Monument Canyon
excerpts from the book
Incredible Backcountry Trails 
by David Day

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Incredible Backcountry Trails
  • access info for 120 trailheads
  • 90 colorful trail maps
  • 305 full color photographs
  • loads of hiking tips
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    Distance: 5.7 miles
        (plus 10.6 miles by car)

    Walking time:  3 hours 

    : 1,450 ft. loss
       Monument Canyon Trailhead (start): 6,150 ft.
       base of Independence Monument: 5,300 ft.
       Lower Monument Canyon Trailhead: 4,700 ft.

    Trail: The trail is well marked and well maintained.

    Season: Spring, summer, fall. The trail is very hot in the summer and there is no water, so be sure to carry plenty. The roads are open throughout the year, but the upper part of the trail is frequently covered with snow during the winter months.

    Vicinity: Colorado National Monument, near Grand Junction

    Monument CanyonMonument Canyon


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    The Monument Canyon Trail is one of many trails that were built in the early 1900s by John Otto, a humble, soft-spoken, some would say eccentric man who once lived in what is now Colorado National Monument. Otto was a recluse who preferred to live alone, often seeming to enjoy the company of his horse more than any human being. Yet in spite of his quaint lifestyle his activism and his passion for the land eventually brought him widespread fame and recognition. Today John Otto is fondly remembered as the founder of Colorado National Monument, and we should be eternally grateful for what he gave us. Had it not been for Otto’s efforts it is doubtful that the ruggedly beautiful Colorado National Monument would still retain the unspoiled natural grandeur it possessed at the turn of the century.

    Otto first saw the redrock canyons south of the Grand Valley 1906. The following year he wrote "I came here last year and found these canyons, and they felt like the heart of the world to me. I’m going to stay…and promote this place." Stay he did, and for the next four years he undertook a one-man campaign to have the area set aside as a national park. He wrote letters to the local newspapers, he organized fund raising activities, he wrote letters to government officials in Washington, and he single-handedly built miles of tortuous trails through the canyons so that others could appreciate their beauty. Otto’s enthusiasm was contagious. Soon others began to join him in his effort, and the politicians in Washington were deluged with letters and petitions supporting his proposal. Finally on May 24, 1911, President Taft signed a proclamation that made Colorado National Monument a reality, and Otto’s dream was realized. Fittingly, John Otto was given the job of caretaker of the monument, a job held for 16 years until he retired in 1927.

    From the trailhead on Rimrock Road the trail immediately begins descending downward through the smooth slickrock of the Entrada Sandstone Formation into a small side canyon of Monument Canyon. It winds through a series of short switchbacks for 0.2 mile before reaching a trail junction at the bottom of the Entrada. From there a short side trail leaves on the right for the Coke Ovens formation. The Coke Ovens are the four large dome-shaped mounds of Wingate Sandstone you can see on the south side of the side canyon. They are called the Coke Ovens because they remind some people of the large round ovens once used to prepare charcoal. They are very picturesque, particularly in the late afternoon when the sun is in the west. The trail to the Coke Ovens is an easy walk, about 0.3 miles one way, ending at an overlook point west of the first dome.

    From the Coke Ovens trail junction the route to Monument Canyon continues downward, passing from the Entrada slickrock into a jumbled mixture of dark red shale and sandstone. This geologic strata, called the Kayenta Sandstone, is only a hundred or so feet thick, and beyond that the trail enters the Wingate Sandstone. The Wingate is the most prominent geologic formation in Colorado National Monument. It is about four hundred feet thick and tends to erode into sheer vertical cliffs, often fractured with long, vertical cracks. Most of the interesting landmarks in Monument Canyon have been sculpted from the Wingate Sandstone.

    In order to get below the Wingate cliffs the trail soon turns right and heads toward an old landslide that long ago created a feasible route down. Deer also often use this route to get into Monument Canyon, and you are likely to see their tracks along this section of the trail. Once the path reaches the bottom of the Wingate cliffs it begins a long, slow descent to the bottom of the canyon, and then stays at about the same elevation for most of the remainder of the hike. The route meanders along the base of the cliffs on the west side of the canyon, first in an easterly direction and then in a northerly direction, for the next three miles.

    This section of the hike is particularly scenic. The route takes you past a number of interesting spires and thumbs that have eroded away from the sandstone cliffs into unlikely shapes. The most notable of these formations is a monolith called the "Kissing Couple". It is a 300-foot-high needle of sandstone that has a vertical split near the top separating it into two seemingly intertwined columns, like two giant lovers locked in a timeless embrace. The Kissing Couple is situated 2.2 miles from the trailhead; its base is just a hundred yards west of the trail.

    The cliffs of Monument Canyon are also a favorite hangout for several species soaring birds, and they are a delight to watch as they glide effortlessly overhead. There are significant numbers of turkey vultures, golden eagles, several species of hawks, and even a few peregrine falcons within the monument boundaries, and if you watch the cliffs as you walk you should be able to see at least a dozen of these magnificent birds. All day long they circle lazily along the rim, taking advantage of the updrafts along the cliffs to hold them aloft as they search for food.

    One mile from the Kissing Couple the trail veers eastward to pass by Independence Monument, a huge, isolated monolith that rises 450 feet above the valley floor. Independence Monument was named by John Otto, who once celebrated the fourth of July by climbing to the top of the pinnacle and flying an American flag from its crest. Now several hundred rock climbers complete the ascent of Independence Monument every year. The climb is a difficult one with considerable exposure, but experienced climbers can make it to the summit in about two hours. The most common route begins in a fault on the northeast side of the pinnacle. Several pairs of peregrine falcons have also chosen Independence Monument as a nesting area, and for that reason the Park Service occasionally closes the monolith to climbers.

    From Independence Monument the trail continues downhill for another 1.6 miles, picking its way along the north side of Monument Canyon before it finally reaches the canyon’s mouth on the western side of Grand Valley. As you descend you will occasionally see outcroppings of a black metamorphic rock, much different from the sandstone of the upper canyon. This is the basement layer-a Precambrian deposit of gneiss and schist that is 1.2 billion years older than the sedimentary rock just above it! What happened to the geologic layers in between? They must have been completely eroded away before the succeeding strata were deposited.

    The lower trailhead is adjacent to a housing development, and you will probably see many more hikers on this part of the path enjoying the easy walk up to Independence Monument. Unfortunately, when the area was developed in the 1980s the public access to Monument Canyon fell on private property, so the trail had to be lengthened by a half mile and rerouted to a new trailhead. Consequently, the older maps are in error here. When you reach the mouth of the canyon you will see a fence that the Park Service has erected at the monument boundary. The new trail makes an abrupt left turn here and continues along the fence in a northerly direction for another 0.7 mile to the new trailhead and parking area.


    The book includes more text, more photographs, and trail maps.

    If you are interested in a supplemental map of the Monument Canyon Trail
    we recommend:
    Colorado National Monument (Trails Illustrated, map #208)

    Click here for DISCOUNTED MAP ORDERS

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