Canyons of Southeast Colorado
It seldom occurs to people that there are fabulous opportunities for hiking and exploring here in southeast Colorado in the secret canyons of the prairie. They dip below the prairie, unseen by most.
Rock art, or petroglyphs, are the main draw for people coming to Picture Canyon and Carrizo Canyon here in Baca County. Picture Canyon is located about 15 miles southwest of the town of Campo. Carrizo Canyon is located about 30 miles southwest of Springfield. Many of these canyons hold hidden treasures of ancient people and are filled with ancient petroglyphs carved into the canyon walls. Closer to La Junta, Vogel Canyon has petroglyphs, as well as a hiking trail and picnic facilities like the Baca County canyons. Some have relics of abandoned homesteads. Hikers and bikers in the Picket Wire and other sites should prepare for quick changes in the weather, and watch out for the grasslands' wildlife, which includes rattlesnakes. Armed with a picnic lunch, canyons make the perfect outdoor day trip for residents of Southeastern Colorado. Be sure to bring at least a gallon of water for each person. I have heard that Picketwire Canyon can even be seen from space.
104° 11' 50" W, 37° 41' 48" N
This is an enormous canyon and has many opportunities for exploring and discovery. It begins with the Apishapa State Wildlife Area in Las Animas County. This canyon makes for a perfect day of four-wheeling, hiking and wildlife watching. It is even rumored to house
How To get there: Take Highway 10, which can be reached from I-25 near Walsenburg or from east of La Junta, to County Road 90 — marked with Apishapa State Wildlife signs. This turn is about 16 miles east of I-25. Turn south on Road 90 and travel another 20 miles to reach either the south or north entrance. This 20-mile drive can be deceiving, but keep following the state signs that remind you that you are on the right track. They also let you know that you are on public roads, despite several “no trespassing” signs.
Canyon Access: Once you reach the signs welcoming you to the state wildlife area, you can park your car and walk into the canyon. If you have a four-wheel drive vehicle, you can also drive in as long as you remain on defined roads. The four-wheel drive roads can be tricky in a few spots, but they are mostly easy ways to enter the canyon .
103° 1' 1" W, 37° 8' 4" N
Carrizo canyon, hidden in the heart of cattle country is lush and breath-taking surprise. Almost humid – even during drought – Carrizo Canyon provides a marshy home to a variety of vegetation including willows, cattails, and of course, cottonwoods and junipers. Carrizo Canyon also boasts wild grapevines, mammoth calabaza plants and, most remarkably, fields of wild tomatillo. Like other canyons in the area, Carrizo Canyon is a gallery of pre-historic rock art. Carrizo Canyon is very easy to explore; the Forest Service has even provided stone and wooden staircases to get in and out of the canyon. In addition to parking area picnic tables, there are several secluded and shady picnic tables in the canyon.
How To get there: Take Highway 287 south from Springfield. About 10 miles outside of town, you will find a small Forest Service sign marking the road to the canyon. Turn west on this dirt road. Follow the Forest Service signs to get to the canyon. With occasional soft shoulders, drive carefully and be alert for cattle and deer.
Canyon access: You can park your car at the top of the canyon. There are stone and wooden stairs to help you climb down into the canyon.
102° 44' 43" W, 37° 0' 41" N
Picture Canyon, named for its prehistoric rock art is a friendly and easily-accessible canyon. About 35 miles southwest of Springfield. Armed with bug spray, Picture Canyon is an ideal place for camping, hiking, bike riding, horseback riding and exploring. Beautiful sleek cows and deer make nice company while they snack on the canyon’s buffalo grass. The mix of sandy green landscape, delicate wildflowers and big prairie sky create breathtaking vistas along the canyon. Picture Canyon is a must-see for bird watchers, amateur horticulturists and anthropologists, and anyone who needs a quick getaway.
