Picketwire Canyonlands

Round Trip Distance: 12.5 - 18.9 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Skill level:
Elevation: 4307 - 4646 feet
Cellphone: 0 bars
Time: 4 hrs.
Trailhead: Corral/Withers Canyon
Fee: none
Attractions: Dinosaur tracks, Spanish mission/cemetery

Picketwire Canyon is located in the Comanche National Grassland south of the town of La Junta in southeastern Colorado. The canyon shows signs of habitation for thousands of years by archaic Indians and more recently by Spanish settlers. The trail through the canyon passes several Spanish homesites as well as the remains of the Dolores Mission and Cemetery. Continuing a little further past the mission leads to the largest dinosaur trackway in North America, located along the banks of the Purgatoire River, known as the Purgatoire River or Picketwire Canyonlands Dinosaur Track site.

To get to the trailhead drive about 13 miles south of La Junta on Highway 109 and turn west onto County Road 802. The turnoff is marked by a sign for Vogel Canyon. Follow the graveled CR 802 for about 8 miles to a 'T' intersection where a sign points left toward Picketwire Canyon. After turning left follow CR 25 for about 6 miles to the Corral trailhead. If the gate is open you can continue driving for another 3.2 miles to the Withers Canyon trailhead. A sign on the gate says that it will be closed during wet weather. Since we were riding our mountain bikes we parked at the Corral trailhead and began from there. The road between the two trailheads was easily passable by passenger cars while we were there for this post in mid July.

Campsites, which include fire rings and tables, are located around the Withers Canyon trailhead. The trailhead also has a restroom. No camping is allowed within Picketwire Canyon. A sign near the trailhead warns mountain bikers to prepare for flats. The warning is due to a large number of goatheads on the trail. We were able to pick the goatheads out of our tires each time we stopped to take a picture and finished without any flats or leaks. Our tires were well worn but included tube guards and thorn resistant tubes without any green goo in them.

From the trailhead the route makes about a 300 foot drop down a steep rocky hill to get into the canyon.

Once the trail gets down to the floor of the canyon it travels around the base of the canyons northern cliffs heading south to southwest as it goes. As you can see in the picture the trail is following an old double track road. Every so often there will be a trail sign along the route that indicates how much further it is to the mission and dinosaur tracks.

The trail is mostly flat except for one section that climbs over a hump in the hillside that juts out into the canyon at the same point that the Purgatoire River is pressing up against the canyons northern edge.

The Dolores Mission and Cemetery is near the 3.7 mile point from the Withers Canyon trailhead. The site served the Mexican pioneers between 1871 and 1889.

After passing the mission the trail continues with very little elevation change. Watch for a sign on the righthand side of the trail where there is a large replica of a dinosaur shoulder blade from an Apatosaurus that was excavated from a quarry site in Picketwire Canyon in 2008. The bone measures almost 8 feet in length meaning the Apatosaurus that it came from would have been about 90 feet long and would have weighed around 40,000 pounds.

The Purgatoire River or Picketwire Canyonlands  Dinosaur Track site comes up about 5.3 miles from the Withers Canyon trailhead. There is another restroom here as well as several kiosks that provide useful information about the tracks.

All of the tracks that have been unearthed are along the banks of the Purgatoire River. Many of the tracks on the north side of the river were made by theropods or 'meat eaters'.

The bulk of the tracks and trackways are on the opposite side of the river. During times of low flow the river can easily be crossed near the theropod tracks. While we were here the river was moving rather swiftly so we followed the marked path along the bank to a good crossing point just above the little waterfall. Crossing is easier than it might appear especially if you have trekking poles or if you find a couple of good sticks from one of the nearby brush piles. The river bed is mostly flat just like the flat areas where the tracks are located so you don't have to worry too much about stumbling over river rocks. We took our shoes and socks off and left them on the north bank and went over barefooted. The water was only about 12-18 inches deep.

On the south side of the river there are some sauropod tracks that are sunk deep into the rock. These were probably made by a massive Brontosaurus or Apatosaurus. Numerous other tracks and trackways cover the entire area.

A low point along the bank of the river between the deep tracks and the 5 parallel trackways is submerged when the river is running high. There is just something that is super cool about being able to see dinosaur tracks that are underwater.

If you continue for another 3.4 miles past the dinosaur tracks you can visit the site of the Rourke Ranch. We didn't go any further than the tracks so we can't tell you anything about the other. There are several old homesites that are interesting to inspect between the trailhead and the track site. Several of the ruins have adobe walls while others were made of all stone and wood. One site near the trackways looks just like an Anasazi rubble pile although there are a few pieces of metal scattered about. It was common for many ancient Indian ruins to be repurposed by settlers. Some sites they would move right into and take up residence while others they would haul away the stones from for their own use. Only an archaeologist with the right to excavate the sites would be able to determine what happened at each location in Picketwire Canyon. Remember that it is illegal to dig around or harm one of these sites in anyway. Please help preserve them for future generations to enjoy.

We gave Picketwire Canyon 5 stars simply for being the largest dinosaur trackway in North America. As far as the trail itself goes it only merits 2 or 3 stars while the Spanish mission and other heritage sites would garner 3 or 4 stars because of their historical significance. We spotted some petroglyphs with our binoculars but the hillside was pretty rough to get up to them so we didn't bother getting any closer. Picketwire Canyon is moderate on a mountain bike but probably strenuous on foot. The hill leading into and out of the canyon is 'on foot' even for a bike. Because of the length of the trail and its remote location good preparation should be made beforehand. We saw people of varying ages on the trail including some with small children. If you would like to see it for yourself then all you have to do is 'Take a hike'.