My original vacation plan called for me to spend the first half of Day 3 in Colorado National Monument. Instead, I arrived early enough on Day 2 to drive over Rim Rock Drive, the scenic highway that runs along the Monument’s cliffsides, overlooking the Grand Valley, and the farmland in between Grand Junction and Fruita.
As soon as you enter through the west (Fruita) gate, the first few miles of Rim Rock Drive are undoubtedly the most thrilling. The road quickly climbs uphill, skirting the edges of cliffs and squeezing through tunnels. There are numerous great views, all along the way (which you’ll see on the Drivelapse video), but the excellent overlooks begin when you reach the top. Rim Rock Drive is almost always overlooking some incredible scene, like this view of Fruita Canyon, and the road you just climbed.
After a rainy drive across eastern Utah, I was thankful that the sun was out, but my window of photgraphic opportunity was quickly closing, as sunset drew near. I scrambled to find a good overlook, and stopped first at Independence Monument. This sandstone monolith has been a popular challenge for rock climbers, ever since John Otto (the park’s first caretaker) scaled it on July 4, 1911. In the background, you can see Grand Junction, and the Bookcliff Mountains, which includes the unmistakable Mount Garfield on the right. The Bookcliff Mountains are part of the western front of the Rocky Mountains.
Since the sun wasn’t hitting Independence Monument quite as nicely as I would have liked, I quickly searched for another good photo location. I decided to backtrack just slightly, to…
Otto’s Trail is a quick, easy path to hike, and it’s right next to Rim Rock Drive, so there’s really no excuse not to hike it. I parked the car at the side of the road and ran down the trail, hoping to be faster than the earth’s rotation. And I had some success. About halfway out the trail, I found an overlook, and caught the sun still illuminating some of the walls of Wedding Canyon.
At the end of Otto’s Trail, you have a great vantage point for taking in the view of another impressive rock spire.
It seems like you can always count on getting a photo of great depth, when you’re shooting near sunset in Colorado National Monument.
As the shadows filled the canyons, I was happy to see a rainbow appear in the clouds.
I knew I didn’t have enough daylight to do much more sightseeing in Colorado National Monument, but I did manage to drive the entire 23 mile drive. That doesn’t sound like a long distance, but on a road where the speed limit is 25 miles per hour (and the safe speed around numerous curves is often much less), it was quite an accomplishment. By the end of the road, I was quite tired of rounding corners and dipping in and out of canyons. Rim Rock Drive shouldn’t be rushed — in fact, it can’t be. I admit, I wasn’t appreciating it, by the end. I needed to check into a hotel and rest, after a 400+ mile day of driving, much of it on dirt or mountain roads.
[tmt_info =””]After resting up overnight, I considered my options — continue east, or spend more time in Colorado National Monument. I decided not to drive Rim Rock Drive again, partially because I was still weary of all those curves. Another factor: I was hoping to find a good trail to hike in Colorado National Monument, but the truth is, there aren’t many that depart from Rim Rock Drive. (Otto’s Trail, Canyon Rim, and Coke Ovens are short options). There are a couple of much longer trails that take you along the floor of the canyons: Liberty Cap and Monument Canyon Trails would be beautiful, but time-consuming. In the end, I decided my evening drive through Colorado National Monument was enough, so on Day 3 I continued on my way east. [/tmt_info]
[tmt_info =””]In 2005 I visited Colorado National Monument, and stopped at several other overlooks. You can see that visit here.[/tmt_info]
At the start of Day 3, I decided to head east briefly on Interstate 70, then traverse the Grand Mesa Byway on my way to Crested Butte and Gunnison. Just after starting out, I couldn’t resist this photo-opportunity for Grand Junction’s landmark hill, Mount Garfield. Interstate 70 skirts the southern base of Mount Garfield as it makes its entrance to the Rocky Mountains. There’s a place to safely pull off and take a picture, and many people take advantage of it.
[tmt_info =””]Mount Garfield is part of the Bookcliff Mountains, which run along the eastern side of the Grand Valley. They’re especially scenic from Colorado National Monument at sunset.[/tmt_info]
[tmt_info =””]Continue on Interstate 70 to exit 49, which is where CO Rte. 65, the Grand Mesa Scenic Byway, begins.[/tmt_info]
Here’s a time-lapse dash-cam video of the drive over Rimrock Drive, through Colorado National Monument…
… and Grand Junction into Grand Mesa: