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Fall’s the Perfect Time to See Colorado’s ‘Mini Grand Canyon’

In northwestern Colorado, there’s a stunning national monument studded with startling rock formations. Some call it a “mini Grand Canyon.” And lots of folks don’t even know it’s there. 

The scenic 15,000 acres are called the Colorado National Monument. There are no statues, but there are desert bighorns, eagles, collared lizards, even mountain lions and coyotes. Wildflowers are abundant here, along with yucca, mountain mahogany, pinons and junipers.

Ridge-edge drives and deep canyons dotted with sandstone sentinels make the monument a lovely spot to visit most any time of the year. It’s a great thing to add to your “to-do” list when visiting the Western slope, maybe for a fall wine festival.

Located just outside Grand Junction, there are two entrances, 23 miles apart. Visitors can start in Grand Junction and work their way up to the most spectacular scenery gradually, or start in Fruita and get the best stuff first. 

Starting in Fruita, follow the signs to the monument entrance. Rising from the floor of the Grand Valley, the road is steep and winding. Lots of pull-outs keep gawkers from having to drive and look at the same time. At the entrance gate, visitors get a map so as not to miss such things as the Balanced rock, a 600-ton boulder perched right on top of a stone pedestal.

A Little History

BE SURE TO STOP AT THE VISITOR CENTER... with a small but rich collection of artifacts and information that put the park into perspective. 

John Otto, sometimes affectionately called "the crazed hermit of the canyon," came here in 1907 to work on the water pipeline. He discovered the red-rock canyons of the monument and fell in love with the landscape. He moved there, living alone and far from anyone else, and quickly became a legendary eccentric. 

"I came here . . . and found these canyons, and they felt like the heart of the world to me," Otto wrote. "I'm going to stay . . . and promote this place, because it should be a national park." 

While living alone in these desolate canyons, he instigated a campaign to achieve that goal. He finally succeeded, in 1911, in having it named a national monument. As a reward, he was named the caretaker of the 32-square-mile site, which he did until 1927, for $1 a month. 

Long before Otto's time, the monument was visited by the Ute Indians, and remnants of their visits still can be found in the back country.

Right at the visitor center is an easy hiking trail especially well-suited to families with children, older visitors or non-hikers. It's an easy one-mile, 30-45 minute walk, with a self-guiding brochure that tells visitors what they're seeing. 

Park trails vary from short and easy to difficult all-day treks.  

The best time of year to visit the park is fall (mid-September through October).

"The bugs are gone, the traffic is lighter, the weather's great, and the rabbit brush is blooming with bright yellow flowers," one ranger says.  “It’s just perfect.”