Otto’s Trail (Colorado National Monument, CO)

Otto’s Trail, Colorado National Monument, September 2020

Otto’s Trail is a short and easy hike ending at a scenic viewpoint overlooking Wedding Canyon and Monument Canyon in Colorado National Monument, an excellent park on the edge of the Uncompahgre Plateau overlooking Grand Junction, Colorado. The fine stroll descends gradually from Rim Rock Drive, working out to the tip of a narrow finger on the canyon rim, where hikers get excellent views of Window Rock, Sentinel Spire, Pipe Organ, and the famous Independence Monument, perhaps the park’s most iconic free-standing sandstone monolith. Visiting at sunrise or sunset is sure to be spectacular, and multiple trail waysides offer historical detail on early exploration efforts of the area.

Map of Otto’s Trail, Colorado National Monument

The hike

Otto’s Trail begins at a small but marked turnoff along Rim Rock Drive, about one mile south of the Saddlehorn Visitor Center in Colorado National Monument’s northern reaches. Parking is relatively sparse—fitting perhaps no more than 8-10 cars—so arriving on a quieter day may be wise. The wide, dirt track leaving from the pull-off is named for John Otto, who was instrumental in the park’s creation in 1911 and later served as the park’s official custodian. Many of the sandstone formations in the park bear the names given by Mr. Otto, including Independence Monument and Liberty Cap, and Otto was responsible for building many of the park’s hiking trails.

Otto’s Trail

With Grand Junction and the Book Cliffs off on the horizon, Otto’s Trail bears north and east, gradually shedding elevation as it passes amid pinyon pines, junipers, and sagebrush. The finger traversed by the trail juts abruptly into Wedding Canyon, situated at the bottom of steep, near-vertical drops to the left and right. As the trail proceeds, the rim steadily narrows, revealing drop-offs to the canyon below. After 3/10 mile, the route ends at an overlook, surrounded by a protective fence, which reveals excellent, near-360 panoramic views.

Off to the right (south), hikers get one of the park’s best views of Independence Monument, a formation that rises more than 450 feet from the valley floor and was first summited by none other than John Otto himself in 1911. Using a ladder created out of pipes, Otto conquered the monument with nary a rope, leaving behind a route that remains popular with climbers today. Otto himself was married down at the base of the monolith—hence the name Wedding Canyon—although the marriage last only a few weeks, as his wife Beatrice “found the reality of John’s life to be far from her romantic ideal.”

Independence Monument and Monument Canyon from Otto’s Trail

Beyond Independence Monument to the south is the rest of Monument Canyon, flanked by the high rim on the right, with several prominent spires—including the so-called “Kissing Couple” formation—visible in the distance. Monument Mesa, which stretches for miles south to Liberty Cap and Ute Canyon, forms the rim off to the left of Monument Canyon.

Looking east, hikers get an up-close view of the Pipe Organ, a towering spire composed of Wingate sandstone and capped with harder rock of the Kayenta formation (which also forms much of the canyon rim). Beyond, Wedding Canyon empties out into Grand Valley, a patchwork of green farms and small towns, with the large town of Grand Junction just out of view to the southeast.

Pipe Organ from Otto’s Trail overlook

Finally, looking north, hikers can see the stubby Sentinel Spire, with the small opening of Window Rock visible just beyond. The rest of Wedding Canyon sprawls out to the west before ending abruptly at the Wingate cliffs below the Saddlehorn Visitor Center. Wayside signs at the overlook offer more detail about the geological and human history of the park.

Once complete, head back the way you came to return to Rim Rock Drive. The entire hike takes around 20-30 minutes to finish.

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