A walk through time and history
‘Terra Incognita’. Heard of that place? It means, ‘unknown land’. It used to be used on maps for those areas that the cartographers didn’t know what was there. For many folks, it’s that way regarding southeastern Colorado. For them, Colorado is the Rockies, Denver, Boulder, Ft. Collins and maybe Aspen. That area east of I-25 is a kind of sand colored blank.
Thing is, so much history took place along the rivers and plains of eastern Colorado, the kind of events that shaped not only the development of our state, but of the United States as well. That history is more than the last couple centuries; it goes all the way back through time to the era of the dinosaurs. You can see that at a place unique in the world: Picketwire Canyonlands, on the Comanche National Grasslands.
We recently took one of our favorite tours down into the Canyonlands, south of La Junta, CO. ‘Picketwire’ is a variation on the 19th century French traders’ name for the river that runs through the canyon: ‘Purgatoire’, or Purgatory. The river takes its name from the original Spanish name given in the 17th century: ‘Rio de las Animas Perdidas en Purgatorio’. ‘River of the Souls Lost in Purgatory’. That’s a story in itself.
Picketwire Canyonlands has seen human activity for hundreds of years, perhaps thousands. From ruins and petroglyphs left by ancient first peoples, explorers and settlers in the 19th century and modern ranching in the 20th, the stories in the Canyon go back 150 million years to the Jurassic period. We find there the largest dinosaur track site in the world.
Our tour took us down a trail that hugs the slope of a side canyon, descending 350 feet. The trail joins the main road/trail near the Dolores Mission. That’s the ruin of a small stone and adobe church built by Hispanic settlers sometime in the second half of the 19th century. Catholic priests who worked a ‘circuit’ of small, remote mission churches presided over baptisms, marriages, and last rites for the population of a few hundred settlers who farmed and kept livestock in the area. The graves of several children still occupy the fenced church yard.
Near the mission is the first set of petroglyphs. Incised into dark ruddy brown of the ‘desert patina’ of the boulders on the top of a small rise are ‘gang signs’, i.e., possible clan signs, a running man and other enigmatic symbols. We hiked on down the trail; a road used by Forest Service personnel for maintenance. Turning off the road and covering a flat expanse, crossing the depression of a hand-dug 19th century ‘acequia’ or irrigation ditch, we ascended a butte to find the piled stones of a collection of small buildings that date to pre-Conquest times when a group of sedentary first peoples occupied this area. The pit-house type structures may have been houses, storage or something else. They are not forthcoming with their stories.
We walked on another mile or so to a point where we descended to find one of the most impressive petroglyphs. It’s big: possibly eight feet by about 3 feet high. It depicts a human figure in the center, attached to a variety of animals by lines, as though they are on leashes. It may show the connection of a shaman to spirit animals or depict his control over them.
Back in the canyon, we turned back toward the highlight of the trip, the dinosaur track site. Along the way we passed a natural rock arch beside the road. It’s oval opening kind of looks like an empty eye gazing out across the canyon.
Reaching the tracks, we lingered quite a while, taking a break for food and rest, then exploring. As mentioned, it’s the largest known dinosaur track site in the world. There are literally hundreds of tracks, and more are uncovered every year. The tracks are in a layer of limestone next to the Picketwire (I prefer Purgatoire – more elegant), although there are a couple of different levels. Revealed to scientists in the 1920s, the tracks have been studied since then, but received the most attention in the 1980s. In two areas on both sides of the river, there are a number of tracks that trace the movement of specific adult sauropods (the really big, four-footed dinos, most likely Apatosauri) that were apparently crossing a wet or muddy area. Along with adults there are tracks of juveniles. From these tracks, paleontologists have concluded that they moved in herds and took care of their young. This herd wasn’t alone, it seems. Near by and mixed in are three toed tracks of therapods – predators – Allosauri. In another spot, the rock has the appearance of ground churned up. The rock is kind of broken and cratered; not by a modern herd, but by the tracks of a herd of sauropods who passed through. Two of them left smooth marks in the ancient mud where their tails dragged. We crossed the cold, shallow Purgatoire to the south side and viewed more trails of passing sauropods, a couple Allosauri and, here and there, the duck-like tracks of Ornithopods – the duck billed dinos.
Finally, the hike back. Catching the trail/road, we passed by a spot where a reproduction of a huge scapula/humerus bone from an Apatosaurus has been laid out to view. The original was found a few miles up the canyon, along with most of the rest of the skeleton. This is just the upper part of a foreleg of the creature, but it’s about eight feet long. Ruins of the 19th century settlers’ homes could be seen over toward the river as we passed. Finally, we reached the Mission and turned off toward the trail back. It was an easy hike down in, but the tradeoff is the ascent out: 350 ft. along the side canyon slope up to the trail head. But it was worth it.