by T. Duren Jones
Jurassic Park, CO
I didn’t know that this area was home to the largest set of dinosaur tracks in North America. This, I had to see.
There is not much to see in the remote southeast plains of Colorado—that is, unless you want to dig deeper. I did, and was rewarded for the effort.
I’ve lived in Colorado for over 20 years and have trekked into the wilderness quite a bit—mostly in the mountains—but I’m still making new discoveries. This spring, I headed out to the Comanche National Grasslands (lots of grass, but no Comanches that I could see) to hike in the Picket Wire Canyonlands and the Purgatoire River Valley—the waterway apparently named by French trappers who spelled words funny. Until recently, I didn’t know that this area was home to the largest set of dinosaur tracks in North America. This, I had to see.
Over 1,300 dinosaur prints in 100 separate trackways tell the story of these beasts moving westward along the muddy edge of a vast freshwater lake. Their footprints were eventually buried and turned to stone.
I drove (what seemed like) millions of miles from home, and millions of years back in time, eons and eons before the first stake was ever driven into soil in what would become Colorado Springs. This was barren country except for the occasional piñon pine, antelope herd and jackrabbit rushing across the dirt road ahead of my tires that were throwing up a quarter mile of dust behind me. The directions to the trailhead took me miles this way, then that, then another direction altogether, the four-wheel-drive roads getting progressively worse the farther I went. I was a long way from my mountains; for all practical purposes, I might as well have been in northeastern New Mexico, transported back in time.
I halted to take my first photo of the day, amused at what I saw. At a T in the road, there stood a leaning, rusty stop sign. I looked one way, then the other, surmising that I could see about 100 miles in both directions across the gentle, rolling hills. No other vehicles glistened from the soft morning light. A stop sign … okay.
Nothing was out there, not even a bush large enough for an outdoor restroom break following that second cup of morning coffee. I could see perhaps why the dinosaurs left here, heading west to the beaches of Southern California. And they might have made it except for those pesky Rockies. Tough getting that bulk up and over the mountain passes, I guess.
I imagined the difficulty of the early pioneers moving west, and the Hispanic settlers to this area. There is such aloneness out here, which I like, compared to my civilized work-a-day world. But a bit of vulnerability as well. I half expected, when finally I started out on the trail, that I would immediately see vultures circling overhead, forks and knives in steely claws, cotton napkins around their necks.
I finally made it to the Picket Wire Corrals, and at this point the route finding became difficult. Most visitors to this remote area enter the canyon from another direction, and with a scheduled U.S. Forest Service guide. As I continued, the driving trail marker signs didn’t match the numbered road directions I had printed out from Internet sites. Nothing on my rudimentary map made sense, so I stopped after a fork in the rutted road to review my notes.
A little white sedan unexpectedly passed me, and we waved. They seem to know where they are going, I thought. I’ll follow them. This was a good place to park, so I hydrated, got my day-hike fanny pack together, pulled out my hiking stick, sprayed myself with sunscreen, put on my broad-brimmed hat, and was off. It was a longer trek than expected to catch up to my new guides.
A genesis of yellow spring wildflower blooms greeted me along the serpentine road. I could see storm clouds building from the northwest. I knew I could expect rain but hoped it would hold off until the forecasted afternoon hours. When I did come upon the white car, the occupants were out and busy doing something.
“Hello!” I called, not wanting to startle them.
“Stop! Stop right there! Don’t move!” the older, taller of two women yelled at me. I complied. This was still the wild wild West in some respects.
She then turned to the scrub brush around her and shouted something garbled, but to me it sounded a bit like Brutus or Bruiser or Buttkiss. She screamed again. No response. I stood frozen.
Out bounded two monster dogs, breed mixes I didn’t recognize, but they looked to be a combination of Rottweiler and Godzilla. The larger woman barely grabbed the collar of one of the snarling dogs; her younger friend or daughter snagged the other. I thought the effort would prove useless as the women were dragged a few feet when the dogs fought to charge at me.
“It’s … it’s okay now,” the shouting woman sputtered, barely heard over the barking. “We got ’em.”
The struggle with her beast did not instill confidence. Who brings an aggressive dog out into the wilderness, especially without a leash? But I said nothing.
“They are okay,” the younger spoke. “Friendly, really, after they get to know you.” Or after they eat you. “We bring them with us for security.”
No kidding. I had little doubt that the dogs were effective. But it was ridiculous not to keep them under tight control. I approached cautiously and saw that the women had brought a pantry-full of food, placing it all on the hood of their car.
I explained that I was uncertain about the directions to the trailhead and asked if they knew more. With great confidence, Older Woman pointed and stated that the trail down to the canyon and river below was just a bit farther, to the left. I was to follow the last of the road and would clearly see my way down. I was sure that when I rounded the corner, the two would release the Hounds of Hell to lunch on me out of sight.
Walking in a sweeping large circle for a quarter mile, I could see no good trail down through the cliffs from this plateau peninsula, about a 300-foot drop to the valley floor. So I ended up back at the white car. I expressed with some frustration that I had seen no trail. Younger One said, “Just over there. On yer left. We were here last year and found it.”
I made another loop. With my hiking experience, I could have navigated a route down the cliffs, but surely that way could not be any trail. Back to the car that should not have been on a high-clearance road, I showed the ladies my map and trail description. I told them this was not where they thought they were, and that I was returning to my car to drive back to the start.
“Hmmm,” Older Woman said, as she stuffed the last of a sandwich in her mouth and chased it with a big swig of Coke. “Could have sworn this was the place. Maybe you are right.” Do you think?
