Picket Wire Canyonlands
Picket Wire Canyonlands
These primitive canyons in the Comanche National Grasslands are home to the largest dinosaur tracksite in North America. Over 1,900 prints in 130 separate trackways extend across a quarter mile of bedrock along the banks of the Purgatoire River.
The round trip hike to the dinosaur tracks is 11.2 miles, starting at the Withers Canyon Trailhead. From the trailhead, descend 250 feet into the canyons. Pass several points of interest including the Dolores Mission and Cemetery. Continue beyond the paleontological area to the Rourke Ranch National Historic District (approximately 17 miles round trip). Because of the rugged terrain and long distances to various sites, hikers, bikers and equestrians need to plan for extreme heat. Leave early and carry at least one galllon of water per person.
Picket Wire Guided Auto Tours: The auto tour is the only authorized motorized access into Picket Wire Canyonlands. Knowledgeable guides will share difficult-to-find dinosaur tracks and rock art as well as interesting prehistoric and historic stories. Tour participants need their own four-wheel drive, high clearance vehicles (trucks or SUVs, no all-wheel drive cars or ATVs). The tour is all day, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and offered on Saturdays in May, June, September, and October. Reservations are required. Visit recreation.gov or call 877-444-6777.
At a Glance
|Operational Hours:||Daylight use only; overnight camping is not allowed in the Picket Wire Canyonlands. Camping is permitted at Picket Wire Corrals and in designated sites at the Withers Canyon Trailhead.|
|Reservations:||Guided auto tours every Saturday during May, June, September, and October. Call 877-444-6777 or visit recreation.gov.|
|Open Season:||Open Year Round|
|Best Season:||May, June, September, October|
|Closest Towns:||La Junta, CO|
|Water:||No potable water|
|Restroom:||Vault toilet at trailhead, dino tracksite, and Rourke Ranch|
|Passes:||Discount on auto tour with America the Beautiful senior pass.|
|Operated By:||Forest Service|
|Information Center:||Comanche National Grassland 719-384-2181|
From La Junta, CO drive south on CO Hwy 109 for 13 miles. Turn right (west) on Forest Service Road (FSR) 2200 (also known as County Road 802 or David Canyon Road) and drive 8 miles. Turn left (south) on County Road 25 and continue 6 miles to Picket Wire Corrals. Turn left (east) onto FSR 2185. Continue 3.2 miles on FSR 2185 following the trailhead signs to Withers Canyon Trailhead.
During the Jurassic period, 150 million years ago, Southeastern Colorado’s climate was tropical and forests of tree ferns, ground ferns, pines and sequoia trees grew. At that time, the Purgatoire River Valley was part of an enormous shallow lake. On its muddy shoreline, dinosaurs such as Apatosaurus and Allosaurus roamed leaving their footprints behind. Today, the Comanche National Grassland is home to the largest dinosaur tracksite in North America with over 1,900 individual footprints making up over 130 trackways. Little did these Jurassic creatures know the ruckus their muddy footprints would create 150 million years later!
Native Americans thrived here for thousands of years: plentiful game, reliable water, diverse plant resources, and the semi-arid climate provided favorable living conditions for prehistoric peoples. These groups left behind many legacies; perhaps the most compelling is rock art— designs pecked or scratched into rock. Images of deer, elk, humans, and abstract designs adorn some canyon walls in Picket Wire. Dating between 375 to 4,500 years old, these images may have been created to ensure a successful hunt, or a year of plentiful food. Although the true meaning lies with the artists, these images inspire curiosity and awe. Please do not touch or enhance the rock art in any way. Please take only photos and leave the rock art for others to enjoy and study.
Dolores Mission and Cemetery
After the territory south of the Arkansas River became part of the United States in 1846 (with the conclusion of the Mexican American War), many people from Mexico migrated north to settle. One immigrant group led by Damascio Lopez had 11 families and established the first permanent settlement in the canyonlands. Initially, this predominately Catholic community did not have a local church or priest to practice their religion. However in 1898, Damascio sold 0.11-acres of his land to the Denver Diocese for $1.00. The community then built a church called the Dolores Mission. Visiting the remains of the Mission and its cemetery provide a sense of the peaceful yet harsh conditions these early settlers endured.
Rourke Ranch National Historic District
Established in 1871 by Eugene and Mary Rourke, the Rourke Ranch was a cattle and horse ranch that persisted through three generations. Eugene and Mary raised ten children here. The original settlement was 40 acres, and when the ranch finally sold out of the family in 1971, the holdings had grown to over 50,000 acres. It was known as one of the most successful ranches in the southwest. Witnessing the high quality workmanship and architecture of the buildings, mostly adobe and jacal style, is well worth a visit to the Rourke Ranch, which is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
Read about the geology of the Comanche National Grasslands.
Map showing recreational areas. Map Information