Comanche National Grassland
Distance: 11.5 miles
Traveled: Withers Canyon Trailhead into Picket Wire Canyon
“In Shoshone, there’s a saying. It’s a long one, and it doesn’t have an English equivalent, so bear with me.
Sutummu tukummuinna. It means, I don’t speak your language, and you don’t speak mine. But I still understand you. I don’t need to walk in your footsteps if I can see the footprints you left behind.”
– Rose Christo, Why the Star Stands Still
As I mentioned in my previous post, the weather of this February has been nutty. It’s been in the 60’s, I’ve had the windows open, I’ve moved on from any romantic thoughts about snowboarding and snowshoeing and cuddling by the fire. It has become irritating that it’s this warm out and everything is still brown, leafless, and soggy. Despite the tease – the change of season, and the buds of spring are still many months away. Many. Months. Away.
If it’s gonna be winter, be winter. Bury me in snow, chill me to the bone, make me want to stay inside and be productive for at least a few months of the year. Don’t give me this shit.
I had to get out of the mountains; I had to go somewhere that would be unbearably hot any other time of the year other than right now. I needed to get in some big miles – none of this 5-mile crap. Somewhere I hadn’t been. I couldn’t swing a Utah trip right now, and I needed somewhere I could get away with only a day-trip to. Time to pull out the maps and the books.
My scouring of maps and books landed me firmly at Picket Wire Canyon in the Comanche National Grasslands.
This canyon and hike would check off so many items on my “favorite things to experience when hiking” list:
- Canyon landscapes
- Archeological wonders
- Seemingly endless miles of wilderness
- Paleontological and prehistoric treasures (I will walk for many, many, miles to see anything dinosaur-related – and this hike would end up raising the bar quite a bit)
I left for the 200-mile drive at 6:00am, looking forward driving 3.5 hours through to the southern prairie of Colorado – an area I had yet to explore.
The grassland was the vast expanse I expected it to be, and turning from the highway onto the back dirt roads I rolled down the windows and let the 70-degree breeze roll in. 70 degrees in February felt like a nice change of pace.
Driving on the dirt roads through the unblemished expanse of prairie, a canyon seemed like one of the least-likely things to stumble-upon in the landscape. Yet, arriving at the Withers Canyon Trailhead parking lot, suddenly the landscape transforms and it’s easy to forget the hundreds of miles of grassland that surround you.
Heading out on the trail you immediately drop 350 feet down into Withers Canyon, a side canyon of Picket Wire Canyon, and the views open up.
This descent is really the only significant elevation gain/loss on the trail (and it’s not much). Once you reach the canyon floor, the trail is mostly flat for miles and miles.
I was off.
After about a mile, the trail arrives in the valley (otherwise known as the Valley of Lost Souls in Purgatory) of Picket Wire Canyon. The canyon floor is very wide and flat, and the Purgatoire River far from the trail.
The ruins of an old homestead are not far down the trail from here. When I arrived at the homestead site there was a large group of boy scouts prowling the area and yelling and screaming like groups of young boys in the wild are apt to do, so I opted to continue on and stop on the way back to the trailhead.
Further down the trail at 3.7 miles, is the site of an old Spanish mission, and I decided that I would also pass up visiting that site for now and investigate it on the return trip.
The trail was fairly uneventful for miles, and though the temperature was completely reasonable today, I imagine that being down here in the summer would be dreadful.
I was keeping my eyes peeled for petroglyphs as I had heard there were some in the area. So as not to ruin the fun of others in searching them out I won’t post their exact location – but if you look you will find them. It’s unlikely that this canyon was ever settled by Native Americans, and it’s speculated that the petroglyphs in the area were created by nomadic hunters passing through the area. From what I have read the petroglyphs in the canyon date between 400 and 4500 years old.
The trail began to climb a bit above the river and it was actually a welcome change to the flat, admittedly dull, walk thus far. Finally views of the Purgatoire River (pronounced “Purga–twa”) opened up below.
The flat, dusty, walk continued. The one nice thing about such an uneventful trail is that whereas on trails with uneven footing you’re forced to look at the ground most of the time to watch your step, this trail allowed me to constantly look up and around . I scoured the surrounding slopes with curiosity wishing I had endless time to leave the trail and explore the secrets they held.
About a mile before reaching the dinosaur track site, an exact replica of an Apatosaurus shoulder blade sits next to the trail. The bone was found in a quarry in Picket Wire Canyon in 2008. This area is a largely unexplored gold mine for paleontologists. While many fossils have been found in this area by archaeologists, there are still many known sites that have yet to be dug.
This is a great New York Times article on the current paleontological efforts in Picket Wire Canyon.
The site is the largest mapped and recorded dinosaur track site in the world. The site continues on for near a quarter mile and consists of over 1300 tracks. The tracks are from both theropods (bipedal carnivores like an Allosaurs), and larger sauropods (large plant-eaters such as the Aptosaurus).
The tracks stretch on both sides of the river, and to truly experience the size of the site you have to cross the river. Fortunately, being it was winter, the river was quite low so crossing was no big deal. I can imagine that in the spring and early summer the crossing can get quite dangerous.
I removed my shoes and trudged across the river and found myself in a heightened state of awe at the tracks in the bedrock on the other side. Perfect paths preserved in stone.
The perfectly orchestrated chain of events that occurred to preserve this site blows my mind.
I sat by the river to have lunch and take it all in. The river and this area was truly beautiful and unique.
After about an hour at the site I turned back with the pressure of making it back to the car well before sunset and still taking the time to explore the ruins along the trail.
As the sun fell low the valley came to life. Bluebirds were everywhere, and sparrows buzzed in and out of the rocks and cliffs.
I stopped at the Dolores Mission and cemetery site on the way back. The mission was built in the 1800’s by Mexican pioneers. The graves were particularly interesting and I loved the style of them.
I really began to push fast for trailhead after leaving the mission site. The sun was getting low and I still had a long drive ahead. I passed by the old homestead site without stopping for long.
The last part of the walk uphill I was flying. The canyon was truly alive with it’s afternoon excitement, and the low light really showed the colors of the landscape.
I got back to my car well before sunset, just as the chill of the evening was starting to set in. I hit the road with a couple hours of daylight still left for my drive back home, the whole way home still on a high from all the cool things I had seen on this one simple trail. An incredible hike – definitely one of the coolest walks I had ever taken!