The Dixie Chicks’ “Wide Open Spaces” is blaring as you take the scenic route through southeast Colorado. Stopping along the Santa Fe Trail, you’ll imagine buffalo and plains Indians roaming this vast, stunning grassland.
La Junta, Lamar, Las Animas and other southeast Colorado towns greet you with a sense of relaxation and down-home roots. You can be sure to enjoy all the region has to offer — from birding to camping to hiking and rodeos, it’s time to get outside on the road less traveled.
1. Birds of a Feather Flock Together: Warblers, Grosbeaks & More.
With more than 400 species of birds, the Great Plains is a hot spot for ornithology enthusiasts. Start your birding-journey at John Martin Reservoir State Park near Hasty for a chance to see warblers, grosbeaks and vireos. The shoreline is one of the few nesting areas in Colorado for the threatened piping plover and the endangered interior least tern. Nearby, Lake Hasty’s campground is home to bald eagles in the winter months. Large flocks of snow geese call Nee Noshe Reservoir their nesting ground, and your best shot at seeing migratory waterfowl is at Upper and Lower Queens. Cottonwood Canyon has excellent scenery and is known for redheaded ladder-backed woodpeckers and red-eyed Mississippi kite. If you are looking for something accessible, the Lamar Community College Nature Trail is inside Lamar city limits and only 1.5 miles long. You might even catch a glimpse of eastern-plains birds such as the northern cardinal.
2. Pitch a Tent: Camp to Your Heart’s Content.
The breeze sweeps through the trees and lightly rattles your tent’s walls at the Lake Hasty Campground in John Martin Reservoir. Open year-round, the 109 sites accommodate camping gear of any size with electrical hookups. Get back to the basics: The Point Campground, also in John Martin,is a no-frills location without electric hookups or water. Throw up your tent and hike down to the Arkansas River — you’ll be able to see it butting up against the dam, before calling it a night.
Dispersed camping is allowed almost everywhere in Comanche National Grassland, which covers a total of 695 square miles. The place is vast, so you will be able to find a pre-existing camp area that’s level to call your campsite. The Carrizo Picnic Area has permanent tables, grills and the benefit of wide-open skies. Check out the American Indian rock art before jumping in the swimming hole. Picket Wire Corrals Interpretive Site consists of a large open field with parking for any size of RV. There is no water, but you can venture onto the Picket Wire Canyonlands trail. You’ll feel like you’re in an old Western at Picture Canyon Picnic Area — was that a tumbleweed passing by? — with tall walls of rocks stacked like a multicolored layer cake.
3. Reel ’Em In: Catch Wiper, Bass & More.
Your arms will get a workout while you wrestle with bass, catfish, crappie, wiper and more at Nee Noshe, Nee Gronde and Upper and Lower Queens, all of which are stocked by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Don’t get your line tangled as you reel in a big one at John Martin Reservoir but do enjoy the adrenaline-packed day of searching out fish with minds of their own. Bass, wiper, striper, catfish and walleye swim through these warm waters. Make sure you read the Colorado Parks and Wildlife guidelines for information on how to fish and whether or not you need a license.
4. These Boots are Made for Hiking: See Everything from Canyons to Dinosaur Tracks.
Fill up your water bottle and get a’stepping. Carrizo Creek flows through a small canyon peppered with juniper and cottonwoods on the Carrizo Canyon Picnic Area hiking trail. Look for snapping turtles beneath the water’s surface and check out the petroglyphs that grace the walls. To step back even further in time, head over to the Withers Canyon Trailhead, an 11.3-mile round-trip hike to Picket Wire Canyon’s dinosaur tracks. More than 1,500 prints in 100 trackways extend across the bedrock, making it the closest thing you can get to “Jurassic Park.” Rock formations that look like they’re out of “Star Wars,” rolling hills and remnants of plains Indian cultures greet you at Picture Canyon's Arch Rock Trail. If you’re about those mountain views, the Sierra Vista Interpretive Site is an absolute must. The Spanish Peaks rise in the distance to the south, and if you scale up the side of a bluff.
