The Arkansas River headwaters are in the Rocky Mountains near Leadville, well west of the eastern plains. The river winds its way down valleys and narrow canyons out onto the plains through Pueblo. From there it meanders across the prairie heading toward its destination, the Mississippi, joining it on the border of Tennessee and Arkansas. The Arkansas River has been the life blood of southeastern Colorado ever since the large prehistoric inland sea gave way to the plains. This inland sea, the Western or Cretaceous Seaway, covered most of the central states, including all of Colorado, about 70 million years ago. The mountain building episode at the end of the Cretaceous Period (about 65 million years ago) gradually caused the sea to withdraw. Geologic forces over eons eventually left us with the arid grasslands we see today. A portion of this short grass prairie was preserved by the Federal Government in 1960 as the Comanche National Grassland, a somewhat fragmented area of nearly 450,000 acres. This grassland, now under the U.S. Forest Service, is land purchased from farming families unable to recover from the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s.
In the past couple of years, we have had opportunities to explore the region from near Pueblo to the Kansas border and south to the Oklahoma border, visiting historical and prehistoric sites.
Exploring the Grasslands:
First, a few notes on traveling in and around the Comanche National Grassland. The main roads are mostly two-lane paved roads. At times there can be quite a bit of truck traffic as well as seasonal tourist traffic. Many of the County Roads are graded gravel and some may have sharp rocks. A high clearance vehicle with good tires (and a full-size spare) is a great idea on the secondary County and Forest Service roads. Weather on the eastern plains can be quite “interesting.” Spring and summer usually mean an increased chance for severe thunderstorms with high winds and hail, there can also be an occasional tornado. Winter can bring snow and wind. Check the weather forecast early and monitor a weather app on your smartphone. When hiking in spring or summer, the temperatures can be quite “toasty,” be sure to take proper precautions (hat, sunscreen and lots of water/sports drinks).
One of our first journeys to this area was a tour of Picketwire Canyon. Picketwire is along the Purgatoire River, a tributary of the Arkansas River (they join just east of Las Animas, Colorado). This area, south of La Junta in the Comanche National Grassland, has North America’s largest known set of fossilized dinosaur tracks. 150 million years ago this was a large shallow lake teeming with Brontosaurus. (Yes, the name “brontosaurus” is back after a few decades. Paleontologists have now re-examined data and concluded that these animals did exist as a species.) These large plant-eating sauropods attracted the carnivorous theropod Allosaurus. Both adult and young brontosaurs as well as the three-toed allosaurs walked along the shore and their footprints were buried and eventually fossilized. There are two ways to reach the dinosaur tracks. First is to hike in from the trailhead, about 10.6 miles roundtrip. To reach the trailhead drive south on Highway 109 out of La Junta. Go west on County road 802 toward Vogel Canyon. Go past the Vogel Canyon turn off. Eight miles west of Highway 109 is County Road 25. Take that six miles south to the corrals. Go east on the PWC road to the trailhead. The trail starts here. The alternate way to visit Picketwire sites is to drive in on a 4WD tour lead by the Forest Service. This was our choice and it was well worth the time and cost. Information is at the government website. The link is on our Links Page under Travel Sites - Southeastern Colorado.
In 2014 a whole new set of tracks were uncovered. There are now tracks to be seen on both sides of the Purgatoire River. Except for really wet springtime, the river is shallow and slow moving, so it can be waded easily. During our time there, it was after a very wet winter and spring, the river was deep and fast, meaning we could only view the tracks on the north side.
Picketwire also has rock art, possibly dating back to between 375 to 4500 years ago. The rock art is best seen on the guided tour.
When driving or hiking the various trails, there is a good chance to see the local wildlife. Whit -tailed deer, prairie dogs, and pronghorn are fairly common. Birds are all around and this can be a wonderful place during seasonal migration. Check out the Colorado Birding Trail website for information. The link is on our Links Page. Less common are the amphibians and reptiles, although prairie rattlesnakes are seen here occasionally.
Picture Canyon is further to the southeast, it’s south and a bit west of Springfield, Colorado. To reach it, drive on Highway 287 south from Springfield to the small town of Campo (a little over 20 miles). Take County Road J west for about 10 miles and turn left on County Road 18. About 4 ¾ miles south there will be the turnoff for Picture Canyon. The parking lot is around 2 miles south of the turnoff. Picture Canyon has a four-mile loop trail that will get you to the rock art and other photo-worthy subjects. You can find more information at the government website. The link is on our Links Page.
