Rim Rock Drive and the Coke Ovens (Colorado Nat’l Monument)

May 6, 2020, Grand Junction

I spent a day at Colorado National Monument while moving across the country in May, 2020. There are three basic ways to get from New York to San Francisco, with I-80 being the fastest. But I chose I-70 because crossing through the heart of the Rockies and Southern Utah seemed like a way cooler experience.

No surprise: the continental divide and Utah’s red rock vistas did not disappoint! But Western Colorado was the real sleeper hit of this road trip. Glenwood Canyon was perhaps the coolest part of the entire drive coast-to-coast. Grand Junction was a surprisingly cute town with some great eats. And Colorado National Monument was just plain stunning.

Morning sun lights up No Thoroughfare Canyon near the Colorado National Monument's Eastern entrance.
Morning sun lights up No Thoroughfare Canyon near the Colorado National Monument’s Eastern entrance.

Not a National Park

I have no idea what a “national monument” is supposed to be. To the best of my knowledge, it just means “the National Park Service runs this place, it’s pretty nice, but it’s not a national park.” And with this nominal demotion, these gorgeous sites go from must-visit family vacations to road trip afterthoughts. In fact, I only stopped at Colorado National Monument due to the COVID-19 epidemic. The early days of this crisis shut down the half-dozen or so national parks that were on my route west (Rocky Mountain, Arches, Canyonlands, Great Basin, among others).

In retrospect, I am incredibly glad I prioritized this little gem outside Grand Junction. The red canyons and rock formations were a true sight to behold. While there was no jaw-dropping moment of Ansel Adams-level wonder, it remained a great day of hiking and site-seeing. I suspect that Colorado’s status as a “monument” rather than a “park” has everything to do with its proximity to a bunch of other blockbuster parks (and NIMBY-ism, and Congressional pork-barrel shenanigans). This park easily outranks a lot of “real” national parks in my book (Pinnacles, Gateway, and everything East of the Mississippi come to mind).

Independence Rock as seen from Rim Rock Drive in Colorado National Monument.
Independence Rock as seen from Rim Rock Drive in Colorado National Monument.

The monument is home to some great shorter hikes that I tried out on this trip. Most of my wandering took place at the eastern end of the park. These included the Serpent’s Trail, No Thoroughfare Canyon, and the Devil’s Kitchen. They all depart from the same parking area near the Eastern entrance. There are some other great hikes throughout the park. But the main attraction is a scenic joy ride along Rim Rock Drive.

Rim Rock Drive

After these morning hikes, I ducked into my air-conditioned car for a nice leisurely journey along Rim Rock Drive. Like most bits of cool infrastructure in our country, the road was largely built during the Great Depression by various New Deal agencies, including the civilian conservation corps. The idea was to get unemployed, young American men off the streets and back to work.

Rim Rock Drive winds its way up No Thoroughfare Canyon before driving along the upper crest of Colorado National Monument.

The full, present-day roadway did not reach completion until the 1950s. Several men died during a blasting session in which the roof of a rock formation collapsed onto the workers. Being a jobs program in the 30s and 40s, the process looked incredibly labor-intensive and physically demanding. The result was a stunning roadway through the canyons to nowhere in particular.

From the East, the road snakes its way up No Thoroughfare Canyon, ducking into a tunnel before cresting the top of the park’s “rim”. It then winds along the top of various small canyons heading vaguely North and West. Along the way you’ll find various places to stop to soak in the views and snap pictures. It’s an automotive experience more than anything else. I also saw numerous cyclists working up quite a sweat along the roadway.

A massive chunk of canyon wall broke off at some point in the distance past—one of many points of interest along Rim Rock Drive.
A massive chunk of canyon wall broke off at some point in the distance past—one of many points of interest along Rim Rock Drive.

The Coke Ovens

Closer to the western end of the monument sit the “Coke Ovens”. These massive rock formations look vaguely similar to beehive-shaped ovens used to process and purify coal. You can see these giant rock formations clearly and easily from alongside Rim Rock Drive, but there’s also a cool trail that takes you much closer.

The Coke Ovens seen from Rim Rock Drive in Colorado National Monument.
The Coke Ovens seen from Rim Rock Drive in Colorado National Monument.

The trail runs roughly a half mile from the roadway to the top of the ovens, with only modest elevation change. Along the way you can also check out a small tunnel beneath the roadway where workers excavated stone in the depression era.

En route to the Coke Ovens, you’ll find a short tunnel beneath the roadway, where depression-era workers excavated stone for Rim Rock Drive.

The trail leads to a viewing platform with a railing, where you can get a view straight along the axis of the ovens. I sat for a while, enjoying the breeze. Then I noticed a lot of small birds coasting up thermals along the rocks before diving down into the canyon in search of food. They looked like tiny fighter jets.

The Coke Ovens seen from a small viewing platform along their eponymous trail.

Desert Big Horns

This short hike ended for me right around the high heat of mid-afternoon. I was ready for a nap! I got back into the car, cranked up the A/C, and enjoyed the last winding stretch of Rim Rock Drive. Then I passed the closed visitor center and began the rapid descent towards the park’s western entrance.

Halfway down I spotted three desert bighorn sheep negotiating the rock outcroppings. The leader of the bunch spotted me and began to descend towards the roadway. I find it fascinating how animals get nervous around people but always seem fine with cars. One seems way more deadly than the other.

A band of desert big horn sheep negotiate rock outcroppings near Rim Rock Drive.
A band of desert big horn sheep negotiate rock outcroppings near Rim Rock Drive.

Before long the road touched down in the valley, and I was off towards my hotel in Grand Junction for a well-earned nap. It was a long morning exploring Colorado National Monument.

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