Comanche National Grasslands- Picketwire Canyon

When a person thinks of Colorado the first image that immediately comes to mind is probably the towering mountains, capped in snow, and skiing in the winter.  Or perhaps it is the wildflowers blooming above the timberline around turquoise-blue alpine lakes.  While I’m sure several picturesque images come to mind when someone thinks of Colorado, I think most everyone would agree that the central theme to those thoughts would be the Rocky Mountains. For those of us lucky enough to call Colorado home, we also know that the state contains some awesome beer, fantastic music festivals and, of course, all of the multifarious recreational activities associated with the state.  However, while the mountains, the beer, and all of the rest is great (I certainly love everything aforementioned), they represent only a fraction of what this state has to offer.  There are many, many places in Colorado that most people don’t think about.  Some are hidden treasures known only to locals while others are personal to the individual.  I would like to introduce you to a very remote and forgotten part of Colorado that is close and personal to me.  It is a part of Colorado that is just as timeless as the mountains- and it is just as harsh.  It is a place that does not pine for attention.  It is a stoic place, a literal landscape locked in time that seemingly never moves yet slowly marches through time shifting and playing various roles.  It’s a place where the people still work hard- very hard- and where the wind never gives a reprieve.  It is a place of fantastic thunderstorms, towering dust devils and, in good years, botanical seascapes consisting of incredible shapes and colors.  It is a place where someone can get lost in plain sight and where you can hear the male drumming of the lesser prairie chicken on early spring mornings.  It is the Eastern Plains.  The land of the Comanche people and the location of the Comanche National Grasslands.

The view from my front porch, just looking East of town.

Colorado has been a stepping stone for me in various ways.  My skill and expression with music has grown considerably in my time here.  My health wasn’t the greatest when I moved here but Colorado offered many recreational activities that I was interested in partaking in.  So in many ways, Colorado was a great motivation to lose a lot of weight and helped make fitness a passion of mine.   The first place I landed when I came to Colorado was the Comanche National Grasslands.  I was based out of Springfield, Colorado in Baca County, the most Southeastern county in the state.  I was living closer to Amarillo than I was to Denver and the area was easily the most remote place I have ever lived.  Now, when I say remote, I mean it was remote. My house was seven miles outside of the small town of Springfield.  It was an old USDA soil research station build in the wake of the dust bowl era.  I could see the town seven miles away and in the evenings I could see the Spanish Peaks about 150 miles away as the crow flies.  There was literally nothing out there except for the grass, the tumbleweeds, and the persistent, never-ending wind.  I would be lying if I told you this was the best USFS assignment I had taken.  Truth be told, I was a little nervous- a little scared even- to know that I would basically be living in isolation for the next six months.  But I was in Colorado!  And I was a step closer to the mountains and the music and the craft beer!  I felt like it was a good move and I knew it was temporary.  I didn’t expect to come back the next season.  I didn’t expect the loneliness to seep into me, either.  I didn’t expect the grasslands, of all places, to grow on me.


Ruts left by wagon trains

The Great Plains, which the Comanche is a part of (specifically known as the “high plains”), is a very interesting part of the country.  I think a lot of the interest for me personally comes from the lack of attention the area receives.  The Great Plains is very large, more than a third of the size of the contiguous United States, yet most people only regard it as an area that has to be crossed in order to reach the East or West coast.  Yet the area has a rich history.  Geologically, most of the area (including all of the high plains) was at different times desert, swamps, shallow seas, and temperate plains.  This has created an incredible fossil record in the area and the many canyons and buttes scattered about Eastern Colorado really offer an archive of information to anyone willing to spend some time there.  The Pawnee and Comanche people lived in this area as we

The Los Animas courthouse is much bigger than the town it occupies. A testament to the glory days.

ll, probably taking advantage of the massive herds of wild game that made the plains their home.  There are pictographs and other traces of human history spanning back to an estimated 12,000 years ago!  The Spanish came through several times over the years and many places still retain the names that the Spanish gave them.  During manifest destiny, sod farmers, pioneers, fur trappers, and eventually, sheep and cattle farmers all tried their hands in making the land their own.  Little towns like Elkhart and Los Animas were at one time bustling communities thriving off of the trade brought in by the Santa Fe trail.  You can still see the wagon tracks to this day etched across the landscape.  Right after the roaring twenties, as a result to huge increases in farming practices and a terrible drought, the high plains became the very heart of the dust bowl where storms were so large that the dust reached parts of the East Coast and automobiles had to be grounded from the static in the air by dragging chains from their frames.

Sunflowers growing in Baca County

Now, presently, the grasslands live a mostly agricultural existence.  Prairie dog towns dot the landscape as do the ranging cattle.  Large circular tracts of land are slowly irrigated from wells tapping water out of the Ogallala Aquifer and much of the nations corn and sunflower products come from this region.  Checker-boarded across the landscape are square tracts of public lands, state and federal, where most people can recreate by engaging in great bird hunting and game hunting.  There are also several canyons located on the Comanche Grasslands with the Picketwire and Picture Canyons being at the forefront.  These canyons, I believe, should make it on anyone’s Colorado bucket list.  They offer great opportunities in backpacking, hiking, horseback riding, bird watching, hunting, and a host of other activities.  You can find the largest set of fossilized dinosaur footprints in North America here as well as historic ranch homes and even a very old Spanish mission.  Also, if you are wanting to find an outdoor destination that is out-of-the-way and remote with few people, this is the place to go.

