Purgatoire River Canyon—an Overlooked Gem

Purgatoire River Canyon—an Overlooked Gem

2858350_f260One of the most impressive, and unexpected, places I have had the pleasure of working is the Purgatoire River Canyon in southeastern Colorado, south of the town of La Junta. If you are looking for a memorable vacation and fun family holidays, give this place a look.

My experiences with the canyon go back many years when I explored it for its fossil resources for the United States Forest Service. The canyon has seen a lot of history, too, as you can see petroglyphs from ancient Native Americans, ruins of Spanish settlement, and more recent American homesteads. It was its prehistoric resources that drew me back to the place over and over.

You might be confused by the various names that get applied to the region. The French word for the river, Purgatoire, was along the way corrupted by the locals into the far less euphonic phrase Picket Wire, so it is also called the Picket Wire Canyon.

At the bottom of the canyon in the river is an amazing exposure if you like dinosaurs. In this out-of-the-way place is the largest continuous dinosaur trackway in North America, with over 1,400 individual dinosaur footprints. Both the large sauropod dinosaurs like “Brontosaurus” and their meat-eating contemporaries like Allosaurus left their distinctive prints.

The canyon also has an extensive outcrop of the Morrison Formation. The Morrison is perhaps the most famous of the rock formations that contain dinosaurs, and skeletal remains of every Jurassic dinosaur you ever heard of comes from this unit. It was this fact that led me to the canyon, to explore for fossil resources and advise the Forest Service about what they had.

Turns out that the sections on Forest Service lands are fossil-rich, just as you would expect. In the last decade the Forest Service has been leading Passport in Time (PIT) programs there, exploring for fossils and digging out the dinosaurs they find.

If you are interested in this wild place know a couple of things in advance. You cannot drive into the canyon without prior authorization. You can hike into the track site and through the canyon, but it is several miles in and out from the trailhead. During the summers, the heat of the canyon can be brutal, so take plenty of water and be prepared. Your entire family will love a holiday to the river, and dinosaur hunting is something your children will never forget! This is one family holiday vacation idea that everybody simply must try!

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