The recorded history of Picture Canyon begins with the Sante Fe Trail of the early 1800's. The Aubry Cutoff branch of the Trail passes just a few miles east of the canyon. Cattle barons carved huge range empires from the vast grasslands in the 1870's and 1880's. The Picture canyon area was used by the JJ outfit from near Higbee, Colorado, and by several spreads from "no man's land" (the Oklahoma Panhandle.) The famous outlaw, Black Jack Ketchum, was reported to have had several brushes with the law in and around the Canyon. Southeast Colorado was first homesteaded in the late 1880's. By 1890 numerous farming and ranching communities were established in what was to become Baca County. Picture Canyon contains a chronicle of the pioneer era. Rock houses, rock fences, and cemeteries can be found in the area. Remains of a typical homestead, perhaps built by a squatter, stands near the entrance of Crack Cave. Drought and dust storms of the "Dirty Thirties" ruined local farms and forced the owners off the land. Many of the marginal farms were then purchased by the federal government just before WWII. These lands are the majority of the present day Comanche National Grassland.
How to get there: You can visit Picture Canyon yearlong, with spring and fall having more desirable weather. The Canyon is located 35 miles southwest of Springfield, Colorado. Travel 17 miles south of Springfield on US Highway 287, turn west on Baca County Road M and drive 8 miles to County Road 18. Turn south on County Road 18 and travel 10 miles to the Canyon.
FACILITIES: Three covered picnic tables with grills, (fires allowed in grills only), 1 vault toilet, 4 mile loop trail, drinking water not available.
Canyon access: Once into the canyon, you will find a nice parking area with a public restroom and picnic tables. There are two long looping hikes that begin near the parking area. There is open camping in Picture Canyon, but you must pack out all of your trash and observe any fire restrictions.
103° 35' 54" W, 37° 37' 0" N
Much like the modern-day custom of leaving handprints in wet cement, dinosaurs have left their prints in the rock surrounding the Purgatory River. The amazingly well-preserved dinosaur tracks look like part of a Spielberg movie set. The Forest Service’s Dr. Bruce Schumacher and a team of volunteers have uncovered more dinosaur discoveries in the canyon, including a substantial piece of hip bone from a large herbivore. In addition to paleontologic finds, Picketwire Canyon provides a glimpse at human history in Colorado with ancient petroglyphs, remains of the once-thriving Rourke Ranch and an old Spanish mission cemetery.
While Picketwire Canyon is both a historic and natural marvel, only people in fairly good shape should attempt to walk or bike into the canyon. “Canyon Safety Tips,” on the next page, are especially pertinent for Picketwire Canyon. Searing temperatures, flash floods and rattlesnakes are just a few of the possible dangers.
How to get there: Drive on Highway 109 south of La Junta for about 13 miles. Turn west on County Road 802 and continue for eight miles. Turn south on County Road 25 and continue for another six miles. Turn left at Forest Service Road 500.A. You may park here or continue three miles until your arrive at the trailhead parking area. You will need a high-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle to drive to the trailhead.
Canyon access: NO CAMPING OR UNAUTHORIZED MOTORIZED VEHICLES ARE ALLOWED IN PICKET WIRE CANYONLANDS. You can’t drive into Picketwire canyon without permission and/or escort, although Fall and Spring auto tours are available through the Forest Service. You can hike, bike or ride horses into the canyon. From the trailhead, it is a one-mile hike to the Purgatory River. It is a 3.7 mile trip to the mission cemetery. It is a 5.3 mile trip to the dinosaur tracks. And, it is a 8.7 mile trip to the Rourke Ranch. (Please note that these mileages only refer to a one-way trip. You must also consider the return trip when planning.)
FACILITIES: 3 portable toilets (pipe gate, tracksite and Rourke Ranch) Drinking water is not available.
