Independence Monument was once part of a continuous wall of sandstone dividing two canyons southwest of Grand Junction in Colorado National Monument.

Photo by Tom Ross

Independence Monument was once part of a continuous wall of sandstone dividing two canyons southwest of Grand Junction in Colorado National Monument.

Tom Ross: Find a quick canyon fix

Colorado National Monument an ideal destination

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Tom Ross

Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by Tom here.

You don't have to leave Colorado to go hiking in Utah.

We found a patch of slick rock country right outside Fruita on Sunday and saved a minimum of 250 miles of driving in the process.

We were intent on our first hike of the season into a desert canyon. But Colorado National Monument also would be an ideal destination for fit road cyclists who don't fear a monster climb.

I can't tell you how many times we've buzzed right by the Monument on the way to destinations in Utah with names like Moab, Blanding, Escalante, Hanksville, Torrey and Kanab. Think of Colorado National Monument as mini Moab.

And although the little piece of National Park Service preserve within sight of Grand Junction won't replace those other destinations, the Monument will give you a decent canyon hiking fix when you only have 30 hours to spare. With 50 hours of free time, you could easily make it a combination hiking/mountain biking adventure by splitting your time at the nearby trail network in Fruita - the Fat Tire Festival is April 23 to 26 this year.

We knew from consulting the National Weather Service Web page that we weren't going to benefit from the full effect of springtime on the Colorado Plateau last weekend, and we packed accordingly. When we awoke in Grand Junction on Sunday morning to leaden skies and light rain showers, we were prepared.

The cold precipitation let up by late morning, and the day grew progressively milder. We spotted the scarlet leaves of Indian paintbrush cowering under sagebrush in the relative protection of Monument Canyon shortly after noon, and by 3:30 p.m., the sun was painting the Coke Ovens and the sandstone pillar of Independence Monument with warm light.

Colorado National Monument offers hiking routes varying in length from a half mile to eight miles. But if you are an intermediate hiker, your options are to start at the top and hike a long way down, or start at the bottom and hike a long way up.

We consulted the staff in the visitors center and opted to begin our trek near the top of Rim Rock Drive above 6,000 feet elevation. Dropping into Monument Canyon, we gave up 600 feet of elevation before arriving at the Kissing Couple rock formation and reversed our trip to reclaim that same 600 feet of switchbacks.

It was just about right for making the transition from flabby skiing muscles to flabby hiking muscles.

Alternately, Liberty Cap Trail is ideal for people who don't want all of the elevation gain - it leads seven miles through piñon and juniper forest to a rock formation of the same name. However, the first mile of Liberty Cap also serves as a connector to one of the most unusual trails in the monument, the 3.3-mile long Corkscrew Trail. Just imagine switchbacks steep enough to earn the name.

A day of hiking in the monument will never replace a full week of exploration in Utah. However, when you can't afford to take a full week away from work and you need a momentary escape from endless winter in the 'Boat, it could save your sanity.

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