Mis-Adventure in Picketwire Canyon

Looking Down Picketwire Canyon

For a long time I’ve wanted to check-out Picketwire Canyon in southeast Colorado. The canyon is well-known for having the best preserved dinosaur tracks in North America. It also has examples of ancient native american rock art. The route to the dinosaur tracks is about 11 miles round-trip from the trailhead, making for a full day on foot.

Because the path follows a relatively flat canyon-bottom, we decided to break out our aging mountain bikes and ride the length of the trail to the track site. We recognized this was somewhat of a risky proposition as we hadn’t done any serious mountain biking in close to 10 years and our bikes were upwards of 20 years old; so old, they don’t even have shocks! Middle-aged bodies on 20 year-old bikes could be a recipe for trouble. But we decided to give it a chance, so we brushed the cobwebs off the bikes, crossed our fingers, and headed off to La Junta, Colorado.

On Saturday morning, we woke up early and headed out from our hotel in La Junta to the trailhead. The day started off cool and clear, but the forecast called for an unusually hot day for October – upper 80 degrees by afternoon. We started down the trail, and almost immediately the route dropped steeply into the canyon on a path that was strewn with loose rocks and old railroad ties that were presumably being used for trail stabilization.

Walking the Bike down a Rough Section of the Trail to Picketwire Canyon

I don’t think I could have negotiated this section on a bike even in my younger days when I did a lot of biking. Fortunately, this section was fairly short (less than a 1/2 mile), so we carefully walked our bikes down to the bottom where it leveled out into a nice, mellow double-track. We knew it would be a major grunt pushing our bikes back up that hill, but we figured we’d worry about that when we returned.

We proceeded down the road past an old homestead to a rock art panel hidden behind a boulder about 100 yards from the road. After taking some pictures and video of the carvings, we hopped back on the bikes and proceeded down the road.

Petroglyph Rock Art

Very soon after, we noticed numerous goatheads stuck to our tires. Goatheads, otherwise known as “nature’s thumb tacks,” are a thorny seed pod prevalent in the southwest and a bane to bike riders. They can easily penetrate a tire and tube, causing annoying (and numerous) flat tires. Even though we were staying on the dirt track, many of these menaces managed to migrate to the trail and into our treads.

Goatheads in the Bike Tire

At first, they didn’t seem to be causing any problems until Valerie pulled one out of her tire and out came the air. It was a slow leak, so we decided to keep riding and fill the tire up with air as needed. If that didn’t work, we’d break out the repair kit.

At mile 4.0, near an old cemetery, we tried filling the tire with air again and the unthinkable happened: the tire pump broke. The plastic head at the tip of the pump cracked, causing the air to be pushed outside of the pump instead of inside the tire. At this point we were only 1.5 miles from the dinosaur tracks, so we decided to deal with the busted pump later and walk the rest of the way to the track site.

Dinosaur Tracks

The dinosaur track site extends 1/4 of a mile and contains over 1300 visible tracks that comprise about 100 different trackways. It is necessary to cross the Purgatoire River to get to the main site, but at this time of year, the river barely trickles, so it was easy to cross on rocks without getting our feet wet. We spent about a half hour photographing and filming the site before heading back to the bikes. As we left the site, a large group of 4WD vehicles pulled into the track site entrance. This was the regularly scheduled ranger-guided tour organized by the US Forest Service every Saturday during the fall. We talked briefly with the lead guide and he offered us some water from the back of the pickup he was driving. This turned out to be a godsend as the problems with the bikes would cause us to need the extra water (Thanks Kevin!!).

We walked back to the bikes, stopping by another rock art panel and looking around at the gravestones in the cemetery (these date back to 1895) along the way.

Cemetery in Picketwire Canyon

We once again tried to see if there was anything we could do to get the pump working again. Unfortunately, there was just nothing we could do to seal up that crack – the pump was essentially useless. To add insult-to-injury, Valerie’s other tire was now flat. Not only did she have airless tires, but now I had a flat tire as well. I wasn’t sure how mine went flat since I have Tuffy liners in both tires and have never had a problem with flats before. At this point, there was nothing else we could do except push our bikes back the 4 miles to the trailhead.

It was now early afternoon and the heat was getting brutal in the canyon. Pushing the bikes was hard enough, but doing it with flat tires made it even more challenging. We stopped at almost every shady spot we could find along the trail to give ourselves a chance to cool down. The additional water we obtained from Kevin, the ranger, was now becoming a necessity. We just pushed along slowly until we finally arrived at the base of the steep climb portion of the trail. It was slow and painful pushing our injured bikes up that hill, but after a short, painful climb, we were back in the car and heading back to La Junta for much-needed showers, cold drinks, and food.

As sideways as the trip ended up, we still had a good time exploring Picketwire Canyon. We saw everything we came to see, though it took much longer that we had anticipated. The canyon was really quite picturesque, the dinosaur tracks spectacular, and the rock art, although not as good as you’d find in Utah or Arizona, was still a great find. It was nice to have a canyon country experience close to the Denver area without having to make a long drive west.

We’ve decided that our bikes will now be donated to a worthy cause; they are just too old and heavy for this sort of thing, especially with our aging bodies.

Hiking on the Picketwire Canyon Trail

If we do decide to get new bikes, we’re going to get tough tires with liners, fill the tubes with sealant, and make sure we bring two (or three) of every tool we might need. Then again, maybe we’ll just stick to hiking.

You can view a video of this infamous excursion here.


About Mike

I have a passion for adventure travel that began in 1989 with my first overseas trip: climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Having never been to a foreign country, Africa felt like being on another planet; I knew then and there I was hooked on travel. Since that time, I have visited all seven continents and dozens of countries. I’m using the experience I’ve gained in planning my own trips to help my clients plan their own adventures through my adventure travel company (http://www.offtrailtravel.com). After working as a firefighter for the US Forest Service in California and Wyoming for three years, I moved to Durango, Colorado where I graduated from Fort Lewis College with a degree in accounting. After graduation I moved to the Denver area where I worked in a Big Eight accounting firm to obtain my CPA license; soon afterward I began a career as an auditor with the Colorado Department of Education. My background in accounting helped me develop detailed-oriented skills that have been extremely useful in researching and planning my own travel over the years. I think this provides a unique asset to my clients in putting together their adventure travel plans. I currently live in Golden, Colorado with my wife Valerie, who shares my love of adventure travel. I’m an active member of the Colorado Mountain Club where I lead trips for club members and have taught ski lessons in their Telemark Ski School. I enjoy skiing, mountain hiking, trail running, photography, and astronomy. I take any opportunity I can get to explore new places, whether it’s on the other side of the world or just down the road.
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3 Responses to Mis-Adventure in Picketwire Canyon

  1. Pingback: Mis-Adventure in Picketwire Canyon . . . The Movie! | Off Trail Travel

  2. Dion says:

    What I suggest is, when you catch your next flat, (god forbid it,) and are changing your tire, take the now punctured inner tube, cut only the stem valve off, and carefully place it flatly back inside the tire, carefully lining the tire bottom with it. Then insert your new fresh working inner tube on top of it. This is both cost effective, and will give the new inner tube 4x the protection against goat heads, staples, and nails. Since using this idea on all my bikes, me personally, I’m still waiting for another flat.
    Hope this helps.

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