Blooming prickly pear along a canyon rim, looking back. The grasslands are as beautiful as they are harsh.

Specifically in this post I would like to talk about Picket Wire Canyon.  This canyon was carved over a long period of time by the Purgatoire River.  The river got its name from French fur trappers that named it after some Spanish explorers killed by Native Americans years before.  The name Purgatoire means Purgatory in French.  The canyon itself was named Purgatoire as well.  However, when American settlers reached the area later they had a hard time pronouncing the word “Purgatoire” and the name evolved into “Picket Wire”. This canyon is a very interesting area.  Along with all of the cool Native American rock art that can be found in the area, there is also a historic ranch, Spanish mission, fossilized dinosaur foot prints, and loads of wildlife to be seen in the canyon.  The best part is that you can access and see all of these sights right off of a single trail that winds down the canyon from a camping area.

The trail is called the Picket Wire Canyon Trail.  It originates from the Withers Canyon Trailhead which is also a nice and basic established campground.  The campground itself is very scenic and is tucked away into a Juniper forest on the edge of the canyon.  You can set up camp and sit on the edge of the Picket Wire Canyon for some spectacular star gazing and thunderstorm watching.  This place is super remote and when I spent two weeks camping on the rim for some biological work a few years ago, I only saw a handful of other souls.  The trailhead is also located at the campground and the trail immediately drops down the rim onto to the canyon bottom below.  Once you’re on the canyon bottom the trail doesn’t gain or lose any significant elevation.  From the trailhead you are about a three mile hike to the Spanish mission, about five miles from the dinosaur footprints, and a little over eight miles to the historic Rourke Ranch site.  Overall the trail is over 17 miles long there-and-back.  Most people turn around at the dinosaur track site because it is an interesting destination and makes for a very doable 11.5 miles round trip.  While I would definitely recommend this canyon to anyone year around for camping on the rim, I don’t think I would recommend hiking the canyon later than May or earlier than September.  The canyon has brutally high temperatures in the summer time and even though the trail follows the Purgatoire river most of the way, the water isn’t very appealing for drinking.  The fall, winter, and spring are just the best times to hike the canyon and makes for a much more enjoyable trip.  If you still want to get out and see the sights, though, you can contact the Comanche National Grasslands district office located in La Junta to book an auto tour which will take you into the canyon in your vehicle with a guide.

A tombstone in the graveyard of the mission.

If you get the opportunity to hike the trail you’ll want an early start to beat the heat.  When you reach the trailhead from the campground, you’ll immediately drop into the canyon.  The canyon isn’t that deep, only a couple hundred feet, but it’s a fun little mini scramble to the bottom.  Once there you’ll be following a trail which becomes an old jeep road.  About 3 miles down the canyon you’ll come across an old mission.  This Spanish mission was built by evangelicals in the late 1800s and the graveyard is still there.  It is okay to walk around the old structure but be careful- it is old.

Once past the mission you will keep following the river towards the track site.  You will have to cross the river at some point but I find it pretty fun.  You will know you’re at the track site once you see a vault toilet and some interpretive signs.  The track site is really cool.  There are over 1500 prints that extend over a quarter mile.  The river uncovered the fossilized footprints a long time ago.  It turns out that the area used to be a large lake with swampy shores.  Most of the tracks are caused by apatosaurs that walked in herds along the banks of the lakes.  Following the apatosaurus prints closely is some allosaurus tracks- the allosaurus was one of the top predators in the Jurassic period.  These tracks are also important because they show us behavior of the dinosaurs.  They show us that herbivores and predators back then acted a lot like they do now.

An allosaurus footprint

Even though I said this is a good turnaround spot, if you decide to walk a few miles further you’ll come across the historic Rourke Ranch.  The Rourke family moved into the canyon in the late 1800s and started out as a 160 acre ranch.  In a relatively short amount of time the ranch grew into a 50,000 acre cattle empire that was operated by the Rourke’s into the 1970’s.  It has been restored and is on the National Register of Historic Places.  There are many interpretive signs here as well as vault toilets.

Overall, the Grasslands is a magical and hauntingly beautiful place if you give it a chance.  It is very rugged.  It can be very hot and uncomfortable, but just like any other place it has a story to tell and a form of beauty to share.  There has been many an evening that I spent on my porch with coworkers with nothing to look at but the blazing red thunderheads 30 miles away putting on a light show that would blow your mind.  Or early mornings watching all kinds of birds chirp and squabble over resources.  I have spent meditative moments just staring across a seemingly infinite landscape and I have tried to imagine the Comanche artist as he or she was painting their art on the canyon walls.  Sometimes being lonesome is a good thing.  For an unforgettable and peaceful, introspective trip into a very little known or appreciated piece of Colorado, look no further than the Comanche National Grasslands and Picket Wire Canyon.


6 thoughts on “Comanche National Grasslands- Picketwire Canyon

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  4. Enjoyed this, Skyler. Your descriptions are so good I could visualize them in my mind. I’m a little jealous of your adventures. Keep writing!!!

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