visitors can take solace in knowing that the primordial landscape isn’t going anywhere. Once safer-at-home orders (still in place at press time) lift, Denverites can drive four-plus hours to savor this dramatic desertscape secure in the knowledge that it will still deliver delicately balanced rocks, brazen bighorn sheep, and the smell of sage in the morning. After all, beauty—like love—grows in absentia.

Solitude-O-Meter: Look for this rating to get a sense for the crowds you can expect on each monumental adventure.

Closed for COVID-19: While the monument’s gates were open at press time, its visitors center, campgrounds, and some comfort stations weren’t. Check for updates.


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