The first time visitor to the Comanche National Grassland is usually surprised to find such a varied landscape from rolling short grass prairies to rugged canyons rimmed by pinion-juniper forests. The Comanche National Grassland is responsible for the management of 443,764 acres of range lands and 300 different species of birds, reptiles, amphibians, & mammals. Not only that but the Comanche National Grassland encompasses a fascinating landscape that reveals the history of the region in its exposed rock layers of prehistoric sea beds and ancient lakeshores rift with dinosaur tracks. Cultural sites in the grasslands represent a diverse history spanning thousands of years. These vast expanses and hidden canyons were once the home to Native Americans who left their messages in the form of petroglyphs and pictographs on the cliff faces and rock overhangs throughout the region. Early traders passed through the area on the Santa Fe Trail, the canyons protect the rock walls of old stage stops from the days before the railroad, and ruins of early homesteads and ranches remain to remind us of life in another era. Stop by the Comanche National Grassland office in La Junta for free maps and brochures plus information to help you plan your adventure.
The Ancient Ones
For many thousands of years the area that would become the Comanche National Grassland was home to prehistoric peoples. The earliest evidence found in the grasslands suggests that early paleo-hunters entered the region after the last ice some 12,000 years ago. Surface finds of these early big game hunters have been found. As the climate warmed and the larger mammals (prehistoric bison, mammoth, and sloth) became extinct these early hunters relied more and more on the smaller game that was to be found in the region into historic times. There also seems to be more emphasis on the processing of plant foods. These big game hunters evolved into true hunters and gatherers with a more complex social structure as evidenced by more varied stone tools, both for hunting and plant processing. It was during this period about 8,000 years ago that rock art began to appear on the canyon walls. Around 1,800 years ago there was another cultural shift when pottery and the bow-and-arrow were developed. Though these ancient people were still hunters and gathers, more permanent structures, reminiscent of the early Anasazi pit houses, began to appear. Agriculture began on a rudimentary level. This Ceramic Period, as it is called in southeast Colorado, lasted into the historic times when, in the early 1600s, these peoples were displaced by the Apache peoples, who in turn were replaced by the Comanche in the 1700s.
The rock art that is found today can be very varied, and range in age from many thousands of years to a few centuries. Examples of rock art can be found that even indicates the arrival of the Spanish or early Americans into the area (see left).
River of Lost Souls
The Purgatory River is a haunted river. For thousands of years it has witnessed the comings and goings of many peoples; many cultures have played out their human drama here before disappearing into eternity. The Native Americans knew the river as the Spirit River – maybe that is what originally inspired the name of the Purgatory River, or perhaps, if legend is correct, this is really the river of lost souls.
It is said that once long ago, in the earliest days of Spanish exploration in the southwest, a Spanish military expedition set out from the Spanish colony of New Mexico to find an overland route to their colony in Florida. The military expedition left Santa Fe, loaded down with gold to pay off the soldiers upon their arrival, and were never seen or heard from again. Later, an account by an Indian native circulated that the expedition was wiped out by Indians. Many Spanish felt, that if this was true, the men died without the benefit of clergy and their souls were trapped in Purgatory. The Spanish began calling the river El Rio de las Animas Perdidas en Puratorio or The River of Lost Souls in Purgatory.
Later French trappers referred to the river as the Purgatoire (pronounced Pur-ga-twa) and American explorers and settlers corrupted the pronunciation to become Picketwire. Anyhow, that’s the legend and today we call this the Purgatory River. Anyone who has spent time down in the canyons can feel a sense of history all around them and maybe something else – a certain spirit about the place – could this be the faint echoes of the lost souls doomed to wander her banks forever?
Just a short drive from La Junta, beautiful Vogel Canyon is always a popular destination because it has something for everybody - from a short hike to a quiet picnic. The park provides picnic grounds and hiking trails with a variety of difficulty and length. Four hiking trails take you to the canyon bottom and mesa top. You can drive your vehicle right up to the picnic area and the short Canyon Overlook Trail is Wheel chair accessible. Hikers must beware of rattlesnakes and scorpions, as well as pack appropriate dress for late afternoon showers, and bring plenty of water.
Vogel canyon is a tributary of the Purgatory River and offers a varied habit from short grass prairies to the pinion-juniper ecosystem. Two permanent springs located at the bottom of the canyon support a variety of wildlife. Native Americans lived in the canyon for thousands of years and left rock art visible on the canyon walls. The canyon was on the route of the Barlow and Sanderson Stage line in the 1870s. You can still see the ruins of one of their stage stations down in the canyon (photo above right). As you hike the trails in Vogel Canyon you will see many stone ruins of homesteads and corrals with walls constructed of native stone - reminders of the heavy 19th century sheep and cattle ranching days in the area.
1888 Signature on Vogel Canyon Wall.
Located just 30 miles south of La Junta, Picketwire Canyon is great for a more strenuous adventure. No motorized vehicles are allowed in the canyon except for guided tours led by Comanche National Grassland rangers. The canyon is open to the public though, the Withers Canyon Trailhead on the mesa above the canyon offers access to Picketwire canyon for hiking, horseback riding and mountain biking. Picketwire Canyon contains one of the largest dinosaur track beds in the world, ruins of an old Mexican mission and settlement, Native American rock art, and an early 19th century ranch, now preserved by the Comanche National Grassland. Plan carefully if you plan to visit the canyon as your hike can be anywhere from 2 miles to 17 miles round trip depending on where you go. For example it is over 10 miles round trip to the dinosaur track site – the most popular destination in the canyon.
