FrontRangeLiving.com -> Escapes -> Comanche Grasslands
Pear Cactus and Yucca
after mile of flat grasslands, the Comanche National Grasslands suddenly fall
away to the deep interior of a grand canyon--unexpected and breathtaking.
Comanche is a piñon-juniper forest with broad canyons carved by the numerous
drainages feeding the Purgatoire River. You'll often see a forest of cholla
cacti sprinkled among the junipers and piñon pines. Spring wildflowers carpet
the grasslands. And in the fall, sunflowers and feathery grass spikes bend and sway.
grasslands are a bird-watchers' paradise. Lark buntings clothed in black and
white feathers, like a tiny tuxedo, look unsuitably formal for grasslands. At
Comanche they perch atop the cholla cactus and dart within for protection. The
spiny limbs never appear to bother them. Western meadowlarks can be spied on any
fence post. If not spotted immediately, they will be identified by their unique
call, followed by the sudden sight of a yellow breast. Red-winged blackbirds
flash their red epaulet plumage as they take off from a juniper bush. And the
occasional roadrunner dashes into a juniper bush for cover. Lesser prairie
chickens court in the eastern parts of the grasslands. March is prime viewing
time and a blind is available at the lek, or mating arena, about 12 miles
southeast of Campo. Recently the small numbers of birds that have been spotted
has disappointed birders. A continuing drought and harsh winters take a toll on
a population already dwindling.
few animals flourish in the arid Comanche grasslands, too. Pronghorn cluster in
small groups, usually four or five, although some larger groups of ten or more
graze alongside cattle. When they rest among the grasses, they're nearly
impossible to see. "They're abundant around here," a US Forest Service
ranger says, "until hunting season. When the first shot is fired, they
scatter and you won't see them again until hunting season is over." All
along the highways, pronghorn nestle among cows, feasting on tender spring
grasses. Stop the car to get out and they'll break into a run.
is vast, managed as two geographic sections. The western section lies south of
the town of La Junta, comprising Picket Wire Canyonlands, Vogel Canyon and the
Santa Fe Trail--historical sites of Timpas, Iron Springs and Sierra Vista. The
eastern section, containing Picture Canyon, Carrizo Canyon and special birding
areas, is managed from the farming town of Springfield.
grasslands literature will describe ancient dinosaur footprints, the remnants of
the Santa Fe Trail, or pictographs on canyon walls. Dinosaurs and pioneers have
left their tracks and these appear to be the tourist draw. But Comanche is
unparalleled for gardens of flax, yucca, scarlet globemallow, sand lily,
penstemon, evening-primroses, daisies, golden princes' plume and prickly pear
cactus. The flush of spring rains
unveils a new wildflower each day with tiny mat plants hugging sandy soil on the
rim of the Picket Wire Canyon as well as the vast grassland acreage.
cacti (Cylindropuntia imbricata) dot the landscape of open steppe: a mix
of desert plants, grasses, trees and shrubs. Cholla is called the walking stick
cholla, cane cholla, tree cholla, candelabrum, devil's rope or coyote prickly
pear. These candelabra-shaped cacti are found in few areas of Colorado north of
Colorado Springs, but far more commonly in Texas and New Mexico. They allow each
an ample amount of space and stretch out spiny arms loaded with yellow tips--the
leftovers of last year's fruit. Deep rose blooms appear in mid-June, deceptively
delicate and extravagantly exotic.
pear cacti also spread on the canyon rims, with waxy peach or yellow-colored
blooms beginning in mid-May. Plant lists for Comanche indicate the sunflower
family, Asteraceae, as the most encompassing group. Small white fleabane
daisies, bright yellow goldenrod, fringed sage, ragweed, pussytoes, sneezeweed,
asters, coneflowers and a variety of Erigeron--petite daisies--bloom from
early spring to late fall. You'll also see several kinds of prickly pear from Opuntia
macrorhiza, tuberous-rooted plains prickly pear, to O. phaeacantha,
New Mexican prickly pear, O. polycantha, plains prickly pear and ball
cactus, Pediocactus simpsonii.
arid climates around the world, plants that grow in abundance share similar
characteristics, although they may have evolved from different plant families.
