Comanche National Grassland
We have spent three peaceful nights out in the Comanche National Grasslands, with only the birds to keep us awake! Actually, we had a torrential rainstorm on Wednesday evening, which turned the clay like soil to a slimy, muck that begged to swallow our 4×4 vehicles!
You can get more information, including free RV camping location maps at Free RV Camping – La Junta
Saturday, May 26th finds us arriving bright and early at the USFS Office in La Junta, CO for their Dinosaur Tracksite 4×4 tour. Our family and friends have been planning this trip since January so we’re all pretty anxious and excited to see what the day brings! After about a 1/2 hour meeting covering various housekeeping and safety issues, we’re on our way!
The track site is open to hikers and mountain bikers year round by means of another trail head at Withers Canyon. The 4×4 access is limited to Saturdays during May, June, September, and October and are led (in our case) by a part-time intern, and a volunteer. They are the keepers of the keys and unlock the two gates crossing over the Army proving grounds to allow us access via a two track road.
All participants do have to provide their own high clearance 4-wheel drive vehicle, and should plan for an 8 hour day. We have our lunches packed and lots of water! Also many cameras and extra clothing just in case….this is Colorado after all! If you don’t like the weather, just wait 5 minutes! Our day begins with some fast moving low clouds and it looks like rain could be possible.
This area is currently embroiled in a big hot button issue with the Army’s announcement they will be adding 480,000 acres to their current proving grounds. This includes many family farms and ranches on the southeastern plains all the way to Kansas, Oklahoma and New Mexico. We feel pretty lucky to have gotten into see this area, as access may be done away with in the future.
Dropping down into the canyon with the large rocks that have tumbled onto crazy perches almost makes it look like some places in Utah we’ve been. Pinion Canyon is very beautiful and with all the snow this area had during the past winter, the wildflowers are amazing! All the prickly pear and beavertail cactus are blooming in fuscia, orange and yellow! There are also some vibrant dark purple cactus that I’ve never seen before! I think the spring flowers here may actually rival the mountain flowers, without the Columbines of course!
Our first stop is at some old Indian “pictogrifs”–don’t shoot me, I’m just the translator! This is what our USFS intern called the rock art–since the Indian’s “picked” the images into them with another stone. I will refer to them as petroglyphs, and there are many examples of them throughout the canyon. (You may also hike to some from the Vogel canyon trailhead.-check your map for this area)
Our next stop is at a Hole-in-the-Wall type of rock. There are also some old Indian grain grinding impressions in some of the rocks near the road.
Then….the Dinosaur Tracks! This is the largest dinosaur track site in North American and it is very impressive! There is a nice vault toilet here, and we have 1 and 1/2 hours to explore the area, and also have lunch. By this time the clouds have burned off and it is a lovely sunny day! Clear blue skies and need for some extra sunblock! There are two types of tracks laid down into the rock next to the Purgatory river–Allosaurus and Brontosaurs! If you want to see the Brontosaurs tracks, be sure to bring river shoes or tennies as you will have to cross the river to see them. The only complaint I would have about the tour was it didn’t specify that the majority of the tracks are on the other side of the river. They did say to bring river shoes or tennies IF you wanted to cross the river, but not WHY. Only when you get to the tracks do you find out WHY! I didn’t find anything in any information on the tour about that either, or I would have definitely had my Teva’s!!!
Dinosaur tracks are awesome! But the story board with an ariel picture of them is pretty good too! We have lunch near the Aptosaurus tracks, and enjoy the day! The rest of our group crosses the Purgatory river and has lunch at the Brontosaurs tracks.
We see some hunters with turkeys along the trail, and turns out–it’s wild turkey season! They warn us about rattlesnakes as they have seen 3 of them while hunting. They were pretty surprised to see vehicles on the two track road, so we explained the tours to them. After lunch and lots of pictures we load ’em up and head ’em out!
Our next trail stop is The Dolores Mission and Cemetery, in use from 1871 to 1899. The headstones were said to be carved in Tucson and the traveling Father would have them along on his wagon when he passed through this area once a year. That way all the people that had died during the past year could have one engraved on site with their name, dates, and have their ceremony too. All weddings would be performed at this time also!
There are a couple of hand dug irrigation canals that brought water into the canyon for irrigation back in the mid 1800’s too. Just think about digging miles of earth with no Ditch Witch or any modern tools!
Our return trip takes us to the Rourke Ranch, also known as the Wineglass Ranch, which was a thriving cattle and horse operation begun in 1871 by Eugene Rourke. Three generations kept this ranch in working operation until its sale in 1971. It was known throughout southeastern Colorado as one of the oldest and most successful local ranching operations growing from its original 40 acres to over 52,000! There is a lovely old adobe farm house, and several out buildings which are still in relatively good condition. The ranch was sold to a Texas concern, which then sold it to the army in 1984.
We retrace our tracks out of the canyon and we’ve had an amazing day!