A lesser-known national monument in western Colorado hosts a stunning slice of quintessential slickrock scenery and a myriad of outdoor activities. Grand Junction, western Colorado’s largest community, is located along Interstate 70 just 30 miles east of the Utah border. Named for its position at the confluence of the state’s two most important rivers, the Gunnison and the Colorado (formerly the Grand), this thriving city of 60,000 straddles two very different worlds: the snow-capped summits of the Colorado Rockies and the American Southwest’s spectacular slickrock scenery.

mist surrounding sandstone in Colorado National Monument

A misty morning in Colorado National Monument. Photo © Terri Cook and Lon Abbott.

Just west of town, the bent sandstone layers of Colorado National Monument soar above the fertile river valleys. The monument is located at the very edge of the Colorado Plateau, the rocky tableland that stretches across the Four Corners region all the way to the Grand Canyon.

Although the region’s red-and-white sandstone layers usually lie flat across this plateau, here by Grand Junction they have been warped into a single, giant, staircase-like fold. Thanks to this bend, Mother Nature has been able to more easily chip away at the relatively soft rock, creating a series of deep canyons carved through the colorful sandstone and down into the darker and much older rocks below.

Colorado National Monument’s extensive trail system covers the ups and downs of this fold. One of the best options is the 5-mile (round trip) route up Monument Canyon, which leads to an impressive sandstone pillar called Independence Monument. The tower was named by John Otto, a pioneer who arrived in the area in 1906. He quickly fell in love with this landscape and began to construct a network of trails through it. The local chamber of commerce soon took notice and began to help him advocate for preserving the area as a national park. His efforts ultimately paid off when President Howard Taft declared this land a national monument in 1911. Otto was appointed as the park’s first ranger—a job for which he earned a grand total of $1 a month.

side view of Desert Bighorn

Keep an eye out for desert bighorn while exploring Colorado National Monument. Photo © Terri Cook and Lon Abbott.

Two shorter recommended hikes within the monument are the Canyon Rim Trail (1 mile round trip) and the evocatively named Devils Kitchen Trail (1.5 miles round trip), both of which begin along the monument’s spectacular Rim Rock Drive. The paved road, which can be cycled or driven in either direction, ascends the giant sandstone fold and passes plenty of gorgeous viewpoints along its crest before descending back down into the Grand Valley.

During your slickrock sojourn, be sure to leave enough time to sample the local fruit and wine. Although the valley is best known for its luscious peaches, cherries, and other fruit, its orchards are being slowly replaced by vineyards in the up-and-coming Grand Valley American Viticulture Area. The area now boasts more than 20 wineries, which pair up with local fruit stands and other attractions to create the Palisade Fruit & Wine Byway.

sunset over the vineyards of Grand Junction

Evening light highlighting the cliffs above one of the Grand Junction area’s vineyards. Photo © Terri Cook and Lon Abbott.

Carlson Vineyards is great spot to sample the local bounty. One of the state’s oldest wineries, Carlson is noteworthy for its “Tyrannosaurus Red” as well as wines made from other fermented fruits, including a refreshing peach wine. Equally delicious options include Whitewater Hill Vineyards & Winery, best known for its full-bodied reds, and Two Rivers Winery, which is conveniently located at the base of the national monument.

Other locales in and around Grand Junction offer even more hiking options, as well as whitewater rafting, rock climbing, angling, and stellar mountain biking, including the classic 140-mile Kokopelli Trail, which ends in Moab, Utah. No matter which direction you head from Grand Junction, you’re guaranteed to be basking in some of the Southwest’s most stunning high desert scenery.