Ah, living in western Colorado offers so many recreational opportunities, even in the middle of winter, especially during a winter as mild as 2012.  This afternoon I took advantage of the near 50 degree, sunny day and hiked the Echo Canyon Trail at Colorado National Monument.  To reach this trail, enter through the east entrance of the park and park at the Devil’s Kitchen trailhead. If the tiny little lot on the east side of the road is full, pull into the larger parking lot across the road and up the hill.  Yes, you’ll have to hoof it a little further but with this being the trailhead for five trails, it’s quite likely the small lot will be full on any given day, especially on weekends.  Serpent’s Trail, Devil’s Kitchen, No Thoroughfare Canyon and Old Gorden Trails also originate at this point. 

To hike to Echo Canyon, head to the south from the parking lot, down the Devil’s Kitchen trail.  Soon it splits off, and Old Gordon and Echo Canyon head to the left.  You’ll go down a hill and across a wash, and will then see a sign pointing UP.  You travel up a section of bumpy slickrock for about a half mile.  If you’re middle-of-winter out-of-shape like I was today, this little stretch will definitely wind you.  The park service apparently had to re-route this trail as someone bought the land off to the left and fenced it off. However, they’ve done a brilliant job of outlining the trail with stones so you don’t lose your way on the slickrock.  There are some really nice views up here, and you’ll probably drool over the expensive homes you can see (I know I did).

Looking back to the north from Echo Canyon/Old Gordon Trail

When you see another sign pointing to the right for the Old Gordon Trail, and to the left for Echo Canyon, congratulations! You’ve reached the summit of the ridge.  From what I’ve been able to find out, total elevation gain is around 200-250 feet (but it sure felt like more than that today hauling my camera!)  Follow the trail to the left, where it begins to descend.

Trail junction with Old Gordon

Finally, your lungs will get a break as you descend and get closer to the mouth of Echo Canyon.  You also finally lose sight of civilization and feel like you are on a real hike.

Entering Echo Canyon

You’ll make a turn to the right as you enter the canyon, and soon you’ll be on its floor, following a little stream.  There is lots of vegetation and quite a few cottonwood trees in this area, although of course today it was all brown and dead.  I’ve read that there is a lot of poison ivy in the warm months, so be careful of that.  Fortunately, I didn’t have to worry about it today!  The walls of the canyon soon soar far overhead, glowing red, with streaks of desert varnish down their sides.  Lots of interesting rock formations here as well, especially my favorite – “swiss cheese” rock.  It’s not a very scientific name, but that’s what I call rock peppered with round holes.  There are also quite a few very large boulders strewn about.  It made me look up, trying to figure out where they fell from.  And it always amazes me to see juniper trees growing on top of ledges.

Juniper on ledge

There was one really interesting stretch where you climb out of the wash and up and over a rock ledge.

Rocky ledge in Echo Canyon

The trail is easy to follow, going in and out of the wash.  The canyon is narrow so there’s really no way you can get lost, especially since this canyon is a box canyon.  You know when you’ve reached the end, because there’s absolutely no way out but back the way you came in.  When I reached the end, the canyon walls on my left were reflecting incredible light onto the walls on the right.  Reflected light like this is beautiful but I found it hard to capture with my camera, especially since I didn’t haul my tripod with me. Ironically, tonight in the mail I received my new Gorillapod mini-tripod.  Wish I would have had it yesterday so I could have tested it out today!

Reflected light on cliff walls

Probably the highlight on this trail during the warmer months is the possibility of a fairly good sized waterfall spilling over the notched ledge.  Of course today there simply wasn’t any water flowing here, but I can imagine in early spring when the runoff is coming from Glade Park and above, it is probably a totally different story.  I am definitely coming back in spring to find out!  There are a few nice cottonwood trees that would also look beautiful in the fall with their gold foliage contrasting with the red canyon walls.  You guessed it – that will be yet another trip back for me!  Today what little water was left in the pool was frozen over.

The end of the trail


Frozen pool and stream in Echo Canyon


A close-up of the notch

There were not very many hikers on this trail today (I saw maybe a dozen total) but probably in the warmer months it’s more crowded.  Today, however, I reveled in the peace, solitude and beauty.

Heading out of the canyon

When heading back out of the canyon, unfortunately you have to climb up a shorter but steeper incline.  (Or maybe I’m just really out of shape!)

Up and away

This trail is about a three mile round trip and was a great way to spend an unusually warm February afternoon.  Once into the canyon itself, the hike was beautiful, and in warmer months would offer even more beauty with blooming wildflowers and cacti.  Due to the climbing, I would rate this as a “moderate” hike, but it’s definitely not that physically demanding, and the breathtaking scenery is worth it.  As in all canyons, exercise caution and don’t hike here if there is an incoming storm near or upstream.  There are not many places where you could escape the rushing water in the wash, so use your common sense.