Inquire at the Comanche National Grassland headquarters in La Junta for more information.
As you hike into Picketwire Canyon from the Withers Canyon Trailhead one of the first areas of unique interest you will find is the cemetery and ruins of the Dolores Mission. In 1871 a group of New Mexicans migrated up the Purgatory River to settle. The group led by Damacio Lopez consisted of 11 families and they were the first to establish a permanent settlement in the canyonlands. Traditionally most New Mexicans of the time were Catholic. The tiny settlement founded by Damacio did not have a church or priest. This was a quandary for the religious settlers at the mouth of Minnie Canyon on the Purgatory River. In order to attend church services they would have to travel to Trinidad many miles away. Finally Damacio found a priest that would be willing to travel to their small community for services and in 1898 he sold a piece of his land to the priest. The community built a small church which became known as the Dolores Mission. It is interesting to note that, though the small community founded by the Lopez family is long gone; the Doloras Mission is still listed as church property to this day.
The Dolores Mission in Picketwire Canyon
Along the Purgatory River tracks from dinosaurs such as Apatosaurus (brontosaurus), stegosaurus and Allosaurus are found. The area has come under serious scientific investigation in recent years. But it wasn’t always that way, in fact the dinosaur tracks were a well-guarded secret until letters in Life Magazine and Scientific American in 1935 reported the existence of dinosaur track ways in the Purgatory Valley. But it would be another 50 years before any serious study of the track site was done. In the 1980s the study of the track site was begun in detail. The results of the study surprised everyone, it became evident that this site was more important than previously thought, in fact the track site is now considered to be the largest continuously mapped site in North America with over 1,300 footprints in four different layers of rock. These footprints from the past were laid down along a now long vanished lake shore 150 million years ago during the late Jurassic period. These animals were walking along this ancient lake shore. One important find of the study illustrates dinosaur behavior previously not known - tracks identified as Apatosaurus (brontosaurus) show herding behavior. Parallel track ways of identical, but smaller animals indicate a social behavior among juvenile brontosaurs – these animals were traveling as a group with their young! It is hard to believe that a seemingly random and common event like leaving muddy footprints along a lake shore millions of years ago would survive to give us tantalizing hints of life on our planet during the age of Dinosaurs!
Historic Rourke Ranch
The 1870s saw much settlement in Picketwire Canyon. In 1871 Eugene and Mary Rourke homesteaded 40 acres on the banks of the Purgatory River. So began the Rourke Ranch, a cattle and horse ranch that grew through three generations of Rourkes to over 50,000 acres when it sold out of the family 100 years later in 1971. In its day the Rourke Ranch was one of the most successful ranches in Colorado. The quality workmanship and architecture of these adobe buildings can still be seen and has earned the Rourke Ranch a place on the National Register of Historic Places. Today the Rourke Ranch is preserved by the Comanche National Grassland as a testament to the hardy pioneers that helped settle the west and is well worth the time to visit. Total round trip hike to the Rourke Ranch from the Withers Canyon Trail head is almost 18 miles – start early and plan for a full day.
La Junta Outdoor Nature Activities
Southeast Colorado is one of the best kept secrets of the state. Around the La Junta area outdoor enthusiasts will find miles of trails and rural roads just right for hiking, biking or plain exploring - all within minutes of the city. The area abounds with natural beauty. From the red hued cliffs and steep bluffs of the Purgatory River to the open high plains of Comanche National Grassland you can get away from the hustle and bustle of modern life and slow down a bit. Bird watching expeditions, wild flower excursions, or historic journeys back in time are yours - all within a short distance from La Junta.
Boating and Fishing
There are many boating and fishing opportunities in the area.
John Martin and Lake Hasty are located off Hwy 50 near Hasty. John Martin Reservoir State Park is about 35 miles east of La Junta, this massive lake was created by the damning of the Arkansas River in the 1930s. The length of the dam is 2.6 miles with a height of 118 feet. Its discharge capacity is 639,200 feet with a drainage area of 18,913 square miles. Today the lake is open for boating and skiing, as well as fishing for bass, crappie and trout. Other popular boating and fishing locations within a short drive of La Junta include Lake Henry and Meredith, the Arkansas River and several small ponds.
John Martin State Park
Premier Bird Watching
The varied ecosystems of southeast Colorado provide for premier bird watching. Over 300 species of birds inhabit this portion of the state with ecosystems consisting of high plains and short grass prairies, pinion-juniper forests, rugged canyons and cottonwood lined river valleys. Quail, pheasant, dove, bald eagle, golden eagle, ducks, geese and hawks, lesser prairie chickens and long bill curlew are just a few of the species to be found by astute bird watchers. Just south of La Junta and along the Arkansas River basin on the north edge of town popular bird watching spots are just minutes away.
Prairie Canyons Trail: This popular birding trail, with portions in the Comanche National Grassland, is full of surprises. The trail begins just south of La Junta and winds its way through a magical realm of diverse geography from the harsh to the spectacular. Here you will find a maze of rim-rock canyons filled with pinion and juniper – to the amazement of first time visitors who think southeastern Colorado is supposed to be just flat grasslands. The wildlife you will see is more typical of the desert southwest than the plains of eastern Colorado north of the Arkansas River. Here you can find Cassin’s Kingbirds, Greater Roadrunners, Rufous-crowned Sparrows, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Curve-billed Thrasher, and Scaled Quail to name a few. The Prairie Canyon Trail runs past many hidden treasures - wonderful places near La Junta that are sure to enchant you.
Comanche National Grasslands
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