Comanche National Grassland
Even if a single book had never been written about the Comanche National Grassland, its history would still be known, for the land, itself, tells its own tale. Under the management of the US Forest Service, these 435,000 acres are divided into two separate, independent sites—one by La Junta and the other south of Springfield—both of which offer an array of experiences for people of all ages and levels of ability. Those adventurers who trek through these lands will find themselves on a remarkable and memorable journey through time.
The Comanche National Grassland in southeastern Colorado encompasses nearly 435,000 acres with expanses of short prairie grass that extend for miles in all directions, pristine Canyonlands, woodlands of juniper and piñon pine along with an abundance of diverse wildlife. The area draws its name from the Comanche who, along with the Kiowa and Arapaho, lived and hunted these lands prior to European settlement.
The Grassland, managed by the U.S. Forest Service, is divided into two sections, each operated by a local ranger district. The Timpas Unit is located south of La Junta. The Carrizo Unit is south of Springfield. Both units have privately owned tracts of ranch land mixed in with government owned land.
Much of the Grassland is remote, allowing travelers unobstructed views of the plains that stretch all the way to the distant horizon with no sign of civilization in sight, providing a sense of the "endless ocean of grass" often referenced in the diaries of the first settlers. As one traveler described it, "You drive through flat plains for miles and then, all of a sudden, you come up on canyons with some beautiful scenery." Many parts of the canyons hold extraordinary record of pre-historic and historic residents who left their marks upon the land.
This area has a lot to offer travelers and explorers interested in wilderness camping and backpacking as well as horseback riding enthusiasts who like to go on trail rides. There is also a handful of well-marked canyon hiking trails that range in difficulty from easy (due to distance and accessibility) to extreme (due to distance and areas of terrain). However, due to the remoteness, visitors are advised to be well prepared when they take off on their adventures.
If you embrace an authentic outdoor experience where the scenes look almost exactly the same as they might have been seen by people centuries before, exploring the Comanche National Grassland should be included in your next outdoor adventure.
From La Junta, drive south on Highway 109 for 13 miles. The turnoff to the canyon is well marked on Highway 109. Turn right (west) on County Road 802 for 1.5 miles. Turn left (south) on Forest Service Road 505A for 1.5 miles to the Vogel Canyon Parking Lot.
- 3 covered picnic tables with fire grills (charcoal fires restricted to grills only)
- 1 vault toilet
- 4 hiking trails
- 2 horse hitching trails
- Horse trailer parking
- No drinking water available
- Camping is allowed but in the parking area only
- No electricity or garbage cans available
Vogel Canyon, carved by waters from what is now a tributary of the Purgatoire River, is sandstone with scattered stands of piñon pine and shortgrass prairie. There are three permanent springs at the bottom of the canyon which provide ample opportunity for you to view wildlife, especially in the early morning or just before sunset. Some of the wildlife that inhabit the Comanche National Grassland include deer, antelope, coyote, and an estimated 247 different species of birds.
In a number of spots, Vogel Canyon's sandstone walls feature fascinating petroglyphs of what appear to be, in some cases, different wildlife. In other cases, the petroglyphs seem to be of a more spiritual nature. Although they have not been officially identified, the rock art is the work of early Native Americans who were in the area anywhere from 300 to 1,000 years ago. (The petroglyphs are very fragile and should not be touched.) Another historic site involves the Santa Fe Trail, the famous, historic trail that was developed to be a commercial "highway" that ran from Franklin, Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico. In the 1870s, the Barlow and Sanderson Mail and Stage Line developed a spur of the Santa Fe Trail, a section of which is featured on the Prairie Trail (described below).
Vogel Canyon offers four trails, all clearly marked with posts and stone markers and suitable for hiking, biking or horseback riding. No motorized vehicles are allowed on the trails.) These trails range from easy to moderate difficulty. The best time to hike is during the spring, summer and fall, and visitors are advised to bring water since water in the canyon's springs is not suitable for drinking.
The Overlook Trail (one mile long) is a gravel walkway that runs along the top of the canyon, ending along the top of a small cliff. This trail, which is handicapped accessible, offers impressive views of the canyon.
The Canyon Trail (1.75 miles round trip) is classified as an easy to moderate hike that will take you down into the canyon. As you hike, you'll pass the old ruins of the Westbrook settlement which was inhabited in the 1930s. Once you get to the canyon floor, you'll see spur trails that run up near the canyon walls. If you're interested in seeing some of the petroglyphs, be sure to take one of the spur trails as they'll lead you to where the rock art is clearly visible. As you approach the end of the trail, you can turn around and take the Canyon Trail back in the direction you came or come back out of the canyon on the Prairie, Overlook or Mesa Trails.
