Back in the ‘80s, there was a world-class cycling race in Colorado called the Coors International Bicycle Classic, and one of the favorite stages of the race for many of the competitors was found just outside Grand Junction. The route was called ‘Tour of the Moon,’ and passed through the majestic pillars of red rock and massive stones poised on needle-like precipices found in the Colorado National Monument.
While no longer used for competition (though there is a Tour of the Moon Grand Cycling Classic held here each year), Colorado National Monument remains one of the most otherworldly experiences on two wheels, as long as you don’t mind working for the celestial views.
"It’s a moonscape," says Rondo Buecheler of Rapid Creek Cycles, who rode here multiple times per week when he lived at the base of the Monument in Fruita.
"The best time to do it is in the morning, starting at around 7 a.m. It’s super peaceful. You see bighorn sheep, snake, deer—all kinds of wildlife. You’ve got your shadows in the morning and evening, views of the Bookcliffs and Grand Mesa. It’s spectacular," Buecheler says.
The 23-mile Rim Rock Drive stretches from one end of the Monument to the other, and you can start in either Grand Junction or Fruita. Best suited for fit cyclists with some climbing experience (or at least those up for a challenge), the ride involves about 2,300 feet of climbing. From the Grand Junction side, the climb is a little tougher (over about four miles), whereas the climb is a bit more gradual (over six miles) from the Fruita side. Most cyclists complete the loop by finishing the ride along the Colorado Riverfront, a paved path linking Fruita and Grand Junction.
"The bike path is gorgeous and flat as a pancake, which is nice after the climbing and descending up over the Monument. The hardcore guys ride over the monument to get back. Tourists might have somebody pick them up at the other end, depending on how much mileage they’re looking to do," says Chris Brown of Brown Cycles.
The complete loop is 33 miles, including the stint on the riverfront path, and downtown Grand Junction is a popular starting and ending point. As for travel time, plan on about four hours, allowing time to stop and soak up the planetoid panoramas, of course.
"When you’re on a bike, you can easily stop at every viewpoint, whereas in a car, you might not want to stop for all of them," Buecheler says. “Some people get intimidated by the climbing. It’s not a hard climb, so you should enjoy the peace of it. We need to slow down and look around. It’s a must when you’re riding the Monument.”
The viewpoints open across a series of deep canyons to sandstone and granite rock formations that resemble castles, animals, planets and trippy, massive shapes. Throughout the ride, expect an overwhelming feeling of awe at how nature could possibly create such structures. All are aptly named—Devils Kitchen, for example, with its bulbous towers and tables, does indeed look like a place where an unearthly being might prepare a gourmet meal. Kissing Couple embodies an unmistakable intimacy between cartoonish figures that you cannot help but stare at, and Pipe Organ is primed for a concert starring some twisted giant. Independence Rock, a towering pillar standing all alone amid the surrounding red and green canyon backdrop, is a hypnotic sight, especially on the Fourth of July.
"On the weekends you can see people climbing up it. You’re right across from them. On the Fourth of July, there’s a big group putting a flag on top," Buecheler says.
Just make sure you don’t let the magic of the Monument scenery distract you while riding. Be mindful of the road, and pull over if you want to take a picture. Vehicle traffic is typically light and pleasantly spaced out, but make a point to stay to the right for passing cars and RVs.
And above all—brace yourself for an unforgettable daytime lunar experience.
Tips for Riding the Monument
Wear sunscreen and bring plenty of water and food. The only place with water inside the Monument is the Ranger Station, which is about six miles up from the Fruita side (you’ll still need your own water bottle, though). There are no restaurants or food sources.
Bring a driver’s license and some cash for the entrance fee (it’s currently $5 for cyclists).
Bring a headlight and taillight to make sure you are visible in the tunnels
Ride single file and stay to the right at all times.
Brake when you go downhill. There are some surprise hairpin turns that can sneak up on you. As one glance down the 1,000-foot red walls will attest, the stakes are high in some places for those going too fast.
Stop at every viewpoint. The rock formations are one-of-a-kind, and each one is at least worth a stop—if not 20 postcard-worthy photographs.
Originally written for Grand Junction Visitor & Convention Bureau.