Comanche National Grasslands is calling 

Why go east?

click to enlarge Biking past the ruins of the Dolores Mission. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Biking past the ruins of the Dolores Mission.

The premise of the trip went this way: Front Rangers generally head west, where the mountains and many rivers are, for most of their outdoor adventuring. There's often a bit of northward or southern drift along those paths, but rarely do you hear your friends, even the fishermen and -women, talk of going east.

Yes, Springs folk do make the Calhan drive regularly for the Paint Mines Interpretive Park, but what else? What's worthwhile on all the rest of that map — nearly half the state? With 20 years now living in Colorado (and much travel through its western areas), I couldn't answer that question.

So I studied my map. And quickly my eye came to two out of the nation's 20 National Grasslands: Pawnee and Comanche.

Pawnee's up against the Nebraska and Wyoming state lines, and will have to be the subject of a future writing. For our quick weekend trip, we opted instead to point toward the New Mexico and Oklahoma borders and get our feet wet in Comanche. With brief research, we were now learning of Comanche's key attraction, the longest dinosaur footprint trackway in the country, amazingly preserved from the Jurassic period. (Bolivia hosts the longest in the world, by the way, from the Cretaceous period.)

Further reading revealed more sites of interest, including nearby preserved homesteads as well as rock art around dramatic canyon areas. What we'd ignorantly presumed to be empty prairie nothingness with few contours and features turned out to be, well, empty prairie nothingness with few, but very interesting contours and features.

Budget three to four hours from the Springs to get to the Withers Canyon Trailhead, a 5.3-mile hike or bike away from the dino footprints. The drive will take you just into Pueblo before heading out U.S. Hwy. 50, through Avondale and Boone (home to some of our Arkansas Valley Organic Growers), and on through more charmingly dilapidated small towns like Fowler, Manzanola, Rocky Ford (you've tasted the melons, I'm sure), Swink (love that name), and finally La Junta.

Say, is that the noxious perfume of a feedlot I smell? This will be a question asked at least thrice along the way, and you will contemplate veganism and maybe literally gag a little, and feel gratitude for the hard-working folk who populate these areas, and thereby our grocery shelves, with goods... but that smell, woof.

Long before officially entering the Comanche Grasslands down Hwy. 109 from La Junta, you will see plenty of flat grassy expanses, and were it not for the sign, nothing really tells the eye you've reached specially

designated lands. Grass turns to more grass as we turn off onto Forest Service dirt roads finally, for a 17-mile dusty journey to said Withers Canyon Trailhead, where several organized campsites are available, served by a vault toilet. Signs request that you bed down here vs. open camp, and we later pass a pleasant, quiet night, failing to catch a meteor shower from behind cloud cover and too much moonlight, but enjoying coyote howls not far off. (Returning home, we also catch a rare glimpse of a golden eagle that soars directly over our car.)

With more limited time than we'd have preferred (c'est la vie), we opted to haul bikes, which less technical riders will want to walk up and down the initial 250-foot descent from the rim to Picket Wire Canyon's floor. It's stair-stepped with railroad ties, quite rocky, and moderately steep. But once down, riding's a breeze, mostly across flat hard-packed dirt, with some muddy and sandy segments that put a fat bike to good use, if that's an option available to you.

click to enlarge Walking in the footsteps of dinosaurs. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Walking in the footsteps of dinosaurs.

The first reason to leave the saddle comes not far down the trail, at a small homestead where part of an adobe wall and weathered timbers still stand, next to a primitive well and some rusted bits of refuse. We all wonder what life must have been like out here more than a century ago — on the morbid side, I think of Seth MacFarlane's crass, dark humor in A Million Ways to Die in the West: "Holy shit. To build a home and a life in this harsh, unforgiving country required that a man be bold, fearless, and tough as iron. The men who were courageous and resilient were the men who prospered. But some men were just big giant pussies."

Well, understandably offensive as that is to feminists, that'd be me, I think, as I've somehow already managed to slash the back of my ankle on my bike pedal, get a thumping headache despite adequate electrolyte hydration, and carry some sort of unearned energy fatigue (methinks viral) onto the journey. But I cowboy up and onward to the next trail highlight, The Dolores Mission and Cemetery, in an area settled by a small group of Mexican families after the Mexican-American War. A Forest Service brochure explains the church was erected in 1898, and that the headstones were likely imported and carved on-site, rather ornately. Many honor children who died young (proving MacFarlane's point about the West's harshness). A sign requests that visitors not pick up the headstones — presumably because some tourist asshat did just that in the past, showing no respect to historic and cultural heritage.

Miles onward, past both verdant and withered patches of scrubby grass, and cacti in bloom with yellow- and rose-colored flowers, we finally reach the dino footprints, along both shorelines of a segment of the Purgatoire River. It's running unusually high at this time of year, we're told by hikers who were told that by park rangers earlier in the day. By heading upriver a bit, my travel companions find a spot shallow enough to find footing amidst the strong currents.

Signage on-site, plus park brochures and many sites online further detail all the aspects of how the footprints became preserved: Basically lakeside mud was imprinted, sun-baked, buried and turned to stone over millennia. Recorded numbers of total footprints vary, but count over 1,300. It's humbling to place a hand or foot beside or inside a print and stretch the mind and imagination to grasp the size of the creature who stood here before you 150 million years ago. As we now know, and relative to one of today's great debates, climate change is presumed to have partly wiped out Michael Crichton's hungry on-screen villains. (Again, c'est la vie.) Maybe millions of years from now someone will be studying our preserved bike-tire tracks, trying to discern what small groups of humans were doing in this remote grassland area, by then perhaps a whole different ecosystem.

Stay playful and pondering and existentially philosophical as long as your attention span can handle, then ride or hike another few miles onto a once-bustling (for its era, 1871-1971) cattle and horse ranch, named Rourke Ranch, now preserved on the National Register of Historic Places. Arriving late in the day, we ran low on time to do so before dark, so it, like the prehistoric rock art elsewhere in the Grasslands, will call us back for a future visit.

Turns out there's plenty that's rewarding to see in eastern Colorado, if expectations are properly tempered and you don't mind a long, flat drive into vast prairie nothingness — which, upon experience and reflection, is something special all in itself.


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