By Suzanne Webel
This trail had been on my bucket list, for just about ever. It was reported to be enormous and gorgeous, with dinosaur tracks, prehistoric rock art, a Spanish Mission, and a historic ranch….. But it was always a bit too far, too remote, and too … well, just too unknowable.
And then there was the small matter of the US Army declaring it wanted to expand its Fort Carson Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site (PCMS) by taking over the entire 400,000 acre Comanche National Grassland — including Picketwire Canyon — and turning it into a bombing range. Starting in 2003, the plan would have condemned an additional 6.4 million acres of land owned by private citizens, making the total project area three times larger than any other military base in the United States, larger in area than the states of Maryland and Massachusetts combined, and displacing more than 17,000 residents. Sight unseen, I figured that was a pretty bad idea, so I joined up with other trail advocates, geologists, archaeologists, and ranchers to oppose the Army’s expansion plans. After a decade of pitched political battles, on 25 November 2013 the U.S. Army announced that its plan to expand the Piñon Canyon Maneuver site had been cancelled. So, naturally, by early spring of 2014 I had organized an equestrian expedition to check it all out.
Warnings: Picketwire is a very long drive from Boulder County, approximately 5 hours. The only published maps (other than this one) are inadequate, inaccurate, and inexcusable. You’ll be right next to a bombing range in the middle of nowhere. There is no designated horse camping and no water of any kind except for two river access points at the bottom of the canyon. Parts of the trail are very steep and rocky. Summer temperatures can exceed 110 degrees, and there is very little shade. Snow can make the access roads impassible. It’s often very windy. There are jumping cholla cactus everywhere, and snakes and scorpions. The river and side canyons are prone to flash floods.
So, ready to go? From La Junta, drive south on Highway 109 for 13 miles; turn west on CR 802 (David Canyon Road) and continue for 8 miles. Pass the sign for Vogel Canyon and save it for your last day. Turn south on CR 25 and proceed for 6 miles. Turn left at Picket Wire Corrals onto Forest Service Road 500A. Follow signs for Withers Canyon Trailhead, on about 3 miles of bumpy road; this is the only public access into Picket Wire Canyonlands. You may park your trailer here for day trips into the canyon, but you must find dispersed horse campsites elsewhere on the mesa (a very nice but firm park ranger led us back to the one marked “HC-1” on the map, which features an abandoned stock tank as a landmark of sorts; you may also camp along the road southeast of there and at HC-2, Picket Wire Corrals, which has another deserted stock tank). We tied our horses to our trailers for the night; and hey, only one of ‘em got loose…. Plan on bringing at least 25 gallons of water per horse, at least one gallon per person per day for the trail — and a lot more than that to have in reserve at the campsite to dump over your head if needed at the end of a long hot ride. To be safe you should plan on 3 days and 2 nights for the adventure.
We unloaded the horses in the late afternoon, set up camp, and took a lovely orientation ride at sunset down the side road from our campsite to a stunning canyon overlook. The next morning we mobilized back to the Withers Trailhead and headed down into the main canyon. The first half-mile is extremely steep and rocky, but the trail levels out at the bottom of the canyon and winds through nice meadows and rock outcrops along the cottonwood-filled alluvial plain of the Purgatoire River. Prehistoric people settled in the canyon, leaving primitive dwellings, stone tools and pottery, and exquisite rock art. We didn’t take the side trips necessary to find any of these at Picket Wire, but there are many photos online attesting to their presence.
At about mile 3.7 you’ll come upon a sad, poignant little settlement called the Dolores Mission and Cemetery, which has just about dissolved back into nature. According to legend, in the 16th century a group of Spanish treasure-seeking soldiers died in these canyons without benefit of clergy. Subsequent adventurers named it El Rio de Las Animas Perdidas en Purgatorio (The River of Souls Lost in Purgatory). Later French trappers who came through shortened it or just named it the Purgatoire (River from Hell) – but subsequent settlers couldn’t pronounce that, so it became Picket Wire). In the 19th Century, Hispanic and European settlers decided to try their hand at homesteading in the canyon. The mission cemetery contains primitive gravestones that had been carried all the way into the canyon on wagons as blanks, to be elaborately carved when someone died.
