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Suggestion: Add Colorado's Comanche National Grassland to Your Bucket List

Purgatoire River in Picket Wire Canyon in Comanche National Grassland, SE Colorado. (Flickr/Chris M Morris)

There are few undiscovered places left on planet Earth. And yet, there are still some places that remain remote... isolated... and relatively undisturbed by modern man. Commentator Rex Buchanan recently visited one and came back home to tell us more.

Commentator Rex Buchanan is a writer, traveler and director emeritus of the Kansas Geological Survey at the University of Kansas. He lives in Lawrence.

Learn more about the Comanche National Grassland and the nearby Cimarron National Grassland

See photos (below) of the Comanche National Grassland, as well as some of the area's petroglyphs.


Most Kansans seem to equate Colorado with the Rockies.  We pretty much lump eastern Colorado in with western Kansas.  Flat, boring, some place to drive through at night on the way to the mountains.

A couple of weeks ago, I spent some time on the Comanche National Grassland in extreme southeastern Colorado, a part of Colorado that barely even qualifies as drive-through country.  The Comanche Grassland is similar to the Cimarron Grassland, in southwestern Kansas, only the Comanche Grassland is bigger.  About 440,000 acres.  Both the Comanche and Cimarron grasslands are federal properties, purchased in the 1930s and taken out of row-crop production to slow down soil erosion during the Dust Bowl.  That’s why they’re administered by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, though you can hike or camp on them, much like national parks.

Today, these grasslands are generally pasture ground, mostly short grass prairie, buffalo grass, with scattered clumps of yucca and cholla cactus, antelope, roadrunners, and even the occasional black bear.

And while you might think of eastern Colorado as flat and featureless, parts of the Comanche Grassland are rugged, with steep-walled canyons and lava-covered mesas.  In early February, a friend and I spent the day hiking some of those canyons, hard by the Oklahoma border.  We were mostly looking at petroglyphs, Native American drawings that have were pecked into rocks covered by desert varnish, the black mineralization that covers some rocks in this arid environment.

The petroglyphs were astonishing.  Depictions of bighorn sheep, elk with fantastically big antlers.  They gave the place a southwestern feel.  Even more notably, the petroglyphs were virtually free from modern graffiti.  Rock carvings in other places, like Kansas, have been defaced or altered over time.  These Colorado glyphs are far more pristine, maybe because of the lack of visitation in this remote place.  In a day of hiking, we didn’t see another person.  Even the footprints on the trail looked a little old, like nobody had been there for a while.  These places are quiet, the only sounds birdsong and wind.

Along with petroglyphs, there’s other stuff to see out there.  Santa Fe Trail ruts are visible on the Cimarron Grassland.  The rock in one tract of the Comanche Grassland holds footprints from big Jurassic dinosaurs, one of the largest dinosaur trackways in the world.

These places shouldn’t be approached lightly.  They’re remote. Spotty cell phone coverage. Help isn’t readily available if you get hurt or have car trouble.  They‘re probably best visited in the spring and fall, or when the weather forecast is favorable during the other times of year.

Still, they hold the allure of the overlooked.  Denigrating a place, looking down on it, may say more about us than it does about the place itself.

A few years ago I made a list of places I wanted to visit, sort of a bucket list. But now I think that some of the best places I’ve been are ones that didn’t make the list, like the grasslands.  Maybe it’s low expectations, but that can make surprises in the landscape that much better.

Even if there are no mountains.



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