Camping in the Comanche National Grassland

Three days of exploring the Comanche National Grassland and surrounding areas.


With the rather large snowpack this year, my options for backpacking were limited.

A bit too hot in the Moab area, the mountains were full of snow in the immediate driving range, and I just wanted to get out for a three-day weekend I had planned.

So I decided to re-calibrate, do some car camping, and explore something different from the east: The Comanche National Grassland.   A bit different from the Pawnee National Grassland to the north, the Comanche National Grassland would feature old history, canyons, petroglyphs, fossil remains, and some overall interesting terrain.

I did some trail restoration work there almost ten years ago and thought it would be an excellent place to explore some more.

The first stop was Bent’s Old Fort near La Junta, CO.

A recreation of a historic fort near the Arkansas River, it was an essential place on the old Santa Fe Trail.

The history buff in me found the fort and the surrounding area impressive.  The Arkansas River formed the old boundary between Mexico and the US.

Over 150+ years later, the river still forms a bit of a cultural boundary in Colorado.  North of the river, Anglo names and culture dominates. South of the river? Spanish names, language, and culture still are very much present.  The border may move, but the people and their culture do not.

After visiting the fort, my buddy Mark (who joined me for the weekend) and I made our way to the Picketwire portion of the grassland.

We found a great spot on an FS road overlooking the canyon we’d be hiking into the following day.

Some cold beer, a great vie,w and some killer Mexican food from La Junta completed the day.


Carne asada burrito. Cheap, delicious, and better than my camp food! Photo courtesy of Mark Thomas.

The sunset over the high plains would also be rather striking+.


The following day we made our way into Purgatoire (Picketwire) Canyon.

To hike from the canyon entrance to Rourke Ranch and back would be ~18 miles r/t. Little did we know, until later, the temps in the canyon would be close to 100F. :O

In the canyon, we saw remnants of old homesteads:

Ancient petroglyphs (that were not obvious; you have to look for them!)

High plains/desert wildflowers:

And remains of an old Spanish mission that dates back to the 1780s:


From there, we ambled down the “trail.”  The USFS conducts auto tours in this area every Saturday during peak season. The well-maintained dirt road from the mission showed this use.

The reason for this well-maintained road was the most-well known highlight of the canyon: the most extensive collection of dinosaur prints in North America.

From this point, the day became hotter.

Rather than push on to Rourke Ranch (with no facilities open to the public other than pit toilets), it was time to head back. I could see the ranch from a small rise ~1 mile away, and that was good enough. 🙂

We noticed some last bit of petroglyphs.

We made our way back to the car and drank a lot of very cold, delicious and sugary, fizzy drinks!

The following day we headed out, but with a stop to Vogel Canyon first.

A little oasis on the high plains, the canyon would have ruins of an old Sante Fe Trail stage stop and evidence of being used for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years. Relatively lush and shaded, it is easy to see why.

From the relatively recent history of old stagecoach tracks:

To what, I think, is the oldest petroglyph I saw over the weekend:

The high plains wildflowers were also rather lovely:

We headed back home (with some more Mexican food first!).

Not a bad way for me to spend a birthday weekend. Quiet, peaceful, and serene.

If you should go

Info: This link and this one have the all the needed info in terms of directions and descriptions

Maps: Get the appropriate USFS map and topo map. I found the Colorado Benchmark Atlas also useful.

Camping: Anywhere unless out-right prohibited (e.g., not Picketwire Canyon). Because of where camping is not permitted, this is more of a camping trip than a backpacking trip.

Grub:  You must absolutely stop at Lucy’s Tacos in La Junta! Amazingly good food at reasonable prices. More Spanish speakers than English speakers. There were even menudo on the menu. (Great-Grandma Magnanti made the Neapolitan version of this dish many moons ago. My eight your old palette did not appreciate it at the time. 🙂 )


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10 years ago

This looks like a great trip! Some really interesting sights and great photos. I need to make it a point to explore grasslands a bit more often. 🙂

Dave E
Dave E
10 years ago

Big change from Feb in RMNP huh Paul? I’m in lake city trying to find enough trail to train for the Sam Juan Solstice, thwarted today by raging melt off but have a plan for Friday am. Definitely want to check out the mex food if I get out to La Junta!

Ed Barnes
Ed Barnes
4 years ago

I’m considering this hike for March of ’20. If I read it right, camping is forbidden in the canyon itself so hiking down to the dinosaur tracks/mission needs to be an out ‘n back or is there anywhere at the back end where you can stay the night?