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Picketwire Canyon: Discovering Eastern Colorado’s Wild Side

We strapped ourselves in tight to the four-seater aircraft and took off from La Junta Municipal Airport. My first visit into the great canyons of the Purgatoire River of southeast Colorado – including Picketwire Canyon – proved unforgettable. We left the airstrip and immediately aimed south towards the volcanic rise of New Mexico. Ominous clouds rapidly approached from the west. My anticipation of flying over this part of the state built like a hard-shaken soda bottle. I failed to heed the warning that the strong thermals were trying so hard to convey.

Picketwire Canyon
Picketwire Canyon

Out of the corner of my eye, I caught my first glimpse of Picketwire Canyon. I couldn’t believe how much the red rock country resembled that of southeastern Utah. Immense, sculpted, carved, chiseled, inviting, foreboding, and winding are just a few words to describe the place, but they simply cannot do it justice. In front of me was the Purgatoire River’s crown jewel. Hell, in front of me was one of Colorado’s – if not the United States’ – crown jewels. I immediately thought about how this best kept Colorado secret could easily qualify for National Park designation.

Southeast Colorado
Southeast Colorado

The pilot dipped the plane down towards the ground and leveled out at the lowest possible elevation. He pointed out the site where the largest assemblage of dinosaur tracks in North America is located. I was a guest on this particular flight of folks who were incredibly knowledgeable about the canyon and the land. My hosts shared stories about the ranchers who inhabit most of the canyon country today, about Kit Carson who etched his name throughout the Purgatoire region, and about the Native Americans who preceded them all. I was dumbstruck by the complex fabric of human and natural history that persisted below.

Picketwire Canyon Petroglyph
Picketwire Canyon Petroglyph

And then Mother Nature, whose thermals tried to warn us earlier, taught us a lesson in how the canyons were formed and just how harsh this amazing area can be. Her winds slapped us from side to side, elevating the aircraft tens of feet at a time in just a split second. My heart (and much of my lunch) crept up into my throat. But our skilled pilot maneuvered us out of harm’s way. He soared the plane further east. And as we left the canyon behind us, the plateaus, brimming with juniper and pinyon pine, came into focus.

Picketwire Canyon Trailhead
Picketwire Canyon Trailhead

Since that initial flight over Picketwire Canyon and the Purgatoire River in 2011, I’ve returned on three separate occasions to spend time on the land. It has become one of my favorite places in Colorado to camp, hike, and explore. While much of the area is privately owned and off limits to the public, the United States Forest Service controls and manages a large swath of property that is publicly accessible. There is a designated campground and plenty to see and do.

Here are just a few reasons you should venture down to Picketwire Canyon yourself:

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  • Dinosaur Tracks

Located on the banks of the Purgatoire River in southeast Colorado, this dinosaur tracksite is the largest documented assemblage of trackways in North America.

Over 1,300 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 insight into the social behavior of dinosaurs.

  • Rock Art

Those 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 there are numerous sites in the canyons.

  • Nature

Spanning approximately 443,765 acres in southeastern Colorado, the Comanche National Grassland is the result of the Forest Service’s rehabilitation efforts on land once devastated by the Dust Bowl of the Dirty Thirties. Today, you’ll find a flourishing grassland ecosystem teeming with grass, water, and wildlife habitat.

Are you looking for some additional information to help plan your trip to Picketwire Canyon? The La Junta Tourism website is a good place to get further details.

Josh T

Josh is a native son and big fan of pack burro racing. He thru-hiked the Colorado Trail, loves running and biking, and is passionate about sharing his favorite journeys and experiences with others. You can typically find Josh out exploring the less beaten paths under Colorado’s sunny skies.

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