Some have tough, hairy leaves to hold onto water, others develop a leathery leaf
that may exude toxic substances should creatures try to nibble, or a long
taproot to reach deeper, damper soil. But the American Southwest is unique in
its collection of Cactaceae with fleshy stems and sharp spines.
of our cacti dispensed with leaves altogether or have insignificant leaves that
no longer serve much purpose. This leap to be leafless is rather bold in the
plant world. After all, leaves provide the photosynthesis factory that feeds
most green gardens. Instead, the cacti depend upon massive stems to assume the
duties of leaves, which is why the arms of the cholla and prickly pear appear so
substantial. The spines are obvious defenses against browsers, but they haven't
deterred cacti bandits who have plundered fine natural gardens of the Southwest
to sell to cacti collectors around the world.
for Colorado, the cholla, prickly pear and other cacti on the grasslands have
mostly escaped the scavenging common in many Arizona locations. And prickly pear
is abundant over vast areas. To witness their blooming season is reason enough
to visit the Comanche between the months of May and June.
and Yucca harrimaniae var. neomexicana, too, are stalwarts of the
Comanche landscape, appropriately sharp and tough with a needle-tipped leaf.
Look closely at the sumptuous lily-like blooms and yucca reveals an elegant
flower. The yucca is in the Agave family, a member of the monocots, which
includes grasses, irises and lilies, closely linked to onions, asparagus and
garlic. But it's the blossom of the yucca that looks and feels like a lily. Deer
will nibble the bloom down to the sharp pointed leaves and disappear with
prickles in their noses. And the fruit of the banana yucca, which grows in Mesa
Verde, is sweet, somewhat like a date, chewy and rich. The root of a yucca is
huge for the size of its foliage, an obvious advantage in a parched landscape.
depends upon a close relationship with the pronuba moth that bores into the bud,
deposits eggs, and, as a side effect, pollinates the plant. This ancient
relationship is so co-dependent that a yucca may not produce seeds if its chosen
ancient times, yucca leaves, when shredded into fine fibers, served as braided
ropes for the Pueblo people to hoist themselves and cargo up and down canyon
walls. They were the first people to leave a mark on the landscape. A handprint
in several pictograph caves at Picture Canyon may have been a sign that water
was available. Early people were followed by the Spanish explorers and American
pioneers. But no historical event so changed the grasslands as the upheaval of
the 1930s Dustbowl.
other grasslands, the federal holdings of Comanche's 443,765 acres resulted from
drought and erosion. Families settled onto the land with the promise of 160
acres, provided they plowed and planted. Wet years in the 1920s maintained their
fields, but the drought during the Great Depression resulted in failure. The
federal government bought back the land and those who sold resettled elsewhere.
Now the land is managed as open range to ranchers and conserved for the public.
It's a successful combination, usually. Cows do wander onto the gravel roads and
occasionally are hit. Drivers are warned to drive slowly on shared lands.
grasslands and canyon draw bird lovers from miles around. Birds more commonly
found in desert areas venture only as far north as the Comanche. Mississippi
kites, scaled quail, roadrunners, black-chinned hummingbirds, ladder-backed
woodpeckers, cassin’s kingbird, scissor-tailed flycatachers, ash-throated
flycatchers, eastern phoebe, white-necked raven, pinyon jay, plain titmouse,
bushtit, bewick’s wren, brown towhee, rufous-crowned sparrow and cassin’s
sparrow are some of the more unusual birds.
around you can see barn owls, screech owls, the great horned owl, short-eared
owls and long-eared owls. Also, hairy and downy woodpeckers, roadrunners,
Merriam’s turkey, ring-necked pheasants, golden eagles, marsh hawk and prairie
falcon are permanent residents.
are migratory, especially waterfowl, wood warblers and vireos.