Recent Human History and Current Conditions:
On the eastern plains, the Arkansas River is paralleled in Colorado by U.S. Highway 50 from Pueblo to the Kansas border. Along the highway are several historic towns and sites. Many of these towns have very interesting museums and historical sites. The coming of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway in the mid 1870’s helped establish these towns as permanent cities on the eastern plains. Today the reduction in passenger service along with the rerouting of what’s left to other rail lines have left these towns a bit forlorn. Most now depend on local agriculture and some tourist traffic.
The towns of Fowler, Crowley, Rocky Ford, Las Animas, Lamar, and Holly all have either local history museums or historical sites. Be sure to take advantage of these while in their area. Links to each town’s current and/or historical information can be found on our Links Page.
The original water tower (recoverd from a local farm and installed on a replica of the original base).
Conrete foundations are all that remain of the original barracks. One has been reconstructed as part of the effort to keep the past alive.
Eclectic displays at the Big Timbers Museum in Lamar
You can hike the canyon but the Forest Service 4WD guided tours are more than worth cost and effort
Two of the towns along Highway 50, La Junta and Granada, have historic sites nearby. (Links to more information on both sites are on our Links Page
Just northeast of La Junta is Bent’s Old Fort, a reconstructed historic trading post that was on the Santa Fe Trail beginning in the 1830’s. The fort was abandoned in 1849 after a series of disasters and disease outbreaks. The structure and its location are accurate based upon archeological information and the detailed drawings produced by Army officer Lieutenant James W. Abert. He used his engineering skills to create them while he was recuperating at the fort.
The entry road into the camp. When initially opened the camp has only short grass prairie. The internees planted all of the trees.
The stone barn in Holly, one of the few remaining stone barns in Colorado
Classic and Antique telephones at the
John W. Rawlings Heritage Center in Las Animas
The original AT&SF depot in Fowler - non the offices of a local construction company
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Arkansas River Corridor and the Comanche National Grassland
In the cemetery, a monument dedicated to the internees who passed away here and the members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team who made the ultimate sacrifce during action in Europe during WWII
Images of Nature - Instruction - Workshops
The depot in Holly. Holly is the original home of Holly Sugar, a product of the sugarbeet fields in eastern Colorado
Human history in this part of Colorado dates from Clovis and Folsom cultures 13,000+ years ago, but most of the remnants are from the last 1500 years. Prehistoric and historic rock art in the form of petroglyphs (drawings and symbols carved or chipped into the rock) and pictographs (drawings and symbols painted onto the rocks) are visible in several canyons open to the public. We have spent time hiking both Vogel Canyon and Picture Canyon to see the rock art and some of the more recent human dwellings. Both sites are located within the Comanche National Grassland. These two sites have been easy to access for decades and unfortunately a small number of very inconsiderate people have chosen to “add to” the rock art with names and dates. Try to overlook this and enjoy the Native American art.
Vogel Canyon is close to Picketwire Canyon and reached by driving south from La Junta on Highway 109 to County Road 802, then going west about one and one-half miles to Forest Service Road 505A, then south on 505A another one and one-half miles to the parking lot. You can find information at the government website. The link is on our Links Page. The best rock art viewing in Vogel Canyon is along the Canyon Trail. The Mesa and Overlook Trails provide a lot of great photo ops as well.
A replica of one of the guard towers.
Crowley County Heritage Center in the town of Crowley
Picketwire Canyon has Native American Rock Art dating by as far as 4500 years .
Examples of the artifacts the archeologists are uncovering to help recreate the daily life of the people who were incarcerated here
Displays in the History Museum in an old Carnegie Library in Rocky Ford
The small town of Granada (pronounced gra nĀ da by the locals) is a few miles east of Lamar. At the beginning of World War II, the U.S. Government incarcerated about 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans in 10 relocation camps. One of these, Camp Amache, was located just outside of Granada and held up to 7200 people until it closed in October 1945. The story of what happened, what life was like here and the impact of the camp on the surrounding area is a part of our past that everyone should know about. Omit. An archeology field team from University of Denver is documenting the site and through its discoveries and oral/written histories we are getting a clearer picture of it’s inhabitants and what happened to them. You can find more information on several websites. The links are on our Links Page.
Springtime means wildflowers and cactus blooms
The original curtain from the Las Animas theater - displayed at the John W. Rawlings Heritage Center
Views of Nature Photography