5. You’re on a Boat: Jet Around the Canyons & Plains Lakes.
Sparkling water greets you as you speed through the wakes of other boats on southeastern Colorado’s lakes. Be sure to wear your SPF 50 and sunglasses because these lakes provide stunning views and lots of sun. The four Great Plains Reservoirs are ready for some splashin’: Nee Noshe Reservoir, Nee Gronda and Upper and Lower Queens, John Martin Reservoir is the second largest reservoir (by surface area) in the state. Blue Lake, or Adobe Creek Reservoir, is a real looker, with shockingly blue water located 30 minutes from downtown Las Animas. Meanwhile, Lake Meredith’s size lends itself to power boaters and jet skiers. If you are a true sailor, bring your sailboat to Lake Henry, as there is plenty of room to share the open water with other boats and water-skiers.
6. Spot Colorado’s Famous Residents, from Deer to Prairie Dogs.
Dig your binoculars out of your backpack because you’re going to need them to see the wildlife this region has to offer. Multiple species of toad hop along trails while snakes slither through the underbrush at John Martin Reservoir. You can also see furrier friends such as deer, beavers, raccoons and porcupines. Badgers, wild turkeys, prairie dogs, roadrunners and collared lizards run amok in Comanche National Grassland, all of which make for great photos to show your relatives.
7. Camo Season is Every Season: Hunting in the Plains.
With a mild year-round climate, southeast Colorado is a sportsman’s paradise. Lakes attract pronghorn, deer and waterfowl. Feel more like small game? Quail, doves, pheasant and rabbits call the area home too. Outwest Adventures is the go-to outfitter for all things hunting in this part of Colorado. Having access to more than 200,000 acres of land to hunt on, you can chase after eastern plains mule deer, whitetails, and pronghorn on one of their guided hunts, or they can help you attain hunting vouchers for private lands. Public hunting is permitted near John Martin Reservoir, Lake Henry and Lake Meredith.
8. Buckin’ Broncos: Rodeos, Country Fairs & More.
Chant “ride ’em, cowboy,” while watching some of the fiercest rodeo riders take on bulls triple their size in these summer rodeos. The calendar starts with the Las Animas Bent County Fair in mid-July, complete with peewee barrel racing and the tiny-tot sheep show. Then Crowley County Days, in Ordway, begins in late-July, with a do-not-miss 4-H show happening before the rodeo and street-dance. Up next, the Baca County Fair and Rodeo, held the first weekend in August in Springfield, has red-neck games and a demolition derby. The La Junta Kid’s Rodeo has been happening for 50 years and continues in early August for students ages 5–18 participating in rodeo games — many world-famous professional rodeoers got their start here. After seeing the adorable kiddos, head to the Sand and Sage Round-Up, in Lamar, also happening in early August celebrating 118 years of rodeoing. Rocky Ford’s Arkansas Valley Fair, in mid-August, is all about celebrating the quintessential summer fruit that is watermelon, but you can also enjoy the beer garden, pie social and barrel racing. To round-out, your rodeo experiences, finish the season at the Kiowa County Fair, near Eads, in mid-September where bronc riding and live music end the season.
9. Historic Sites, Forts & Camps, Oh My.
Famous frontiersmen, folk heroes and explorers are part of this region’s shared history. Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site in La Junta features a reconstructed 1840s adobe fur-trading post and living historians to recreate the scenes of years past. Meanwhile, Boggsville Historic Site showcases a restored mid-19th-century settlement that was home to Kit Carson. On the darker side of history, the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site near Eads explores eight hours that changed the Great Plains forever, and Camp Amache, a WWII-era Japanese internment camp near Granada, are two must-visits for the opportunity to learn from the past. Back on the lighter side, the Koshare Museum in La Junta hosts an impressive collection of Native American artifacts and one of the world’s largest self-supported log ceilings. And Picketwire Center for the Performing and Visual Arts is a Works Progress Administration building, created using stones from local quarries, that has been bringing performing arts to La Junta for more than 60 years.