Rugged Beauty: Comanche Grasslands

Cholla, Prickly Pear Cactus and Yucca
Mile 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.

The 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.

A 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.

Comanche 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.

The 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.

Cholla 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.

Prickly 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.

In 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.

Most 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.

Fortunately 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.

Yucca glauca 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.

The soaptree yucca 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 moth disappears.

In 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.

Like 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.

The 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.

Year 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.

Others are migratory, especially waterfowl, wood warblers and vireos.

Trail Information

Comanche National Grasslands

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 Springfield.

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:

Carrizo 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 37.1353N, 103.0160W.
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.

Picture 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 canyon overhang.

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 the trophy.

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.

Vogel 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 37.7699N, 103.5130W.
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.

Picket 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, 103.5679W.
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.

More Info:

La Junta Office CNG, 1420 East 3rd Ave, La Junta, CO 81050, 719-384-2181.
Springfield Office CNG, 27204 Hwy 287, Springfield, CO 81073, 719-523-6591.