Picket Wire Canyon

Area Status: Open
This area is Open

Ancient dinosaur tracks in the rock.

Picket Wire Canyon

For a unique and unforgettable family experience, tour Picket Wire Canyon. Located on the Comanche National Grassland south of La Junta, Colorado, these primitive canyons are home to the largest dinosaur tracksite in North America. The dinosaur tracksite is located in Picket Wire Canyon on the banks of the Purgatoire River in southeast Colorado. The tracksite is the largest documented assemblage of trackways in North America. Over 1500 prints in 100 separate trackways extend across a quarter mile expanse of bedrock.

Picket Wire Canyon Auto Tours: Guided auto tours are the easiest way to experience Picket Wire Canyonlands and learn about its rich, colorful past. During the tour, knowledgeable guides will show you difficult to find dinosaur tracks, and the interesting prehistoric, historic, and natural features of the canyons. The auto tour is the only motorized access into Picket Wire Canyon. Reservations are required via www.recreation.gov or call 1 (877) 444 6777. All day tours (8 a.m. to 4 p.m.) are offered on Saturdays in May, June, September, and October. Sign up early because the tours fill up fast! Due to rough roads, visitors will need their own four-wheel drive vehicle. 

Hiking, biking or horseback riding: Other ways to visit include hiking, mountain biking, or horseback riding. Because of the rugged terrain and long distances to various sites, these visitors need to plan carefully for hot weather conditions by carrying ample water and leaving very early.

The round trip hike to the Dinosaur Tracks is 11.3 miles, starting at the Withers Canyon Trailhead. From here, you will descend 250 feet into the canyon. The Picket Wire Trail passes several points of interest in route to the tracksite. 

Read about the geology of the Comanche National Grasslands. (.pdf, 1.3 MB]

At a Glance

Operational Hours: Guided auto tours are available every Saturday during the following months: May, June, September, October.
Reservations: Reservations for Picket Wire Canyon - Guided Auto Tour: www.recreation.gov or call toll free 1-877-444-6777.
Area Amenities: Fee charged for some activities
Fees See Recreation.gov for details
Usage: Light-Medium
Closest Towns: La Junta, CO 
Water: No potable water
Restroom: Vault Toilet (1) - at Trailhead
Passes: Discounts available with America the Beautiful Senior Pass.
Operated By: Forest Service
Information Center: Comanche National Grassland (719) 384-2181

General Information


Sites and access points:

General Notes:

Dinosaur Tracks

image: DinoLocated on the banks of the Purgatoire River in southeast Colorado, this dinosaur tracksite is the largest documented assemblage of trackways in North America. Over 1500 prints in 100 separate trackways extend across a quarter mile expanse of bedrock. Apatosaurus and Allosaurus are two types of dinosaurs that left prints in the mud over 150 million years ago.

This tracksite has given scientists interesting insights into the social behavior of dinosaurs. Tour guides will tell you what scientists have learned and show you difficult to find small tracks made by a carnivorous dinosaur or theropod. Without a guide you may miss the whole story of the tracksite!

What did cowboys think of these tracks? How did a young schoolgirl reveal these tracks to the world? Why did the rock in the track bed crack so uniformly? Guides will answer all these questions and more.

Rock Art

iamge: Rock ArtThose huge dinosaurs weren’t the only prehistoric visitors to the canyons. Rock art images, together with the remains of dwellings, stone tools, and pottery, shed light on the lives of prehistoric people. “Rock Art” is the term used to describe images pecked or painted on rock surfaces by prehistoric people. Rock art can be difficult to find but guides will take you to some of the best sites in the canyons.

Spanish Expedition

image: CemetaryAccording to legend, a group of Spanish treasure seeking soldiers died in the canyons without benefit of clergy. Thus, in the sixteenth century the river was named El Rio de Las Animas Perdidas en Purgatorio (the River of Souls Lost in Purgatory). Later, French trappers shortened the name to “the Purgatoire.” Early Anglo travelers on the Santa Fe Trail could not pronounce “Purgatoire” and hence further corrupted the name into “Picket Wire.”

Early Settlers 

iamge: HomesteadIn the 19th century, Hispanic and European settlers homesteaded in Picket Wire Canyonlands. Guides will take you to an early Catholic Church and cemetery, which was built on land donated by Damacio Lopez. You will also visit Rourke Ranch, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, and learn how pioneer Eugene Rourke’s ranch grew from a 160-acre homestead in the late 1800s to an over 50,000-acre cattle empire still owned by the Rourke family into the 1970s.

Recreation Map

Map showing recreational areas. Map Information



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Fee charged for some activities