Mesa Trail (2.25 miles round trip) is classified as a moderate hike that will take you through piñon pine, past a spring and some old ruins before ultimately meeting up with the Prairie Trail. Once you're on the Prairie Trail, consider heading off through the prairie grass to the east where you can pick up the Canyon Trail that will take you back to the parking lot and your car. As you hike back on the Canyon Trail, make sure to check out the eastern edge of the trail where petroglyphs can be seen along the cliffs.
Prairie Trail (3 miles long round trip) is classified as a moderate hike. This trail begins back on the road you came in, so head back in that direction for just a short distance and then take the Barlow and Sanderson State Road for the first part of the trail. The trail will then veer off of the old stagecoach road and descend into the canyon, past the ruins of some old settlements, a rock corral and natural springs before ending at the base of the canyon walls. Again, take one of the spur trails up to the canyon walls where you'll see petroglyphs along with some stunning views. Then follow the Canyon Trail (north) that will take you back to the parking lot.
The largest set of dinosaur tracks in North America. Native American petroglyphs dating back as far as 4,500 years old. Early Hispanic settlements, including the Dolores Mission. A historic ranch. Abundant wildlife including deer, antelope, coyote, snakes, lizards, and hundreds of species of birds all residing in extraordinary landscape that varies from rolling hills of short prairie grasses to rugged bluffs and canyons rimmed with piñon and juniper trees.
These are the sites just waiting to be explored in the Picketwire (Purgatoire) Canyonlands, and it's no exaggeration to say that this place is truly unforgettable.
There are several ways for people to experience Picketwire.
If you have your own 4x4 vehicle, guided auto tours are available, led by Comanche National Grassland rangers. Those vehicles are the only motorized vehicles allowed in the canyon. Tours operate in May, June, September and October. Adults are $15; children are $7.50. Contact information for guided tours listed below.
Hiking, non-motorized bicycles and horseback riding are permitted; however, make sure to plan carefully. Due to its terrain and length (the hike can be anywhere from 2 to 17 miles, depending upon which sites you want to see), the trail are classified as an advanced hike.To schedule an auto tour or obtain more information about the area, contact:
Comanche National Grassland Office, Timpas Unit
1420 E 3rd St.
La Junta, Colorado
Open Monday through Friday, 8 AM to 5 PM, closed 12 PM-1 PM for lunch
Open dusk to dawn
No overnight camping allowed
3 vault toilets
No drinking water is available
Not wheelchair accessible
Location And Directions
From La Junta, drive south on Highway 109 for 13 miles; turn right (west) on County Road 802 (Vogel Canyon Road) and continue for 8 miles. Turn left (south) on County Road 25 and continue for 6 miles to the Corral Parking Area.
The trailhead is at Withers Canyon. If you want to drive to the trailhead, you should have a high-clearance, four wheel drive vehicle. To get to the trailhead, turn left (east) at Forest Service Road 500A and follow it for 3 miles until you arrive at the trailhead parking area. East of the parking area is a brown pipe gate, which is the trailhead. Please leave this (and all other gates) as you find them.
At the trailhead, the elevation will drop 500 feet into the canyon. Follow the dirt trail through the canyon, heading south/southeast. Again, as you pass through gates, please leave them as you find them.
From the trailhead to Hispanic settlements and mission — 3.7 miles
From the mission to the dinosaur tracks — 1.6 miles
From the dinosaur tracks to Rourke Ranch — 3.4 miles
Roundtrip from trailhead to dinosaur tracks — 10.6 miles
Roundtrip from trailhead to Rourke Ranch — 17.4 miles
- You should be in good physical condition. Solo hiking not advised.
- Bring a gallon of water with you; do not wait to get thirsty to drink.
- The canyon can be as hot as 110 degrees in the summer, so you should wear sunglasses, sunscreen, a hat and insect repellant.
- At times, you'll be walking over loose rock, wire, animal holes in the ground and slick rocks, so high top hiking boots are advised.
- If crossing the Purgatoire River, be cautious as it may be deeper than it appears. (You might want to bring tennis shoes for river crossing.)
- Long jeans are also advised as prickly pear and cholla cactus are in abundance.
- Bring rain gear, no matter what the season.
- Notify someone of your expected route, departure time and time of return. In case of emergency, contact the Otero County Sheriff's Office at (719) 384-5941 or call 911.
- Although it's very rare, you may encounter rattlesnakes, scorpions, and centipedes, so avoid tall grasses and be aware of where you put your hands and feet.