Last week I had the chance to revisit one of Colorado’s less touristy gems - Colorado National Monument. Located just west of Grand Junction and south of Fruita, this national park sits high on the Colorado Plateau.
The park's main road, Rim Rock Road, winds over 22 miles as it makes its way around the rims of several canyons. Colorado National Monument came into existence on May 24, 1911, primarily because of the efforts of John Otto. He worked tirelessly to make his beloved canyons accessible to everyone, and spent his days building trails leading into the canyons. After the US government officially established the land as Colorado National Monument, Otto worked for 16 more years as the park's first manager while living in a tent and earning one dollar per day.
As I drove the length of Rim Rock Road more than several times over the week, I couldn’t help but imagine the difficult and painstaking efforts it must have taken to tame this wild place.
Despite the heat of June and July, temperatures in the higher elevations of the canyons cool off in the evenings, and since my work takes place around sunrise or sunset, shooting at these times was really enjoyable. The colors of the sky did not disappoint either, as pinks and blues often painted the sky.
A while back, I bought a book by a Colorado photographer discussing his favorite places to shoot. With a section on Colorado National Monument, I figured the cheap price might give me some ideas I would otherwise have overlooked. As it turns out, we apparently have very different ideas on when to shoot. I almost always prefer to shoot towards the sun at sunrise and sunset. This affords the opportunity to capture a starburst at the moment the sun rises over or falls below the horizon. The colors of the sky are also much more vibrant when shooting towards the sun. Please keep in mind that for sunrise I’ll start shooting about 30 minutes before the sun makes an appearance; at sunset I’ll shoot for the 30 minutes from sunset until dark. when the sun is full on in view, I'm done. Anyway, the suggestions made by this photographer were the opposite of what I like. Fortunately, I had done my research using detailed Google maps, the Photographer’s Ephemeris (shows where the sun and moon rise and set each day), and a detailed park map to become familiar with the hiking trails.
So reversing the information in the aforementioned book, I found this park to be best shot at sunrise. One place for an early morning visit is the iconic Independence Monument in the northern portion of Rim Rock Road. This is the classic view that appears on postcards and chamber of commerce flyers.
The Coke Ovens is another place worthy of a morning stop. A trail takes you as far down into the canyon as you want to hike, but remember you have to hike back, too! The morning light seems to make the ovens glow in warm orange light.
Near the Coke Ovens is Artists Point. This vantage point provides an overview that takes in sweeping vistas of Monument Canyon.
A couple of my favorite locations include Ute Canyon View (a marked stop not to be confused with Upper Ute Canyon Overlook, and Monument Canyon View (an overlook and stop, but there are also trails to walk down for better and even more impressive views of Monument Canyon.
Monument Canyon is again best shot at sunrise in my opinion. The monolith is that rise from the canyon floor reflect the orange sunlight, and if clouds are present the morning sky can add to the rugged beauty of the landscape.
The interpretive trail at Ute Canyon View is unique because both sunrise and sunsets both offer places to capture a starburst. I’d recommend exploring beforehand to find what fits you best. The rim of the canyon offers a landscape where two canyons, Ute Canyon and Monument Canyon, flow together, forming a confluence of two deep ravines.i visited this location for both a sunrise and sunset shoot and appreciated each equally.
A few trails lead into Monument Canyon. The views along these thin trails mekes for great landscape shots, and a wide angle lense will really be helpful. For example, I used two lenses, primarily, that covered 11mm to 35mm. I sprinkled in the use of a 24mm-105mm as well as a 400mm, but wide anlges are the way to go.
While out and about in the early morning hours, I saw several forms of wildlife, including rabbits, lizards, bighorn sheep, and even, I think, a bobcat.
In the afternoons, with the western slope temperatures reaching 108 one afternoon, my wife and I escaped to Palisade to enjoy an afternoon of wine tasting. Our favorite was the Meadery of the Rockies. We’ll never claim to have the most refined wine tastes, but we did like the fruity and sweeter wines (we compared one of the desert wines to our favorite sweet wine from Italy's Cinque Terre region -sciacchetra. The folks running this homey and honey winery were laid back, kid-friendly, patient, and helpful. We’ll be back, for sure!
Now, I’m already planning on returning to this area for more exploration of this amazing and relatively unknown Colorado gem.
In the meantime, safe travels, everyone.