Comanche National Grassland encompasses more than 440,000 acres in Baca and Otero Counties in southeast Colorado. The US Forest Service maintains the natural heath and cultural resources of the grassland, which was established in 1960 and is named after the Comanche people who once ruled the region. The grassland is split into two administrative units: the Carrizo Unit sits near the borders of Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Kansas, while the Timpas Unit lies south of La Junta.
Comanche National Grassland features a mixture of high plains and canyonlands in an arid climate with hot summers. The high plains portion of the grassland is a short-grass prairie ecosystem with a variety of grasses, cacti, and yuccas, while the canyon areas host piñon pines, junipers, and cacti. Mule deer, coyotes, prairie dogs, hawks, and lizards roam across the grassland among nonnative species such as cattle.
Nearly 150 million ago, dinosaurs roamed across what is now Comanche National Grassland. The US Forest Service states there are more than 1,300 visible dinosaur tracks on the floor of Picket Wire Canyon in the Timpas Unit, making it one of the largest documented dinosaur trackways in the United States. Since the early 2000s, volunteer paleontologists have surveyed the canyon and found even more dinosaur remains.
People have lived in what is now Comanche National Grassland for the last 4,500 years. Both units host a variety of archaeological sites, the most notable of which are the numerous examples of rock art throughout the canyons. Picket Wire Canyon, Vogel Canyon, Carrizo Canyon, and Picture Canyon all feature rock art. Picture Canyon is home to the Crack Cave, where prehistoric people left glyphs in a crack of a canyon wall. During the spring and fall equinox, the sun aligns with the crack and illuminates the glyphs.
From the 1600s to the 1840s, the Comanche commanded a powerful Plains empire that included what is now Comanche National Grassland. They rose to power by trading with other American Indian nations, Spanish colonists to the southwest, and Americans in the east. The Comanche eventually faded from power from a combination of disease, depletion of natural resources, and the arrival of more Euro-Americans.
Many Euro-American traders came to the region during the nineteenth century by way of the Santa Fé Trail. A mix of Mexican, French, American Indian, and American traders traveled the route, which had stretched between Missouri and Santa Fé, New Mexico, since the eighteenth century. The trail formed an important trade link between the Great Plains and the Southwest. Four branches of the Santa Fé Trail ran through the Comanche National Grassland. In some places, wagon ruts can still be spotted today.
The United States acquired the present area of the grassland via the Texas annexation of 1845 and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo three years later. While some people traveled through the grasslands on the Santa Fé Trail, others made a home in the area. In 1847 eleven Mexican families made their way north to stake a claim near Picket Wire Canyon. In the 1870s and 1880s, the community built the Dolores Mission and Cemetery with help from the Catholic Diocese in Denver. The remains of the mission and its cemetery can still be seen in the canyon today.
Many other Euro-Americans came to the area to stake a claim under the Homestead Act of 1862. While some farmed homesteads, others set up ranches. In 1871 Eugene Rourke and his wife, Mary, established a forty-acre ranch. Over the next century, the Rourkes grew their ranching operation to encompass 50,000 acres and thousands of cattle.
Establishment of the Grassland
Farmers and ranchers living in southeastern Colorado faced hardship during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Drought combined with years of poor agricultural practices left soils dusty and loose. Windstorms carried the dust across the land and made conditions unlivable for people in the area. The disaster spurred thousands of people to leave the area.
The federal government purchased much of the depleted land in southeast Colorado during the New Deal of the 1930s. Under new land-use programs, such as the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act of 1937, the federal government took steps to conserve the land. Workers in the US Department of Agriculture’s Soil Conservation Service replanted vegetation and built new infrastructure, such as service roads, on the depleted plains to improve the area’s ecological health.
In 1954 the Soil Conservation Service transferred the land to the US Forest Service. Six years later, the Forest Service designated more than 440,000 acres in southeast Colorado as the Comanche National Grassland. In addition to continuing conservation projects, the Forest Service expanded interpretive and recreational opportunities in the grassland. Still, many citizens held on to their private land. This resulted in a checkerboard layout of land ownership where square parcels of private and public land border each other across the grassland.
In 1990 the grassland’s size increased when the Department of Defense transferred nearly 15,000 acres of land to the Forest Service to preserve the paleontological resources in Picket Wire Canyon.
Today, Comanche National Grassland is a multiple-use landscape where people have opportunities for recreation and working on the land. The grassland allows camping, fishing, hiking, bird watching, and recreational shooting. Most of these recreational activities take place in the Timpas Unit, which is near La Junta and also draws visitors to its rock art and the famous dinosaur tracks in Picket Wire Canyon.
While most visitors come to Comanche National Grassland for recreation, a small population of locals use the land for grazing cattle. Four different cattle associations work with the Forest Service to oversee grazing across the grassland. Cattle graze in specific allotments, which help keep cattle in areas where they do not interfere with conservation or recreation.