Hike Summit County: Colorado hiking trails at Colorado National Monument and Rattlesnake Canyon
Colorado National Monument provides hiking essentials to those looking for an adventure
August 18, 2016
The lowlands can offer a variety of Colorado hiking trails that are the perfect escape during the spring and fall seasons. Desert temperatures are warmer than the snow-capped tundra on mountain summits, but not too hot for a refreshing hike. To the west of Summit County, Colorado National Monument is a favorite destination. The area offers several good hiking places, many which make great day hikes among the eroded red rock plateaus, with views of exposed spires and natural bridges in the surrounding canyons.
Colorado National Monument's main access, Rim Rock Road, winds its way to the top of a plateau about 600 feet above the valley below. From the top of the plateau, many of the great rock formations in the Monument are within view. The Civilian Conservation Corps is responsible for the development of the drainage, road and trail improvements inside the Monument. There are a dozen day-hike trails to enjoy, with trailheads marked at pullouts along Rim Rock Road.
Monument Valley Trail
Planning for adventure on a day that promised a high of 80 degrees, I packed eight liters of frozen water before heading into the Monument. I recalled getting dehydrated while fighting a wildland fire outside of nearby Palisade during a few 104-degree days 10 years ago, when eight liters of water was insufficient. Four liters of drinking water per day is not excessive, even on a relatively cool day of hiking in the deserts of Colorado.
After camping at Saddlehorn Campground for the night, I descended on the Monument Valley Trail with two liters of cold water. An easy six-mile hike descending 600 feet below the plateau, the Monument Valley Trail passes the Coke Ovens, Kissing Couple and Independence Monument formations.
As I wandered this Colorado hiking trail, I passed dozens of lizards scampering into crevices of rock formations beside the trail. Cacti were in bloom and sparse vegetation was sporting green leaves despite the dry heat. The stunted trees and shrubs did not provide shade from the scorching sun. No water trickled down any of the dry washes through which the trail passed.
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At the end of a day hiking in the solitude of Monument Canyon, I was grateful for the efforts of a man named John Otto, who fought for the preservation of these evolving canyons. In 1911, President William Howard Taft used the power of presidential proclamation to designate 20,500 acres in Western Colorado for management by the Department of Interior, what would soon become the Colorado National Monument.
A new day sent me on a more spectacular adventure to the McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area, immediately west of the Colorado National Monument. Few people are aware that the largest concentration of natural bridges in Colorado is located in a remote desert canyon near the Utah border. The dramatic arch formations of Rattlesnake Canyon challenge those of Arches National Park in Utah for the prize of most beautiful natural architecture, making this a must-visit place hiking place in Colorado.
In order to reach Rattlesnake Canyon, I turned west onto Kingsview Estates road a mile south of Fruita and followed the road for six miles to the Pollock Bench Trailhead. The Bureau of Land Management has improved this gravel road for low-clearance vehicles and added generous parking designed for horse trailers or motorhomes.
The hike to Rattlesnake Canyon from Pollock Bench Trailhead is a rigorous 5.5 miles, including terrain requiring no fear of heights and good handgrip. The arches along this Colorado hiking trail cover an additional five miles of loops through the formations, with more than a thousand feet of vertical profile. I planned for a nine-hour hike through Pollock Canyon by packing a warm fleece, three liters of chilled ice water, fruit and nuts, two headlamps, my GPS and a map.
From the trailhead, I proceeded southwest on the plateau with canyon cliffs on either side. I followed rock cairns that wound along slick rock shelves, and then dipped down a steep scramble to the floor of Pollock Canyon. Since rain had fallen a few days earlier, a stream of silt-laden, toxic selenium-contaminated water trickled north through the bottom of the canyon.
After crossing the tiny brook, I continued south up the canyon and along a low rock shelf. Then, I ascended on the nearly vertical switchbacks back to the plateau and followed the ancient path of Ute Indians winding westward to Rattlesnake Canyon.
Small lizards scrambled to safety under the tail's rocky border as I passed. Barrel cacti and red paintbrush lining the path bloomed in the shade of stunted junipers. Giant human shapes carved from rock walls stared down at me before I passed under a small window arch and ascended to an overlook of Rattlesnake Canyon.
I explored the Upper Arch Trail first, allowing me to gain the perspective from the top of several arches. Then, I descended more than two miles along the edge of the canyon to observe the grand gathering of arches. One arch seems like it was formed by the penetration of a large corkscrew. Another is a broad span with a circular hole carved into its center. Others are wide bridges with smooth, curved walls descending beneath their sanded arches. The scenic views of these majestic arches make this one of the best hikes in Colorado. I paused to quench my thirst and eat my lunch at the base of the farthest arch before heading back to the trailhead as the scorching afternoon sun dipped toward the horizon.
Getting to Colorado National Monument
Colorado National Monument is located at the western boundary of Colorado, immediately south of Grand Junction and Fruita. It’s easy to reach these two Colorado hiking trails; From Interstate 70 westbound, take the Fruita exit a few miles west of Grand Junction and proceed south on Colorado Highway 340 to the west entrance of the monument area.
Several developed campgrounds exist near the Colorado River and the entrance to Colorado National Monument. Within the park itself, Saddlehorn Campground offers tent sites and pull-throughs for vehicles up to 40 feet in length, along with flush toilets and drinking water taps. Monument RV Resort, less than a mile south of Fruita near the entrance to the park, offers full hook-ups, Wi-Fi, pool, hot tub, showers and laundry. James M. Robb State Park offers campsites with capacity to support vehicles 40 feet long and 22 full hook-ups near the shore of the Colorado River. Dispersed camping is available on the BLM lands west of the Colorado National Monument.
Kim Fenske is a former wilderness ranger and the author of "Hiking Colorado: Holy Cross Wilderness Area" and "Greatest Hikes in Central Colorado: Summit and Eagle Counties," available from Amazon Kindle books.
Originally published in the April 30, 2016 issue of the Summit Daily News and regularly vetted for accuracy.
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