OUT: Haggerty’s Hikes October 11, 2008


A limited rifle elk hunting season begins in Colorado today, so it’s probably time to hike in the Colorado National Monument, where hunting is not allowed.

Monument Canyon Trail is the “premier hike” in the Colorado National Monument, according to all the literature. That’s one of the greatest things about living over here. We can get onto a great hiking trail in about, oh, 14 minutes from downtown Grand Junction.

There are two trailheads for this trail traversing through one of the most spectacular canyons within the National Monument. To reach the lower trailhead, take Grand Avenue over the Colorado River bridge, where it turns into Colorado Highway 340 (Broadway) about 8.9 miles from the corner of Fourth and Main streets to the Monument Canyon trailhead turnoff, approximately one-half mile northwest of Deer Park subdivision.

If you need a pretty drive to go along with your hike, though, go to the upper trailhead. It’s only 19.5 miles and 35 minutes from Fourth and Main streets through the east entrance of the National Monument along Rim Rock Drive.

The trailhead is south of the Coke Ovens Overlook and approximately four miles south of the Monument Visitor Center. I opted for the lower trailhead the other day. The trail first winds its way around Deer Park subdivision before entering the cottonwood-filled mouth of Monument Canyon. It then snakes upward and beneath “the island,” an incredible rock wall that shapes and turns the northern end of Monument Canyon.

As the premier hike in the National Monument, Monument Canyon gets you down and among the standing monuments that Colorado National Monument is famous for. Many of the park’s major rock sculptures —Independence Monument, Kissing Couple and the Coke Ovens — tower overhead.

The first major structure encountered past “the island” is Independence Monument. It was once part of a massive rock wall that separated Monument and Wedding Canyons. Slowly, as the forces of erosion enlarged these canyons millions of years ago, the dividing wall was narrowed and weakened.

Eventually the wall was breached and parts of it collapsed. Independence Monument survived as a freestanding monolith.

Beyond Independence Monument, hikers are greeted by other startling rock structures, including the Kissing Couple, Cleopatra’s Couch and the Coke Ovens. From there, the trail climbs 500 feet in the last mile to top out on Rim Rock Drive at an elevation of 6,140 feet. The vehicle back in the parking lot was sitting at an elevation of 4,700 feet.

While John Otto, the park’s first caretaker from 1911 to 1927, named many geologic and historic spots within the monument with patriotic names like Liberty Cap, Columbus Canyon and Independence Monument, the park had already been known as the Monument Canyon Area well before Otto arrived.

In 1882, the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad sponsored famous photographer W.H. Jackson to take photos of the Coke Ovens and other massive spires along Monument Canyon Trail to promote this area. A few years ago, another famous photographer, John Fielder completed a coffee table book with historic photos taken by Jackson and later, himself, some of them in Monument Canyon. Fielder returned to the exact same vantage points to stand in the footsteps of Jackson.

These are truly stunning works by two masters of their art.

However spectacular the photographs are, Monument Canyon is even better in person and now is a great time of year to hike along its trail.

In fact, now retired Monument head ranger Ron Young once told me, “it shows quite a bit of intelligence to see people hiking this trail in October instead of the heat of summer at the height of gnat season.”

Not only that, since the first rifle elk hunting season begins today, it’s a much more tranquil hike in the National Monument, where hunting is not allowed, than on, say the Grand Mesa, where hunting will be in full swing this morning.


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