USE: Heavy - spring and fail Moderate - summer Light - winter
103° 30' 31" W, 37° 45' 48" N
Vogel Canyon is an unusual and beautiful blip in the vast high prairie and grasslands. Filled with jack rabbits and decorated with petroglyphs, Vogel Canyon is definitely worth the short drive south of La Junta. You enter the canyon by walking down smooth planks of sandstone. It is important to follow the rock cairns created by the National Forest Service that mark the trail. (It is always a good idea to stay on marked trails. It is safer for you and kinder to the environment that keep natural places beautiful.) Old junipers provide spots of piney shade as you enter the canyon. As the trail flattens out, you walk on a sandy trail often stippled by the crescent shaped paws of jack rabbits.
After passing over the sandy trail, you begin to discover the evidence of settlement in the canyon. As you walk south, there are the ruins of a homestead to the west. Once you are further into the canyon, you will discover why it is called a canyon. Sandstone walls climb and arch. These soft walls are the home of lizards, mud wrens, flying insects and petroglyphs.
How to get there: From La Junta, Colorado drive south on Highway 109 for 13 miles. At the Vogel Canyon sign turn right (west) for 1 mile, then turn left (south) for 2 miles to the parking lot.
Canyon access: The hike into Vogel Canyon is mildly difficult, especially if the temperature is high. Once into the canyon, there are four hiking trails to take you to the canyon bottom and mesa top, while walking through shortgrass prairie and juniper trees. Camping is allowed at Vogel Canyon but only in the parking area.
Overlook Trail Length: 1 mile Difficulty: easy Highlights: canyon overlook
Mesa Trail Length: 2 1/4 miles Difficulty: moderate Highlights: ruins, juniper woodlands, shortgrass prairie
Canyon Trail Length: 1 3/4 miles Difficulty: easy Highlights: ruins, overlook, springs, rock art
Prairie Trail Length: 3 miles Difficulty: moderate Highlights: stage tracks, juniper woodlands, shortgrass prairie
FACILITIES: 3 covered picnic tables with grills (charcoal fires allowed in grills only) 1 vault toilet 4 hiking trails 2 horse hitching rails & trailer parking Drinking water not available
CAMPING: Camping is allowed in the parking area only. However, no electricity, water or garbage are available. Please pack out all trash.
While Tollgate Canyon is just on the other side of the New Mexico border, it is included here because it once served as a border crossing between Colorado and the New Mexico territory. Tollgate Canyon offers a little history and the strangely striking Folsom Falls, a waterfall that flows over large, black lava rock. A trip to the canyon takes you through the refreshingly beautiful little town of Branson, Colorado. A must-see, the sweet town of Branson could star in an episode of Little House on the Prairie with its crisp white community church and long-vacant jailhouse turned park.
How to get there: Take Highway 160 east from Trinidad, west from Springfield, or head south from La Junta on Highway 109 until you reach Walt’s Corner. Going south on Highway 389 for 10 miles will take you to Branson. As you continue on the highway into New Mexico, you will drive through the Tollgate Canyon. You will find a historical marker, ruins of a tollgate and a picnic table.
About 10 miles south from the border, you will discover Folsom Falls. There is no sign, but there is a large area to park and pipe gate. It should be on your left, if you are driving south. If you should miss it, just drive into the town of Folsom, New Mexico, and ask at the Folsom Museum.
Canyon Safety Tips
1. Bring water. You can not drink the water in any of the canyons. Bring at least one gallon of water per person.
2. Protect yourself. Use sunglasses, sunscreen, hat and insect repellent.
3. Dress properly. Dress for the heat during early fall, late spring and summer. Temperatures in the some of the canyons can reach up to 110 degrees during the summer. • During fall, winter and early spring, dress in layers for changing weather conditions. • Always bring rain gear.
4. Do research. Before going out to any of the canyons, it is a good idea to contact the Forest Service for any guidelines or maps. • Always check current weather and road conditions before you begin.
5. Prevent wildfire. Wildfire is always a risk. Don’t throw cigarette butts on the ground. • Before any canyon trip, check with the local Forest Service for current fire restrictions.
Contact: U.S. Forest Service • Commanche National Grasslands
719-384-2181 (La Junta) • 719-523-6591 (Springfield)