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10 Things to Discover on Colorado’s Great High Prairie

Whether you’re an adventure seeker, history buff or birding fanatic, the beauty of Colorado’s Great High Prairie will delight no matter the season.

Bent's Old Ford in La Junta, CO
Bent's Old Ford in La Junta, CO
Camp Amache near Granada, CO
Camp Amache near Granada, CO
John Martin Reservoir near Lamar, CO
John Martin Reservoir near Lamar, CO
Lamar’s Spreading Antlers Golf Course
Lamar’s Spreading Antlers Golf Course
Wild turbines on the Great High Prairie
Wild turbines on the Great High Prairie
Santa Fe Trail marker
Santa Fe Trail marker

Here are 10 ways to discover the Colorado you didn’t even know existed in the Centennial State’s southeast, including charming small towns like Lamar and Holly

1.     There’s a reservoir that shines like a sapphire.

John Martin Reservoir, the most expansive body of water in southeastern Colorado, is an uncrowded, cobalt-colored gem. Head to this Hasty locale, near Lamar, for warm-weather water sports, like fishing, waterskiing, boating and sailing. When the reservoir water ebbs, look for footprints made by dinosaurs, crocodiles and even a few pterosaurs as they’re exposed along the shoreline. These ancient tracks are part of “The Dinosaur Freeway,” a fossil record that runs from northeast Colorado, near Boulder, to east-central New Mexico, near Tucumcari.

John Martin Reservoir State Park is also a bona fide historical site (it’s part of the Santa Fe National Historic Trail Site) and home to nearly 400 avian species, including the regal bald eagle and the endangered piping plover. Bring your binoculars and plan a hike along the Red Shin Trail to spot feathered friends as well as American Indian carvings, tour historic canals and explore the Prowers-Hudnell Ranch, which ends on the north shore of the park at the Santa Fe Trail marker. 

2.     You’ll discover important Colorado history.

Oft-forgotten history is preserved at sites across this region. Here are four memorable ways to explore it.

  • A popular trading hub along the Santa Fe Trail, Bent’s Old Fort in La Junta is still a top destination for sightseers. Built in 1833, this adobe structure served as a welcoming respite for all weary travelers, including American Indians, soldiers, Mexicans, African Americans and even the famed frontiersman Kit Carson. Its open-door policy made it more than a trading post — it was a place to relax and feel safe.

  • Marking an unfortunate chapter in Western history, the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in Eads offers interpretive signs explaining the land’s tragic legacy. There, in November 1864, 230 American Indians were brutally killed (more than two-thirds of them women and children) after the Colorado Territory militia attacked Cheyenne and Arapaho villages. Today, the park hosts special programs with the Cheyenne and Arapaho people, including annual Spiritual Healing runs every November, to help commemorate and memorialize the area.

  • At Camp Amache, near Granada, visitors drive dirt roads to discover a former Japanese internment camp that operated from 1942–1945 during World War II. There its residents lived behind barbed-wire fences under many restrictions. Though it was the smallest of the Japanese internment camps in the United States, with more than 7,500 residents, it was the 10th largest city in Colorado at the time.

  • The Great High Prairie offers an unusually high number of Works Progress Administration projects constructed as part of the New Deal in the 1930s and 40s. (The WPA put roughly 8.5 million Americans to work during the Great Depression.) Take a WPA projects self-guided tour to see remarkable structures like the Douglas Crossing Bridge, Savage Stadium in Lamar and the Holly Gymnasium.

3.     It’s home to one of Colorado’s highest concentration of bird species.

Fluttering with more than 400 feathered species and counting, the town of Lamar is a popular birding destination. With all the avian action going on in this area, it’s no surprise that new species are periodically discovered. Top Great High Prairie birding locations include the ecologically diverse Willow Creek Trail, John Martin Reservoir State Park and any of the region’s grassy and rolling state wildlife areas. Keep watch for downy woodpeckers, great blue herons, wood ducks, orioles, mallards and many others.

4.     Its canyons are rich in flora and fauna.

Rugged and colorful canyons exist along the many tributaries of southeastern Colorado’s Cimarron and Purgatoire rivers, where American Indian communities once thrived. The rich ecosystem — boasting plentiful fresh-water springs, pinyon-juniper woodlands and sweeping golden grasslands — now safeguards the region’s ample assortment of wildlife. Hike along the canyons’ designated trails for bird spotting and lots (and lots) of solitude. 

5.     The Great High Prairie is a leader in sustainable agriculture.

With an economy deeply entrenched in agriculture, it’s no wonder Colorado’s southeastern region prides itself on being a sustainability leader.

Experience it firsthand by checking out two substantial (and some might say grand) wind-turbine farms — the 162-megawatt Colorado Green Wind Power Project and the Twin Buttes Wind Power Project — found south of Lamar on the way to Springfield. Both farms are located on thousands of acres of picturesque grassland also used for ranching and grazing. 

Or book a tour with Colorado Mills, an environmentally friendly Lamar-based company, to see how their sunflower oil is made in an organic-certified, zero-waste facility.

6.     You can play a truly challenging golf game.

Links lovers can test their skills at another hidden gem — a challenging, nine-hole course designed by Labron Harris. Play along the gently rolling greens of Lamar’s Spreading Antlers Golf Course, which also hosts its fair share of water hazards and sand traps. Known for meticulously groomed, difficult terrain, Spreading Antlers is special for yet another reason — its year-round golf season. The public course measures in at 2,963/3,103 yards with a slope rating of 114 and a USGA rating of 68.2. It offers four sets of tees for all skill levels.

7.     You’ll love discovering cool, weird and totally fascinating points of interest.

With numerous one-of-a-kind and in many cases little-known landmarks dotting the region, the Points of Interest Self-Guided Tour will send you in the right direction. A great road-trip tool, you can use it to explore Great High Prairie treasures at your own pace — like La Junta’s Bent’s Old Fort, Lamar’s Petrified Wood Building (the quirky structure, made entirely of 175-million-year-old petrified wood — even the floors — once operated as a gas station) and Gobbler’s Knob near Lamar (hoodoo-like Dakota sandstone outcroppings).

8.     These Colorado trails are perfect for hikers and bikers.

Sure, the Great High Prairie’s beauty may not be as well-known as Colorado’s mountain regions, but its numerous hiking and biking trails are something to see.

Head to the canyons for hiking trails bedazzled with paintbrush-like tufts of prairie grass, sandstone formations and hearty juniper trees. Vogel Canyon’s Canyon and Mesa trails in La Junta, for instance, will have you traversing past pinyon pines, what remains of a 1930s settlement and American Indian rock art.

Or visit Comanche National Grassland in Springfield for its diversity of hiking, biking and horseback-riding trails, not to mention its unrivaled sunsets, golden-hued prairies and assortment of wildlife (like golden eagles, pronghorn, coyotes and owls to name a few). Here you’ll enjoy 444,000 acres of pristine prairie and canyonland primed and ready for boundless recreation and camping.

9.     A stellar roster of year-round events draws visitors from across the country.

Head here for annual happenings like summertime rodeos, the Lamar Community College Frontier History Encampment (September), Pedal the Plains (September) and the High Plains Snow Goose Festival (February). The Lamar Baseball and Softball Complex’s immaculate fields additionally host a variety of games and tournaments — youth through college.

10.  Colorado’s stunning grassland is brimming with stories and activities.

The Comanche National Grassland is also a beacon for history buffs interested in everything from dinosaurs (150 million years ago) and the area’s first human residents (1,500 years ago) to the more recent Santa Fe Trail saga (150 years ago) — keep an eye out for what remains of the historic wagon trail across the West.

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