If you need to water the horses, turn left toward the river at the mission (the sign for this opportunity was missing on our visit so we missed it). Return to the trail and proceed another 1.7 mile to the largest dinosaur trackway in North America. A steel hitching rail has been provided and you must leave your horses here, on the west side of the river; there are some fossil footprints near the river on this side, but to see the largest exposure of them you must ford the stream (we went in spring and the water was high so we didn’t cross over, but I wish we had). 150 million years ago this area was part of a large, shallow lake where dinosaurs roamed. Meat-eating Brontosaurs and plant-eating Allosaurs left over 1,300 individual footprints in more than a hundred separate trackways, sometimes traveling in groups and trampling helpless clams as they wandered along the lakeshore. In one of life’s strange coincidences, just as we arrived at the dinosaur site we encountered a large group of amateur geologists who were being escorted around the site by none other than the world expert on this very site, Dr. Martin Lockley. The tour group exclaimed gleefully over the horses and everyone wanted to pat them and be photographed with them, leaving Martin and me to talk quietly about the geology off to one side.
If you have time, fit horses, and enough stamina yourself (we didn’t), you can continue another 3.4 miles to the Rourke Ranch, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Pioneer Eugene Rourke grew the ranch from a 160-acre homestead in the late 1800s to a more than 50,000 acre cattle empire that was still owned by the Rourke family as recently as the 1970s. Be aware that the round trip to the Rourke Ranch from the Withers Trailhead is 17.4 miles.
This beautiful side canyon of the Purgatoire contains several permanent springs (non-potable water), meadows, pinyon piney woods, and numerous shallow overhangs that used to contain prehistoric rock art dating from the 1200s to the 1700s. However, vandals have shot up almost all of the paintings. There are four short trails, including one built on a spur of the Santa Fe Trail that was developed by the Barlow and Sanderson Mail and Stage Line in the late 1800s. It is tempting to explore down the canyon but there is no connection to Picketwire. There is room for two horse trailers at the trailhead, with hitching rails, covered picnic tables, and restrooms. This site is worth a quick (2 hour) ride as you leave the Canyonlands.
OTHER THINGS TO DO IN THE AREA
Because it’s such a long distance from the People’s Republic, consider visiting some of the other attractions of the La Junta area while you’re there. We spent a few enjoyable hours at Bent’s Old Fort, built by Charles and William Bent and their partner Ceran St Vrain in 1833 on the north bank of the Arkansas River, then the boundary between the United States and Mexico. This trading post was a haven for soldiers, trappers, Native Americans and homesteaders alike as they traveled the Santa Fe Trail. It has been fully restored and is currently managed by the National Park Service, complete with re-enacters in authentic costume. Other sites along the Santa Fe Trail include Sierra Vista, where the Rockies first came into sight for weary westward-ho travelers in their Conestoga wagons; Iron Spring, which was an important watering hole for livestock; Timpas, a source of water and rest, and later a major livestock shipping point for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad; the Granada-Fort Union Military Route, still marked with sandstone fence posts; and Middle Spring and Point of Rocks on the Cimarron Route. The Comanche National Grassland also contains Carrizo Canyon Picnic Area and Picture Canyon Picnic Area southeast of La Junta, which boast wildlife and petroglyphs with possible astronomical significance, especially during the Fall equinox.
Total Distance: For Picket Wire, approx. 3.7 mi to Spanish Mission, 1.6 more to DinosaurTracks, 3.4 more to the Rourke Ranch; total 17.4 miles round trip.
For Vogel Canyon, approx. 8 miles total, but not all trails may be open to horses.
Total Time: Variable; plan on an entire day for each trail.
Difficulty: Variable; be prepared for adverse conditions and carry a lot of water.
Jurisdiction: USDA Forest Service Comanche National Grasslands
Maps: Maps available online and at trailheads are dangerously inaccurate. Please use these instead.