Comanche National Grasslands – Picket Wire Canyon

The choice was either Utah or Southeast Colorado. My wife, Pam, got to choose and she had been to Utah three years ago on spring break, so SE Colorado it was. Again, she was entrusting her trip to the husband; she is easy that way.

The Comanche National Grasslands encompass a huge area. To be exact the grasslands are 440,000 acres or 692 square miles. Much of that is high prairie grasslands where antelope play and tarantulas live and do their own special thing each fall. (I plan to make that trip one day as well!) There are, however, amazingly beautiful shallow canyons that contain petroglyphs, pictographs, Spanish ruins and the top allure to Picket Wire Canyon, dinosaur tracks.

Looking down into Picketwire Canyon.

Looking down into Picket Wire Canyon from the rim above

It is an easy four hourish drive to La Junta from Denver. Head east to Limon and then south to melon country. It’s worth stopping in La Junta at Lucy’s for either a late breakfast or early lunch before heading the remaining half hour to Picket Wire Canyon.

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A view of the canyon while camped on beach like sand

We arrived there early afternoon, set our tents, and each of us went about our business. It was Pam, J Rubble, his 11-year-old son, The Dude, and myself. I took a little nap and then did a cursory tour of the area refreshing my memory from two years ago when I was here with J Rubble. The landscape is marked by juniper trees, cholla cactus and plant life emerging from winter dormancy.

I did find this sign as I made my way to the trailhead.

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Be prepared, or prepare to die

Apparently there was a bit of a problem here last summer, which is another reason this is a good area for early spring or late fall. It’s an easy 800 foot descent into the canyon and then you follow the Purgatoire River for about as long as you want to. Two years ago we hiked to Rourke Ranch, just under 10 miles one way. Unfortunately you cannot camp in the canyon itself (likely due to the great chance of death) so it is day use only. After a great dinner of venison steaks and brussel sprouts we all got a good night’s sleep and chance to test out the waterproof capabilities of our tents as it rained heavily through the night.

The next morning we took our time having breakfast and headed down the trail mid morning. J Rubble and The Dude brought bikes for the nearly twelve mile round trip to the dinosaur track site. Pam and I headed along on foot. The trail is almost road like in nature, but the tread can be loose because of the sand. This morning, however, it was packed pretty firm due to the overnight rains and was even muddy in a few spots.

 

 

En route to the dinosaur tracks we stopped to check out the petroglyphs and Spanish mission and cemetery. There is amazing history in this canyon and I could easily spend many days doing a more thorough job exploring.

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The Purgatoire River in Picketwire Canyon.

The big draw is the dinosaur tracks, over 1200 of them to be exact. The area is home to the largest dinosaur track site in North America. The tracks are of Therapods (meat eaters) and Sauropods (plant eaters). They were from the Jurassic period 150 million years ago. Yes, that is not a typo. This was before the Rocky Mountains were formed. The area of Picket Wire Canyon used to be a huge, marshy lake bed. Apparently the dinosaurs had walked along the marshy, mucky edge of the lake leaving their deep footprints. The lake eventually dried out and the tracks literally turned to stone. There is an excellent article from the New York Times about the ongoing work being done in the area. (Hover over the images below for the captions and descriptions of tracks)

 

 

 

We relax by the river and I heat water for coffee and tea as we soak up the sun on this fine late March day. J Rubble and The Dude have crossed the river in sandals while Pam and I are content to watch them play about. There is one other couple here, from Montana, according to the signed trail register, and they, too, are relaxing in the sun on the other side of the river.

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Lunch spot on the Purgatoire River

Eventually, Pam and I begin to make our way back, now with the sun higher overhead and warming our backs. The boys play leap frog with us on the bikes and later on we find them bedded down underneath a cottonwood tree. It seems that The Dude decided to climb the tree and had a bit of a mishap, falling out of it and scraping himself up

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Oops!

pretty good on the belly. There doesn’t seem to be any internal damage and we make our way  back to camp.

After another good meal and windy night I awake the next morning to the sounds of turkeys gobbling and coyotes yipping in the Juniper filled canyon below. We’ll load up the cars this morning and make our way another couple hours south to the other part of Comanche Grasslands and Picture Canyon, our destination for the day and night.

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