This detour had added nearly an extra mile to my hiking day and cost me almost an hour of lost time. Lesson learned: Don’t put your trust in sedan-driving, big-dogs-off-leash pet owners who are confused and disoriented, clearly having no idea where they are yet willing to give advice to others. How do you say “idiots” in French?
I drove back the way I came, trying to avoid large mud puddles from heavy rain the day before. I don’t know how I missed them coming in, but on my left were campers cooking a smoky breakfast. Both had camouflage clothing on—surely they would know the surroundings. I got out of car and shouted a greeting. The father and son had been turkey hunting. I explained my dilemma of trying to find the trail down to the valley.
“Do you want the harder trail or the easier one?” the dad asked. “The harder way is back there. Just stay to the left at the Y in the road, and it will take you right to the trailhead.”
Of course! The Y in the road. Both I and the Womidiots had taken the right side branch at the junction!
“And the easier route?” I inquired.
“Right here. Through that opening in the brush. Not marked anywhere.” He pointed. “Trail’s on your left in a couple hundred feet. Look for the white rocks to start down. This trail will take you right to the old cemetery, and the dirt road to the dinosaur tracks.”
The ruins of the Spanish mission were one of the sites I wanted to see! I would miss the Indian petroglyphs by taking this route, but I had seen that type of Native American rock art in southwest Utah. Frankly, although I admire the prehistoric, nomadic hunter-gatherers’ ability to survive in desolate regions, I’m not too impressed with their artistic ability. Where were the da Vincis of their time? To their defense, I guess, they were using rock chisels and rock hammers to draw on, well, rock. They did their best.
Back on track, I quickly readied myself, started out again, looked back to wave goodbye at my more-dependable trail advisors, and promptly stepped into a cactus, driving a large needle through the mesh of my boot and into my foot. I dared show no pain, disguising my limp as a spring in my step because of my enthusiasm for finding the trail. Around a corner, I gasped, took off my boot and removed the spike with tweezers from my camping Swiss Army knife.
A rocky path switchbacked down the cliffs, rimmed by sparse piñon and juniper forests, into a canyon deeply cut out of the landscape. I didn’t think many hikers came this way. Because this wasn’t a designated trail, I thought I should leave breadcrumbs to find my way back. I decided to set up some small rock cairns along the way; birds wouldn’t be able to eat these. The trail “flattened out” to rolling hills channeled by the cliffs on both sides, and eventually opened up to a broad valley, starting to spring green.
Sure enough, my rugged trail spilled out right at the cemetery and the dirt road that would lead to the dino tracks. The Dolores Mission and Cemetery was built and maintained between 1871 and 1889. Some remains are still visible. A small sign instructs visitors not to tip over the few remnant grave markers. Glad that warning was there, otherwise, I was tempted to knock them all over. Seriously, anyone who makes the effort to travel this far into the wilderness, to visit historic sites, needs such an admonition? I guess so.
The Purgatoire River etched out this colorful valley, exposing rock layers of prehistoric seabeds and an ancient lakeshore where the dinosaurs roamed long before the buffalo. About that river name, according to legend, a group of Spanish treasure-seeking soldiers died in the canyons without the benefit of clergy. So, in the sixteenth century the river was named El Rio de Las Animas Perdidas en Purgatorio (The River of Lost Souls in Purgatory). Later, the French trappers shortened the name of the waterway to Purgatoire. Following, less Continental, Anglo travelers on the Santa Fe Trail could not pronounce “Purgatoire” (and didn’t care for the attitude of the French anyway) so began to call the canyonlands Picket Wire, for some reason.
It was nearly two miles on the dirt road to the dinosaur tracks. Small birds—thankfully, not famished vultures—darted from bush to bush. The storm clouds built into dark, threatening shapes—beautiful, really, despite the possible dread they foretold—but I wouldn’t need to worry about them until my drive home.
The destination did not disappoint. The quarter-mile stretch of footprints along the banks of the river was amazing. Over 1,300 dinosaur prints in 100 separate trackways tell the story of these beasts moving westward along the muddy edge of a vast freshwater lake. Their footprints were eventually buried and turned to stone. Roughly 60 percent of the tracks were left by the allosaurus, a two-footed, three-toed, meat-eating scavenger that possibly hunted in packs. The balance was left by the mighty brontosaurus, a four-footed plant eater.
Scientists say the site tells us something about the social behavior of dinosaurs. For example, parallel tracks seem to show that several young brontosaurus were traveling together as a group along the shoreline. There was evidence that the roudy group was smoking and had done some acts of vandalism. I just made that up. No scientific studies support that. What all the footprints did show was that it looked like there was a lot of pushing and shoving to get west, and that some of the clade Dinosauria had digested some fermented berries, making their path look like it was made by a 39-ton drunken sailor.
I would have stayed longer exploring the river’s edge, but several four-wheel-drive vehicles arrived at the parking area and spilled out loudly enthusiastic schoolchildren with lunch bags, all led by a Forest Service guide. Good for them—I wish I had discovered something like this as a kid. But, like our dino friends from eons past, it was time for me to go. I’m a solitary, two-footed, meat-eating adventurer who enjoys his peace and quiet.
I reflected on my time at the Purgatoire River site on my wet drive home. I thought about the uninformed misdirection that started my expedition that day and wondered if the idiots had ever found their way back to the actual trailhead. I chuckled—but then I remembered plenty of times when that word had described me too.
See photos of this trip.