Planning a Trip: The Comanche Grasslands covers a vast
443,765-acre area, much of it remote and with few facilities and services. Make
sure that you are prepared with fuel, food and water before setting out. Note,
there is no potable water at any of the sites below. Emergency supplies are
available in the small town of Kim. Full supplies are available at La Junta and
Directions & Features: Maps and guides are available at
the two visitor centers at La Junta and Springfield and at some trailhead
kiosks. The La Junta office is located in the eastern side of La Junta on 3rd
Street. The Springfield office is located in the southern side of Springfield on
US-287. See below for specific addresses. Of all the special areas in the
Grasslands, here are my favorites:
Canyon: From Springfield, go south on Highway 287 for 17 miles. Turn west on
CR-M for 23 miles. Turn south on FS-539 for 1.9 miles. The trailhead is at
At Carrizo Canyon, the smallest of all the Grasslands
destinations, a spring feeds a shallow pond, serving as a water source for
animals. Sudden rains fill the canyon, flooding debris many feet higher than the
usual trail. Often the ½ mile hiking trail is washed away. Carrizo was a
watering place for travelers in the 19th century and remains a favorite place
for wildlife today. As a shady glen, it attracts the horsetails and wild
grapevines of a riparian location. Beware of poison ivy that lurks in shaded
areas around the trail, too. Early people left a few marks behind. Those using
binoculars may spy ancient pictographs. They are located high enough to be out
of harm's reach.
Canyon: From Springfield, go south on Highway 287 for 17 miles. Turn west on
CR-M for 8 miles. Turn south on CR-18 for 8 miles. Turn south on FS-533 for
1 mile. Trailhead is at 37.0122N, 102.7448W.
Birdwatchers wind their way down the path of Picture
Canyon, on the eastern Comanche Grasslands, attracted to the variety of birds in
a small area. Thousands of tiny caves pockmark the canyon walls to serve as
homes for kestrels, wrens, hawks, eagles, owls, doves and swifts. Early morning
caws, trills, squawks and melodic notes echo throughout the canyon walls.
Remnants of the mud foundations of cliff swallow's nests line the inside of one
In the spring, parent birds are in a frenzy to feed their
young. One birdwatcher at Picture Canyon pointed to a kestrel in midair flight.
The prey, a small snake, still wiggled, doomed and destined to be dinner back at
the nest. The parent bird let out a strident call of success when returning with
Although there are several game
trails to explore, a moderate 3.5-mile trail will lead you past water holes and
old homesteads. Look for birds of prey in the high canyon walls and rock art in
the canyon caves. Watch out for rattlesnakes. This is a great place to become
reacquainted with the Milky Way.
Canyon: From La Junta, go south on Highway 109 for 13 miles. Turn west on
CR-802 for 1.5 miles. Turn south on FS-505A for 1.5 miles. Trailhead is at
Vogel has several trails that
explore both the mesa and the canyon below. The longest, the Prairie Trail, is a
3-mile loop through the short grass prairie of the canyon bottom.
Wire Canyon via Withers Canyon Trailhead: From La Junta, go south on Highway
109 for 13 miles. Turn west on CR-802 for 8 miles. Turn south on CR-25 for 6
miles. Turn east on FS-500A for 3 miles. Trailhead is at 37.6601N,
Picket Wire has it all--cacti
gardens and pronghorn on the mesa top, gorgeous canyon walls sheltering birds of
prey and a trail that follows the wetland gardens along the Purgatoire River on
the canyon bottom. The
Picket Wire Trail runs along the river for almost 9 miles and allows access to
several historical sites--a homestead community mission and cemetery (3.7 miles
one way), a dinosaur trackside (5.3 miles one way) and an early adobe ranch
house (8.7 miles one way). Public access to the canyon is via the trailhead at
Withers Canyon. Or, periodically, the US Forest Service leads a caravan of
4-wheel vehicles through a back road down to the river.
Junta Office CNG, 1420 East 3rd Ave, La Junta, CO 81050,
Office CNG, 27204 Hwy 287, Springfield, CO 81073, 719-523-6591.