Get there before it’s hot!
Monument Canyon offers splendid views, hike close to home
The seasons changed again last week. Before it happens once more and temperatures hit 100, now might be a good time to race up to Colorado National Monument for a five-mile loop hike between Monument and Wedding Canyons.
Or, if you’re in good shape this early in the hiking season, you could try a little more strenuous 6.3-mile hike all the way up (or down) Monument Canyon.
There are two trail heads for Monument Canyon Trail. You can access the loop trail between Monument and Wedding canyons from either trail head, although it really hooks to the lower trail head.
That trail head is only about nine miles from Fourth and Main streets in GJ, but please don’t everyone go there this morning. It will certainly cause a traffic and parking issue. Spread it out over the next week or two or three, or until the gnats take over and temperatures soar to triple digits.
To reach the lower trail head, take Grand Avenue over the Colorado River bridge, where it magically turns into Colorado Highway 340 (Broadway). Stay on it until you reach the Monument Canyon trail head turnoff. It’s about 8.9 miles from the corner of Fourth and Main to the turnoff, which is located just past (northwest of) the Deer Park subdivision.
The upper trail head is slightly farther, but not much. It’s a scenic 19.5 miles and 35 minutes from Fourth and Main through the east entrance of the monument along Rim Rock Drive. Turn left on Monument Road after you cross the river on Grand Avenue.
The upper trail head is located south of the Coke Ovens Overlook and approximately four miles south of the visitor center.
From the lower trail head, Monument Trail first winds around the Deer Park subdivision along the old buffalo fence before entering the cottonwood-filled mouth of Monument Canyon.
The naked branches of those cottonwoods were sagging mightily for at least a few hours after our April 17 snowstorm, but they’re starting to bud.
The trail 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 Colorado National Monument, Monument Canyon takes hikers down and among 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 itself. It was once part of a massive rock wall that separated Monument Canyon and Wedding Canyon. 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.
It’s obvious the trail is well developed, and from here you have choices. You can continue up the same trail beyond Independence Monument to the upper trail head; retrace your steps back down Monument Trail for 2.5 miles to the parking area along Broadway; or, take the “unimproved” Wedding Canyon Trail back to your vehicle.
To continue up Monument Canyon, 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 final mile to top out on Rim Rock Drive at an elevation of 6,140 feet. The vehicle back in the parking lot is sitting at an elevation of 4,700 feet.
Although it is “unimproved,” the Wedding Canyon Trail is easy to follow from Independence Monument, and it’s the same distance as retracing your steps down Monument Trail.
Wedding Canyon Trail has no handy stair steps on the way down similar to ones along lower Monument Canyon Trail. Nonetheless, if your ankles are strong and you crave a different perspective, try this trail.
Although John Otto, the park’s first caretaker from 1911 to 1927, named many geologic and historic spots here with patriotic names such as Liberty Cap and Columbus Canyon, the park had already been known as the Monument Canyon Area 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.
But let’s not all go there at once. There’s still time before the gnats take over.