PURGATOIRE CANYON – Footprints provide evidence of a
brontosaurus herd advancing as a sharp-toed predator prowled.
Cave art depicts succulent deer.
Adobe church ruins – a tombstone honors a girl named
“”Lucita” – slump where Spanish-speaking homesteaders once
Here in Colorado’s vast Purgatoire Canyon lies a rare natural
gallery, mostly untouched by tourists and fossil-hunters, where
history’s actors seemingly just stepped out for lunch.
What has kept this obscure cleft in the southern Colorado
prairie pristine is partly ruggedness. But it’s also largely the
result of an unlikely landlord, the U.S. Army, pursuing a fresh
preservation strategy: No advertisements. No official
designation as “”wilderness.” No “”public education” about
artifacts and ruins. No easy access.
That preservation strategy wins local support and stands out
abruptly at a time when other canyons around the booming West
are quickly overrun and spoiled.
Now the unusual preservation of the Purgatoire may be about
to end as mainstream land management agencies eye the wildlife
and untrammeled terrain.
Another branch of the federal government – the U.S. Forest
Service – is leaning on the Army to allow easier access to this
canyon for “”multiple use” recreation.
“”It’s public land,” said Bill Bass, regional forest
supervisor. Yet Bass concedes the dilemma taking shape here “”is
a tough one.”
The land in question is semi-arid, covering 500 square miles
– half the size of Rhode Island – in southeastern Colorado east
of Trinidad. A river the color of weak coffee and cream, the
Purgatoire winds down from the 14,000-foot Sangre de Cristo
Mountains, carving a wide canyon through red sandstone cliffs,
before meeting the Arkansas River 80 miles later near Las
Animas. At its deepest, the canyon plunges 1,500 feet below an
Ranchers controlled all the land here until the early 1980s.
Army moved in
Then, in 1983, the U.S. Army took a 380-square-mile portion,
opened a massive tank and fighter jet training area, and
basically locked it up. They named it the Pinon Canyon Maneuver
Locals grumbled as tanks rolled onto the tall prairie
grasses, home to songbirds and foxes, for war games. Apache
helicopters would flatten grasses where Apache Indians once
hunted. Swooping F-4 fighters would screech across cliffs as if
in a video game.
Some ranchers thought nature could suffer no worse fate than
to be owned by the Army.
Turns out, 16 years later, the Purgatoire got a pretty good
The Army kept people out. Signs on barbed wire that read
“”Military Reservation” in red letters, posted where troops
with guns sometimes crouch in the distance, carry clout that
“”No Trespassing” placards lack.
No cattle graze on the Army land. And Army officers spend
more than $500,000 a year, by their calculation, on the
environmental equivalent of luxury health spa care: fencing off
106 archaeological and historic sites, making inventories of
cave art, re-seeding areas where tanks tread, teaching troops
that any artifact they find has scientific value if left in place.
That’s a more comprehensive program than public land managers
from other agencies say they can afford.
Army officials point proudly at growing populations of
antelope, deer, elk, coyotes, foxes, bobcats, rattlesnakes,
mountain lions, bighorn sheep, bears, eagles, hawks, owls and
“”I had to eat crow,” said rancher Willard Louden, who first
went to Washington, D.C., to fight against the Army takeover,
then went back a decade later and testified to lawmakers again,
this time with a different story.
“”I told them that I felt the Army was doing a darn good
job,” 74-year-old Louden said the other day at his home in
The Army grants access to about 300 hunters a year. But
Thomas Warren, the Army’s director of environmental compliance
and management, isn’t doing anything to publicize the place.
“”Not my management purpose,” Warren said. “”The more use it
gets, the more it’s going to get degraded.”
Army top brass now view this property as a model for how the
Army can take care of training land elsewhere, Warren said.
“”People in uniform are just as environmentally sensitive as
the rest of the public,” he said.
Legend holds that Indians slaughtered Spanish explorers in the
Purgatoire. The explorers had been sent to the edges of Spain’s
New World empire that bisected what is now Colorado along the
Arkansas River. Historians say reports of Spaniards dying
somewhere out here, without the comforts of clergy, led to
naming of the river: El Rio de Las Animas Perdidas en Purgatorio
(The River of the Lost Souls in Purgatory).
French trappers later translated that to “”Purgatoire” – the
name on maps today.
Among locals, it’s known as Picket Wire Canyon.
A 6-foot-7-inch Vietnam War veteran, Warren recently
clambered down cliffs, pinon twigs cracking and loose rock
crumbling beneath his boots, to show what this country is like.
Flies swarmed. Temperatures topped 90 degrees.
Rattlesnakes thrive here – Warren delights in warning
visitors to watch out when they get out of their trucks.
He’d been up all night assisting in military war games,
playing the role of a nationalist villain eluding troops that
were supposed to secure an area and catch him. That’s in
addition to this day duty, pistol at his side, keeping tabs on
what the Army now refers to as its environmental and cultural
Warren stopped at a 30-foot-wide Dakota sandstone panel about
halfway down the canyon. There, an artist had pecked in pictures
of deer, elk, bighorn sheep, fish, birds. Warren’s archaeology
staff believes the pictures are 1,200 years old.
