Getting Outside: Family Hiking On the Colorado National Monument

My niece was visiting last week from the Denver area. She is 8 years old, full of energy and loves to be outdoors. So do I. So on Saturday, despite the threat of rain, my mom and I took her hiking on the Colorado National Monument. Here is our report from the Devil's Kitchen Trail.

1. Lots of Prickly Pear Blossoms. As the mother of boys, I am used to spotting lizards, oohing and ahhing over cool rocks and recognizing unique shapes and uses for twigs and sticks. My niece pointed out the varying colors of the cactus blooms….and spotted lizards. Sticks and rocks, not so much.

2. Plenty of Room to Run. And run she did. She ran, she balanced, she climbed and she skipped. An open trail, a pleasant day and nothing to do but enjoy being alive in the splendor of nature.

3. Time to Practice Trail Boss Skills. My niece is a second child, the second daughter to boot. We let her choose the trail, lead the way, read the signs and set the pace. We pointed out the cairns marking the trail and she became our official cairn-spotter. She was our trail boss.

While hiking with her, I was reminded of an article I recently read entitled "Leave No Child Inside." Concerned about the trend of more and more kids spending their summers indoors with TV and computers, a consortium of outdoor agencies and groups in the Chicago area are urging families to turn off the technology and get outside. Stating what should be obvious, one of the organizers put it thus: "(Children) are excited to be outdoors."

Yes, I can vouch for that. No matter where you live, children are excited to be outdoors. After nine months of school, some time in the sunshine, lying in the grass, hiking on a trail or chasing butterflies is exactly what our kids need.

When You Go…..

2011 is a great year to get out and visit the Colorado National Monument, which is celebrating its 100th Anniversary as a unit of the National Park System. Comprised of 32 square miles of breathtaking red rock canyons and monoliths in Western Colorado, CNM has miles and miles of hiking trail on established and backcountry routes.  

The Monument (as it is known locally) also offers a really good junior ranger program for kids 12 and under. Stop by the visitor center before you hit the trail for a nature activity book and more information.

On Saturday, we hiked the Devil's Kitchen Trail which is perfect for those with short legs, less time, or just as an introduction to the other, longer trails found within the park. 1.5 miles long, it begins on sandy, clearly marked trail and after about 1/2-mile transitions to steps cut into the sandstone and slickrock.

My niece spotted a bird of prey in this formation. Can you?

Climbing and switchbacking across the sandstone slickrock, the trail offers enough adventure to keep kids engaged and terminates in the Devil's Kitchen, a sandstone "room" several hundred feet above the valley below. With rocks to climb and ledges to peer over, kids can keep themselves busy in the Kitchen for hours. In the spring, gnats can be a problem if you stop moving, so we spent only about 15 minutes, resting and exploring the alcove.

I'm not a climber, but I know people who are, and many of them fell in love with the sport in the Colorado National Monument. Each year on the 4th of July, Mesa County Search and Rescue leads a guided climb up Independence Monument for newbies and experienced climbers alike. High atop the sandstone spire, an American flag is raised.

Photo Courtesy
Photo Courtesy Sally Bellacqua,

Camping is available at the Saddlehorn Campground, along the upper rim of the canyons within the pinyon and juniper forest. The Visitors Center, with its brand-new interpretive displays, is just a few minutes walk. There are no hookups, but there are flush toilets and running water in the bathrooms, which in my opinion, changes the experience from camping to glamping. Sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Finally, if you've ever wondered why some National Park sites are called Parks and some are called Monuments, here is your answer. Parks require the approval of Congress. Monuments do not.

In 1911, with sentiment in Congress running against conservation, the Colorado delegation didn't think they had the votes to create a national park.  So, in May 1911, President Taft preserved this glorious slice of canyon country on the edge of the Colorado Plateau with the stroke of his pen.

My mom and my niece prove that hiking is fun for all ages!

Park or Monument, the name doesn't matter. Colorado National Monument is worth a visit. Whether for a 1.5 mile family hike to a fanciful "kitchen" or to ascend Independence Monument, get out there. Leave no child indoors….and for that matter, no adult either.


Kristen Lummis lives in Western Colorado where the red rocks meet the powder. She blogs about family skiing, travel and outdoor adventure at

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