Winding through numerous natural, archeological, and historical wonders, the 17.6-mile Picket Wire Canyon Trail in southeastern Colorado will transport you into the past. You’ll see 150 million-year-old dinosaur footprints, prehistoric Native American rock art, ruins from the Dolores Mission and Cemetery, and the old Rourke cattle ranch.
The largest known dinosaur track site in North America, the Picket Wire Canyon Trail features more than 1,400 individual tracks left by the plant-eating Brontosaurus and the carnivorous Allosaurus on 100 separate pathways. The tracks’ arrangement offer paleontologists insight to the dinosaurs’ behavior. For example, parallel tracks among the Brontosaurus footprints indicate that these dinosaurs may have traveled in groups and suggests social behavior in these creatures.
After the Dinosaurs
The Dolores Mission and Cemetery, which can be reached from the Picket Wire Canyon Trail, was built in the 19th century. The ruins give visitors a glimpse into the lifestyle of early Hispanic settlers who lived there. Beyond the dinosaur tracks, visitors will pass Rourke Ranch, a former cattle ranch established by Eugene Rourke in 1871. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, three generations of Rourkes managed the land, which came to be known as one of the most successful enterprises in southeastern Colorado.
Picket Wire Canyon has undergone several name changes over the years. Legend says the canyon was originally named El Rio de las Perdidas in Purgatorio after a group of Spanish treasure hunters died in the river. They believed that without a proper burial from the clergy, their souls would be banished to Purgatory. French explorers shortened the name to Purgatoire. English speakers, who couldn’t pronounce the French version, thought it sounded like “Picket Wire.”
Spanning approximately 443,765 acres in southeastern Colorado, the Comanche National Grassland is the result of the Forest Service’s rehabilitation efforts on land once devastated by the dust bowl. Today, you will find a flourishing grassland ecosystem, managed to conserve and utilize the natural resources of grass, water and wildlife habitat and to protect prehistoric and historic areas.
Amenities: Vault toilets at trailhead, dinosaur tracks and Rourke Ranch
Operating Hours: Daylight use only; overnight camping is not allowed in the Picket Wire Canyonlands
Fee: (auto tour only) $15 per adult (13+), $7.50 per child
No potable water in the canyon. Carry at least one gallon of water per person.
Difficulty: Because of the trail’s length and difficulty, visitors should be in excellent physical condition. The trail descends 250 feet in elevation and crosses a shallow river. Hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders are all welcome on the trail.
Tours: Picket Wire Guided Auto Tours are the only motorized access into the canyon. Visitors must provide their own 4-wheel drive, high clearance vehicle. The tour lasts from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Check the schedule before making reservations.
Safety: Review the Picket Wire Canyon Auto Tour safety checklist.