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Just minutes west of Grand Junction, this relatively undiscovered national monument is a delight, offering a colorful maze of steep-walled canyons filled with an array of naturally sculpted spires, pinnacles, and other impressive sandstone rock formations. Easy to get to and easy to see, in many ways it's a miniature Grand Canyon, only without the crowds. You can see much of the monument from your car on the 23-mile Rim Rock Drive, but there are ample opportunities to hike, ride, and cross-country-ski the monument's many trails as well. Bighorn sheep, mountain lions, golden eagles, mule deer, and lizards are among the monument's residents. The monument ranges in elevation from 4,700 feet to 7,028 feet.

Carved by water and wind over millions of years, Colorado National Monument encompasses 32 square miles of red-rock canyons and sandstone monoliths, more than 1,000 feet above the Colorado River. A combination of upward lifts and erosion caused the chaos of formations here. Each layer visible in the striations of the canyon walls marks a time in the land's history. Fossils permit scientists to date these rocks back through the Mesozoic era of 225 million to 65 million years ago, and the Precambrian formation dates back 1.67 billion years.

The east entrance is only 5 miles west of Grand Junction, off Monument Road, but the best way to explore the monument is to follow the signs off I-70 from Fruita to the west entrance, 15 miles west of Grand Junction. It's here that Rim Rock Drive, built during the Great Depression, begins. Snaking up dramatic Fruita Canyon, it offers panoramic views of fanciful and bizarre natural stone monuments, as well as the cliffs and mesas beyond. At 4 miles, it reaches the national monument headquarters and visitor center. Exhibits on geology and history and an interactive video program introduce the park, and rangers can help you plan your visit. Guided walks and campfire programs are offered during the summer.

Rim Rock Drive -- open to bicycles as well as motor vehicles -- offers access to hiking trails varying in length from 400 yards to 8.5 miles. Many of the short, easy trails lead to spectacular canyon overlooks, while the longer backcountry trails head out across the mesas or down into the canyons. Strange formations such as Window Rock, the massive rounded Coke Ovens, the boulder-strewn Devils Kitchen, and the free-standing Independence Monument -- all of which can be viewed from the road -- are easily reached by foot.

If you're looking for an easy walk, try the 1-mile (round-trip) Canyon Rim Trail, which follows the edge of a cliff to spectacular views of the colorful rock formations in Wedding Canyon. Allow about an hour. Another shorter walk -- the Window Rock Trail -- also affords views of Wedding Canyon. Allow a half-hour for the .25-mile loop. Those who want to get down into the monument, rather than viewing it from above, should tackle one of the backcountry trails. The relatively difficult 12-mile round-trip Monument Canyon Trail drops 600 feet from the plateau into the canyon, through many of the monument's more dramatic rock formations, such as the aptly named Kissing Couple. The canyon is home to rattlesnakes and scorpions, so watch where you put your feet and hands. Also, it's hot and dry down there, so be sure to carry plenty of water. The Black Ridge Trail, the national monument's highest, offers panoramic views of the countryside that stretch to the canyons of Utah. Allow about 6 hours for the rugged 11-mile round-trip hike, and again, carry plenty of water.

Winter visitors may want to take their skis along. Among your best choices here is Liberty Cap Trail, which meanders across gently sloping Monument Mesa through a piñon-juniper forest and sagebrush flatlands. The trail is 14 miles round-trip, but cross-country skiers may want to turn back before the last 1.5 miles, which drop sharply into the Grand Valley.

While the monument is worth visiting at any time of year, the best time to go is fall, when the air is crisp but not cold, the cottonwood trees turn a brilliant gold, and the summer crowds have departed. Those visiting in May and June should carry insect repellent to combat the clouds of gnats that invade at this time.

The monument's Saddlehorn Campground, located in a piñon-juniper forest near the visitor center, has 80 sites, some shady, and restrooms but no showers or RV hookups. The cost is $10 per night. Like most areas administered by the National Park Service, pets must be leashed and are not allowed on trails or in the backcountry.

The national monument is open year-round. The day-use fee is $7 per vehicle or $4 per person for cyclists and pedestrians. The visitor center is open daily from 8am to 6pm in summer and 9am to 5pm the rest of the year. To obtain a brochure and other information, contact Colorado National Monument, Fruita, CO 81521 (tel. 970/858-3617; www.nps.gov/colm). Those who want more in-depth information can order topographic maps, books, and other materials from the nonprofit Colorado National Monument Association at the monument's address and phone number above, or online at www.coloradonma.org.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.