Text and Photography by Robert Hurst
About 50 miles south of the Arkansas River, my dad’s Toyota was blasting across the washboard, rock-strewn surface of County Road M at a highly inadvisable velocity, throwing up a space shuttle-esque rooster tail of dust while hurtling straight into a black storm of tumbleweeds and swirling haze from multiple out-of-control wildfires. It was about that time that I started to question the wisdom of the whole adventure.
“We’re sure getting out here,” I said, becoming convinced we would never make it back. I imagined opening the spare tire compartment and finding nothing, or just a shriveled prune. Baby head-sized rocks slapped and crashed against the unprotected oil pan as the Toyota charged forward at highway speed. Are you crazy dad? Do you think our phones will work out here? Can you hear me now? The incredible volume of tumbleweeds pouring over the road and piling against the fences was at once frightening and mesmerizing, like some sort of biblical event. Where are they all coming from and how could there be any left? Where the hell are we going?
But dad knew exactly where he was going. Suddenly we were cruising into Picture Canyon, protected by improbable walls of sandstone. He stopped the car. Instantaneously our ears were filled with the deafening silence of gravel not pummeling the undercarriage.
Like several other modest canyons that meander through the drought-stricken southeast corner of the state, Picture Canyon features rock walls that double as gallery walls—the rocks have been scrawled with messages from several thousand years’ worth of visitors. Even for the trained archaeologists, anthropologists and linguists who pore over them with painstaking thoroughness, these galleries provide more questions than answers. For the rest of us, the hidden canyons of southeast Colorado provide amazing opportunities to hike or mountain bike while exploring the unfathomable mysteries of the distant and not-so-distant past.
A short walk from the parking lot and smoldering Toyota, the east wall of Picture Canyon looms into view, visually powerful from across a green meadow. At closer range, the rock face comes alive with the elementary post-modern scratchings of cowboys, sheepherders, settlers and tourists—names and dates. Always names and dates. So incredibly unimaginative. Among the noise of names, however, there are several pictographs in the Plains Biographic style: an apparent pronghorn antelope, a very stylish horse, a human figure, perhaps a soldier, among many other interesting semi-vandalized images.
The rock art is relatively recent—created within the past five hundred years or so by Plains Indians. Some of the human-made features around Picture Canyon are believed to be much older. For instance, in the obvious cave-like recess in the east wall, visitors can see a group of deep vertical lines crossed by a single horizontal line. Similar markings are found throughout the region and, as they recall a form of ancient European writing called Ogam, have sparked more than three decades’ worth of academic controversy concerning their origin and significance. Was southeast Colorado visited by ancient Celtic explorers? While some experts claim to be able to translate the markings, others insist they must be simple counts, property markers, forgeries, anything but Ogam.
If you were allowed to go into Crack Cave, the opening on the opposite side of the canyon covered by a metal cage (to keep out the name-scratchers), you could see more of these Ogam-like hash marks. On the Equinoxes, the sun flashes into the cave and illuminates the markings perfectly. Such solar alignments are a common feature of ancient sites throughout the region and the world. The town of Springfield, about 35 miles to the northeast, used to host festivals to commemorate the bi-annual illumination at Crack Cave. The festivals were discontinued for lack of interest, but the illumination continues.
A few faded single- and double tracks take off from the Picture Canyon parking area into the rocky, cactus-covered prairie. This is a prime opportunity to experience a uniquely beautiful and rugged landscape, by bike or on foot. While awe-inspiring and solitary, just an hour or two out here will give you an idea why the Spanish advance stopped where it did, and why the U.S. government considered and momentarily pursued the importation of camels to service the Santa Fe route prior to the Civil War. If the wind is up along with the sun, the wandering Denverite also begins to understand exactly why Bedouins cover themselves head-to-toe in white sheets. This is the land that gave birth to the Dust Bowl. Conditions tend toward the extreme. Bring sunscreen and a wide-brimmed hat, with a strap, lest the howling wind take your hat for a long, long ride, and of course, bring plenty of water, and preferably a good map.
Northwest across the impossibly dry ranchland, on the Purgatoire River, you’ll find Picket Wire Canyon, which offers even more historical intrigue to the adventurous explorer. Bear in mind, though, that Picket Wire isn’t for the feint-hearted day hiker.
No motor vehicles are allowed in the canyon (which is really more of a big park-like valley surrounded by rocky bluffs), but the wonders of Picket Wire are available to anybody willing and able to hike or ride the first rough, steep stretch to the floor (and, more importantly, back out). A hike all the way to the dinosaur tracks—that’s right, dinosaur tracks—is basically flat and easy on an old road, but a long five-plus miles each way under a relentless sun. On a bike, the miles fly by. Both hikers and mountain bikers should be aware, before embarking on any ill-fated journeys, that the clay surface of the road is virtually impossible to negotiate after a rain.
If you go for it, and don’t mind a bit of physical challenge to go with your historical intrigue, you’re in for a rewarding journey. Thanks only to the steady work of the Purgatoire River, cutting its way through hundreds of feet and hundreds of millions of years of sediment, we are able to walk onto a layer of solid rock that was once a muddy lakeshore frequented by giant lizards. The Picket Wire paleological site, 5.3 miles from the trailhead, is the most important and extensive—and most mind-blowing—collection of dinosaur tracks in the world. The miraculously unburied slab shows well over 1000 dinosaur “foot” prints, spread out over a quarter-mile or so. The tracks of efficient killers are easily distinguishable from those of huge, docile prey animals. The site is most famous for the interwoven tracks of young brontosaurs, which provide possible evidence of herding behavior.
Walking in the steps of dinosaurs is quite a mind-expanding experience. The best examples are on the other side of the river. Crossing can be an adventure in itself, depending on the Purgatoire’s disposition, but unless you get swept away it will be worth it.
Bicyclists can continue along the road a few miles and easily reach the old Rourke ranch before turning around. Most hikers figure they’ve already come a bit too far and turn around at the dinosaur tracks. There’s no camping allowed in Picket Wire, so you’ll have to walk back out whether you like the idea or not. Needless to say, pack a great deal of water, and wear comfortable shoes and clothing that protects against the sun.
Leave behind nothing but your own tracks, and a lingering scent to fascinate the mountain lions. •