In nature, timing is everything. Living in cities and suburbs, it can be easy to take for granted the convenient predictability of shops and activities. Sure, few shops operate 24/7, but most are open for a predictable and reliable set of hours. Nature, however, doesn’t care what’s convenient to you. The best views and breathtaking encounters aren’t necessarily convenient, but there are things you can do to optimize your visit. Colorado National Monument is the kind of geographic and wild place where there is an optimal way to get the most out of a full day in the park.
Dawn Till Dusk
To start with, Colorado National Monument does have a campground in the park boundaries and it is a gem. If you can get a campsite in Saddlehorn campground (which is fairly doable on weekdays and off-season) it’s profoundly worthwhile to spend a couple of nights and allow a full, uninterrupted day to explore the monument. Skip the morning commute by camping in the park and it’s not quite as difficult to start the day before sunrise. And the campground’s location at the northwest section of the park is the best launch point for the day.
Sunrise at Window Rock
Much of the Colorado National Monument faces east. It is a park meant for the sunrise and there are plenty of vista points to watch it. But we recommend watching the first rays of light from window rock. The Window Rock Trail is relatively short and while the footing is a little uneven, the trail is relatively level. From this point, you can see the sunrise over the valley and the first rosy touch of the sun warm the monuments.
It’s quite a show to enjoy, so bring a cup of cocoa and take a seat on one of the many rocks to bask in the first light of the sun.
An Accessible Alternative: For those not up to a hike, Book Cliff View is easily accessed off Saddlehorn Road and even includes plenty of opportunities for seating.
Breakfast in the Campground
After meditating on the sun, it’s time to kick into gear with breakfast. This is going to be an active day, so be sure to have plenty of protein. If you don’t have a campsite, there is also a picnic area along Saddlehorn Road, just after the Book Cliffs View.
Morning Animal Watching
Early mornings are meant for animal watching. The local gangs of bighorn sheep wander through the park with an exquisite sense of confidence. While it isn’t a conventional trail, the saddle horn loop road is an easy primer in the morning for those who spent the night at the campground. If you walk clockwise, prepared to have your breath taken away as the grand monuments come into view. From Books Cliff View, hop onto Canyon Rim Trail to take in the constantly shifting vista as new arrangements of stone are exposed.
If you haven’t already explored the Visitor Center, this is also an excellent opportunity to learn. about the history of the park and its many attractions. Canyon Rim Trail ends at the Visitor Center. We even encountered a herd of goats walking along the trail behind the building.
Late Morning Drive Down Rim Rock Drive
You may wonder why I haven’t mentioned much about the monuments yet. Well, there is a reason. Colorado National Monument runs north to south, with most of the views to the east. This means that many of the scenic vistas are angling into the sun before noon. Much of the monuments will appear in shadow if you start too early. But, by late morning, the sun is high and there is a lot to see along the scenic Rim Rock Drive.
The Rim Rock Drive follows the cliff’s edge from the northwest to the southeast of Colorado National Monument, connecting Fruita to Grand Junction. The drive itself is full of views but it is also worth taking some time to enjoy the vista points and a few short hikes along the road. There’s no need to stop at every pull-out on the route. After all, you will be returning this way later. But there is also little need to hold back either. Most of the iconic monuments are concentrated in the northern section of the park. As you travel south, the monuments dwindle giving way to canyon views and denser plant life. It’s still worth completing the drive. But by the time you reach the southeast corner of the park, it’s time for lunch.
Lunch at Devil’s Kitchen
Devil’s Kitchen is one of the few picnic areas in the park. In an area that can get very hot, the covered picnic area and bathrooms with running water are very welcome. It’s a great opportunity to recharge before making the return trip.
Early Afternoon Drive Up Rim Rock Drive
By the time you had back northwest, there are new vistas to take in. So the return is an opportunity to hit some of the pullouts you may have missed or just meditate on the changing landscape as we drive back to the campground.
Afternoon Free time
We try to allow for some free time most days. Sometimes we have some emails to respond to or we want to catch up on something we missed. Granted, while we are at the park, we take the free time to tool around on our bikes. And, yes, it’s late enough in the day that we do encounter the bighorn sheep again. We are pretty sure it’s the same group as in the morning but this time it is in front of the visitors center instead of behind it.
Evening Sunset From The Campground
Because of the easterly facing nature of the Colorado National Monument, there is a little less to see at sunset. Even so, the Saddlehorn Campground is situated at the edge of a cliff, and the sunset is beautiful to watch as the warm final light of the sun dims over Fruita and the Mountains in the distance.