The Picketwire

By Eilene Lyon

First, the name. Legend has it that an unauthorized expedition of Spaniards led by Antonio Gutierrez de Humaña and Francisco Leyva de Bonilla, came to what is now southern Colorado in 1594 (a much-disputed legend at that). On their way home, Humaña murdered Bonilla in order to make off with all the burros loaded with gold.

Humaña didn’t get very far before he and his remaining men (except perhaps one) were murdered by Indians: maybe Comanche, maybe Ute, maybe Jicarilla Apache. There were no priests to consecrate the bodies where they were buried by a stream. Therefore the river obtained the name “Rio de las animas perdidas en Purgatorio.” River of souls lost in Purgatory.

Stonewall, Colorado, with the Sangre de Christo Mountains in the background near the headwaters of the Purgatoire River.

Often called the Las Animas River, French trappers called it Le Purgatoire. If you know your high school French pronunciation, you can understand why the Anglos who settled along this river (which the Santa Fe Trail followed after 1821), called it the Picketwire River.

The Purgatoire flows from the Sangre de Christo Mountains west of Trinidad, flowing east then northeast to meet the Arkansas River. Before the confluence, it flows through a land of canyons. A group of pioneers from Trinidad moved to one of the lower canyons, calling it Nine Mile Bottom.

These were hardy settlers, self-sufficient. They built a dam to irrigate nine miles of the canyon bottom. Because the nearest Catholic Church was in Trinidad, Damacio Lopez offered a piece of land to the Church if a priest would ride out to provide services. This became known as the Dolores Mission.

The remains of the Dolores Mission in Picketwire Canyon.

This area is now part of the Comanche National Grassland. For some unknown reason, the federal government went a step further, splitting the name: Picket Wire Canyonlands.

We drove south from La Junta on Hwy 109 to County Rd. 802, heading southwest, then south on County Rd. 25. These gravel roads (about 20 miles) were smooth riding. Then we turned east on a Forest Service road driving three miles of godawful washboard to arrive at the Withers Canyon Trailhead. There are four campsites and a pit toilet. Fortunately, a couple sites were still available.

It was already about 3:00 in the afternoon and we had an 11.2-mile round trip to make on our mountain bikes. We talked to a local couple before reaching the trailhead, so we knew there was a new roadcut to take us down into the canyon, instead of riding down the old hiking trail. I wish I had taken a picture. Steep and rough, but rideable going down—coming back up, not. We pushed the bikes the entire way up 300 feet of elevation back to camp.

A view from near our campsite looking down in the valley where we rode along the river in the middle distance.

It was a gorgeous afternoon and most of the trail was gentle on our legs. At about four miles, we came to the ruins of the mission so I could photograph the tiny cemetery with four remaining headstones.

About a half mile later, we came to this dinosaur scapula. This is actually a replica.

A mile further on, we came to the feature we’d come to see: the largest collection of dinosaur tracks in the world. (If we’d had the time and energy, we might have gone a couple miles further to see the remains of the Rourke Ranch.)

This desert canyon was a large lake 150 million years ago. Large herbivorous dinosaurs waded in the shallows and the muddy lake shores, leaving tracks that eventually solidified into bedrock under today’s shallow river. These prints are reminiscent of elephant tracks. Some carnivorous dinosaur tracks are also found in the stone, in a three-toed pattern.

It is possible to drive in to the Rourke Ranch and Dinosaur Tracks by continuing on County Rd. 25. The bike ride was a good way to access the canyon, and a pleasant trip. After viewing the tracks, we headed back to camp.

We enjoyed a peaceful, relaxing evening, with nearby views into the surrounding canyons where the turkey vultures soared and gentle river flowed.

Feature image: The Purgatoire River as it flows through Picketwire Canyon

46 thoughts on “The Picketwire

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  1. What a wonderful share, Eilene! Needless to say, Picketwire vs Purgatoire gives me a good chuckle. I love to hear how names come to be so the whole history of it was fascinating to me.
    What a cool place to camp!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Indeed. And yes, legends, true or not are more than welcome!
        There are English words that get “bastardized” in French, as well. An outhouse, also called the back house, became the bécosse in French (still used today, even if the toilet is inside!)

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That’s a good one. I notice that with other English words that don’t translate to other languages. They just add the word with modified pronunciation (and possibly spelling). Frequently a result of technology or the internet.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. There are quite a few like that. You know those rubbers men put on their shoes in winter? In Quebec, they call them “shoe clacks” or rather shoe claques! How the hell did that come to be?
        But yes, And we borrow from other languages as well. It’s rather fascinating 🙂


  2. Beautiful photographs and a history lesson all in one. This was a very interesting read, but not as near interesting as being there I bet. Thanks for taking me on this trip.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love learning about this part of Colorado Eilene- I need to start a future visits list called “Not the Rockies” and venture in other directions 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow, that first story sounds like something out of a gruesome old Western. And I love how Purgatoire became Picket Wire! But the best was seeing those photos of the dinosaur tracks. Amazing!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Fascinating piece Eilene, particularly the origin of the name. In Ireland, because the Gaelic language was banned under British rule, a lot of the place names are anglicised versions of Gaelic names. So, for example, ‘town’ in gaelic is “baile” (ballyeh) which anglicised becomes “Bally”…..BallyShannon. Ballymun, Ballybunion…etc.

    Liked by 1 person

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