In the middle of the artist’s procession stands a man.
Tendrils from his fingers link him to the creatures. It suggests
“”the interconnectivity of man and wildlife. That’s why I like
it,” Warren said.
Few soldiers-in-training see this site or hundreds like it
located on the sides of the canyon, Warren said. War games stop
one-quarter mile back from the canyon rim to avoid any mishaps.
Above the rim, he incorporates the 106 fenced-off areas,
including a 19th-century stagecoach stop, into training
scenarios as “”minefields” or “”contaminated areas” to keep
A few dozen scholars have worked on Army-owned parts of the
Purgatoire. Their reports are not always as readily available as
museum directors would like.
“”But it does help preserve,” said Loretta Martin at
Trinidad State College. “”I would hate to see people go out
Today, the protected canyon is attracting attention from
agencies that manage public-access land – agencies under
pressure from Colorado’s spreading urban population.
The U.S. Forest Service has acquired 23 square miles along
the Purgatoire River – a great opportunity, district ranger
Thomas Peters said. Located along the canyon floor, this land
contains the church ruins and cemetery, an abandoned ranch, more
than 1,000 rock art sites, and a quarter-mile of dinosaur tracks
that University of Colorado paleontologist Martin Lockley calls
“”the Jurassic Santa Fe Trail.”
The Forest Service spent $25,000 last year constructing
limestone jetties meant to keep the shifting river from washing
away dinosaur tracks. Now the agency proposes to do more:
improve a 3.2-mile road into the canyon, install a permanent
toilet, post informational signs, set up a small parking lot.
La Junta business leaders in the past have promoted the
dinosaur tracks as a tourist attraction. State Division of
Wildlife officials say they’re interested in purchasing
Recently, seven Forest Service staffers rode into Purgatoire
Canyon on horses and watered them by the dinosaur tracks. A
fresh track from a motorbike, in the canyon illegally, curved
between pizza-size brontosaurus footprints.
“”Why open it up?” Peters said, sitting on the riverbank
with his feet in the silty water. “”Bottom line is: There’s no
good reason not to. … It’s going to be managed for multiple
use. These are public lands. People ought to be able to enjoy
their public lands.”
Forest Service entry logs show a growing number of mountain
bikers and hikers visiting the canyon after making a steep
The other legal way for people to reach Forest Service land
here is on guided four-wheel-drive tours. The Forest Service
leads 16 a year, no more than 20 people at a time. But to do
this, rangers rely on the Army’s good graces, calling a training
site supervisor and asking permission to use their “”limited
administrative access.” Therein lies the rub between the two
branches of government – and two different approaches for
managing public land.
The Forest Service wants the Army to grant unlimited access,
and allow road improvements, for recreational use of the canyon.
Aside from entering across Army land, the only other routes to
the canyon floor are too steep for any vehicle, Peters said. Or
the routes require crossing private land – which ranchers oppose.
So the whole Forest Service plan hinges on Army cooperation.
“”I wouldn’t want to commercialize it,” Bass, the regional
forest supervisor, said of the “”multiple use” proposal.
“”There is some truth” in the notion that the Army’s
hard-nosed stewardship is good for the Purgatoire, Bass said.
And future tours still would be guided, he said.
But he emphasized: “”If they (Army officials) hold off the
access, I don’t think that’s right.”
Yet the Army is doing exactly that.
“”I’m not giving it to them,” Warren said. “”The area that
they want, we train on.”
“A salvage operation’
The dangers of opening up the Purgatoire can be seen up a
side canyon, along Trinchera Creek.
On a ledge about 200 feet up, Colorado College archaeologist
Mike Nowak and a team of students were excavating a prehistoric
home site – on State Land Trust property. Access isn’t controlled.
Nowak found that pot hunters had hacked crude holes into the
cave where he planned to excavate for several years.
Now his research is “”a salvage operation,” said Nowak, an
expert on ancient Indians in the region. “”I’m working against
the clock in the sense that I’m afraid pot hunters are going to
come in here, if I’m not here, and really go to town.”
Indians probably lived in this cave on and off for centuries,
he said. It’s an ideal site for investigating how they lived in
tune with a fragile environment.
The holes hacked by pot hunters messed up layers of history
beneath the cave floor. Nowak gazed in dismay at heaps of dirt
shoveled out from the cave, slumping down toward Trinchera Creek.
One of his students, Bonnie Bagley of the University of New
Mexico, picked up a stone grinding tool, arrowheads and raptor
teeth from those heaps.
Pot hunters focused on finding collectible shards render
artifacts like these useless, Nowak explained, because the
objects are pulled out of context. Archaeologists value them as
they lie buried, in relation to other objects.
Pot hunters “”are just doing something that is fun to them,”
Nowak said. “”If they knew what damage they are really doing,
they might not do it.”
Faced with growing western cities and the waning of cowboy
culture, more and more people out here on what feels like a last
frontier are intrigued with the possibilities of hard-nosed
The La Junta Chamber of Commerce, while keen to promote
economic development, prefers a strategy that can “”keep it (the
Purgatoire Canyon) a pristine area,” said chamber President
She said she “”doesn’t hear the grumbling” about Army
ownership from ranchers anymore.