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Picketwire Canyonlands

MapFor an unforgettable experience, explore Picketwire (Purgatoire) Canyonlands on the Comanche National Grasslands south of La Junta. These primitive canyons are home to the largest known set of dinosaur tracks in North America, Native American rock art, early Hispanic settlements and a historic ranch. A variety of wildlife inhabits the area, including deer, antelope, coyote, snakes, lizards and birds.

150 millions years ago, this area was part of a large, shallow lake and was teaming with Brontosaurs and Allosaurs. As these massive beasts plodded along the muddy edge of this lake they left their footprints in the mud, which were eventually buried and turned to stone. Today, over 1,300 of these footprints, extending on a 1/4 mile plain, are exposed at the Picketwire Canyonlands dinosaur track site. Forty percent of the tracks were left by the Brontosaurs, a massive, four-footed plant eater. Parallel trackways indicate that several younger Brontosaurus were traveling as a group heading west along the shoreline, which is the first evidence of social behavior among younger brontosaurs from the Morrison Formation. The remaining sixty percent of the tracks were left by the Allosaurus, a two footed, ferocious, meat eating scavenger who possibly hunted in packs and left three toed footprints behind.

Native American Rock Art can be found in Picketwire Canyon. Very little is known of the prehistoric Native Americans of this area, but archaeologists suspect they were nomadic hunter-gatherers whose visits were short as they followed migrating game. Some of the rock art in this area may be 375 to 4500 years old. Please do not touch or disturb rock art in any way.

Hiking, Biking and Horseback Riding

Withers Canyon is the trailhead for Picketwire Canyon and is the only allowable access to the canyonlands for the general public. Hiking, non-motorized bicycles, and horseback riding are permitted. This hike is a long hike so please plan your time accordingly. At the trailhead (pipe gate), you will drop 250 feet in elevation into the canyon and follow a dirt road through the canyon, heading in a south/southwest direction. As you pass through gates, please leave them as you find them.

 

Map

Abandoned home in Picketwire CanyonBefore you reach the dinosaur tracks, you will encounter the Dolores Mission and Cemetery, which was built between 1871 and 1889 by Mexican pioneers settling the valley. Partial remains of the Mission and Cemetery are still visible. This site is about 3.7 miles from the trailhead.

Continue following the trail 1.6 miles to the Dinosaur Tracks. To access the dinosaur tracks, you will need to cross the river so please be very careful - the water may be deeper than it appears.

If you have the time and energy, you may follow the trail another 3.4 miles to the Rourke Ranch, also known as the Wineglass Ranch, which was a cattle and horse ranch founded by Eugene Rourke in 1871. Three generations of the Rourke family lived and worked on the ranch ensuring its survival over a span of a hundred years. When the ranch was sold in 1971, it was one of the oldest and most successful enterprises in southeast Colorado, expanding from Eugene's original settlement of 40 acres to well over 52,000 acres.

The hike from the trailhead to the Mission is 3.7 miles, the Mission to the Dinosaur Tracks is 1.6 miles and the Tracks to the Rourke Ranch is 3.4 miles. Total round trip for the Dinosaur Tracks is 10.6 miles, so please plan your time accordingly. If you plan on going all the way to the Rourke Ranch, your round trip will be 17.4 miles.

If you have your own four wheel drive, guided auto tours are available from the Forest Service. Advance reservations are required and fees are applicable. For more information regarding auto tours, contact:
Comanche National Grasslands Office
1420 E 3rd St
La Junta, CO 81050
719.384.2181
Monday-Friday, 8am to 5pm, closed 12-1 for lunch

Safety Tips

Due to it's length and difficult terrain, this is an advanced hike. You should be in good physical condition, travel in a group, and know the  limits of the weakest member of your group. Cliffs in Picketwire CanyonThe Comanche National Grasslands are open from dawn to dusk, so plan your hike accordingly. There is no drinkable water in Picketwire Canyonlands, so carry at least 1 gallon of water per person. Thirst will not occur until you are already dehydrated, so drink before you are thirsty. Overnight camping is not allowed. At times you will be walking over loose rocks, wire, cactus, animal holes in the ground, and slick rocks. When crossing the river, please be careful. Although it may look shallow, in places there are sudden, deep drop-offs. If you are planning a hike in this area, notify someone of your expected route, departure and return times. In case of emergency, call the Otero County Sheriff Office at 719.384.5941 or 911.

Although rare, you may encounter rattlesnakes, scorpions, and centipedes. Avoid tall grass and watch where you sit and place your hands and feet. During cooler months snakes are found sunning themselves. During hot months snakes will seek shady spots. Scorpions and centipedes are generally found underneath wood or rocks, or in rock crevices. Deer flies, mosquitoes, gnats, and bees are common during late spring, summer and early fall. Please bring insect repellant and an Epipen if you are allergic to insect stings.

High-top hiking boots and long jeans are strongly recommended. Prickly pear and cholla cactus are abundant in the canyon. You may want to pack a pair of old tennis shoes if you want to cross the river. During early fall, late spring, and summer months, the canyon can be very hot, up to 110 degrees during the summer. You should wear a hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, and insect repellant. Dress warmly for late fall, winter and early spring. You should bring rain gear during any season.

Dinosaur Tracks alon the Purgatoire RiverBring any medication you may need, a first aid kit, and obtain the current weather forecast before you go. If it begins to rain, seek higher ground immediately in case of flash flood.

Wildfire is always a risk so do NOT throw cigarette butts on the ground or start any fires. Pets should be restrained and please pack out all of your trash...take only pictures, leave only footprints!

Conservation & Protection

The cultural resources in the Comanche National Grasslands are ancient, fragile and irreplaceable. Do not touch the Native American rock art, as oils from your hands promote deterioration. The rock art is an irreplaceable resource, so please do not feel the need to leave your own mark. Graffiti destroys this ancient legacy.

All cultural resources on public lands are protected by law. The Antiquities Act and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act impose fines and penalties for disturbing or removing artifacts. Please help protect our past. Report any acts of vandalism to the Comanche National Grassland office in La Junta: 719.384.2181.