Explore The Largest Known Dinosaur Track Site In America On This Historic Colorado Hike

Many of us are fascinated by dinosaurs. The idea of these huge (and sometimes small) creatures wandering the land we inhabited millions of years ago is pretty incredible to ponder. Maybe you had dinosaur toys as a kid, went to see their fossils at a museum, or visited places like the Jurassic Coast in the United Kingdom or even the filming locations for "Jurassic Park" movies. What if you could get closer to them by walking in their footsteps? There is a place in southeastern Colorado where you can do just that. In the Comanche National Grassland near La Junta, you can hike the Picketwire Canyon Trail. Along this challenging trek, you can see and touch 150-million-year-old dinosaur tracks from creatures like the herbivore Brontosaurus and the carnivorous Allosaurus. 


Not only can you take a hike along the trail yourself, but you can get a U.S. Forest Service guide to give you a tour if you bring along a 4-wheel drive/high-clearance vehicle. While the trail isn't an easy one, getting to see these incredible tracks is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Plus, you can visit the ruins of the Dolores Mission and Cemetery, see the old Rourke cattle ranch, and marvel at ancient petroglyphs along the way. Here's everything you need to know about walking in the path of dinosaurs at the Picketwire Canyon Trail.

Walking with the dinosaurs at Picketwire Canyon Trail

The Picketwire Canyon Trail along the Purgatoire River features the largest dinosaur track site in North America, with over 1,400 individual tracks. You can see different pathways, with some of the Brontosaurus (also called Apatosaurus) seemingly traveling in groups. There are very informative signs as you get to the tracks that explain that they likely did this to keep themselves safe from carnivores like the Allosaurus, whose prints you can also see. The sign also shows you where the tracks are for each type and the best place to cross the river, which can sometimes be slippery with a strong current. 


The length of the hike depends on how much walking around the tracks you do, but it's around 16.7 miles out and back with an 826-foot elevation gain. This isn't an easy hike, and there is no shade, so make sure you bring sunscreen and also at least a gallon of water, as it can get very hot in the canyon. You'll be going about 250 feet downhill early on and you'll have to come back up. You'll also be gone all day, so bring your best backpack, too. There are vault toilets at the trailhead, the tracks, and the ranch.

Tours, petroglyphs, and more on the Picketwire Canyon Trail

There is no camping on this trail, but you can ride bikes or horses — just don't ride over the tracks. You might see bobcats, antelope, bald eagles, quail, and rattlesnakes, but you'll also encounter insects, so bring your best bug shield or creative alternatives. You are not permitted to make casts of the prints, but take all the pictures you like. Just leave them in good condition for future visitors. The three-toed prints are usually Allosaurus or duck-billed dinosaurs, and the ones that look like shields are Brontosaurus. You'll actually see a replica of a dinosaur scapula that was found here right before you reach the tracks. 


A guided tour from the U.S. Forest Service will give you more info and point out the hard-to-find petroglyphs (above), which are around the trail. The tour begins in La Junta at 8 a.m., lasts until around 4 p.m., and costs $20 for adults and $7.50 for kids over five. Under-fives are free. Non-tour vehicles are not allowed. 

As you follow the trail, you'll see the ruins of the old Dolores Mission and Cemetery built by early Hispanic settlers in the 19th century. You'll also see Rourke Ranch, built in 1871 and the tour will tell you more about how the Rourke family made this an incredibly successful business in the area. The ranch is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.