Driving Through the Dusty Comanche National Grasslands

Located in the high desert plains of southeastern Colorado, the Comanche National Grasslands is not your typical tourist destination.

After leaving Great Sand Dunes National Park, it didn’t take long until we were completely out of the mountains and into the flat high plains of Eastern Colorado.

We were headed to Timpas and the Comanche National Grasslands. This was not your typical tourist destination, and was certainly a different experience from the Great Sand Dunes and especially any of the Utah parks. I plugged “Comanche National Grasslands” into Google and it only pulled up the Carrizo Unit in the southeast corner of the state. Frankly, I have no idea how we even found the Timpas Unit.

Timpas Unit of the Comanche National Grasslands
Timpas Unit of the Comanche National Grasslands
Timpas Unit of the Comanche National Grasslands

What used to be a thriving town was now practically deserted, its only point of interest the picnic area and wayside exhibits marking the Santa Fe Trail.

I found a green spot on the map that indicated Vogel Canyon, so we headed east on a decently graded unpaved road. It took us through a mix of public land and private property demarcated by cattle guards.

The road seemed like it would go on forever just the way it was: straight, with rare and faint hills and dips, towards an unbroken horizon. It was the kind of road where oncoming vehicles kicked up dust clouds miles away. An occasional bird alit from a fence post, and a herd of pronghorn antelope followed alongside Mae before leaping away.

It was peaceful, and bare, and easy to see how this area had once been the dustbowl.

The plains of Colorado, Kansas, and Oklahoma had drawn homesteaders in the early twentieth century. Determined to make a go of it, they planted and tilled just like they did back east, except this soil was different.

The prairie grasses were the only things holding it down, so when they dug those grasses up followed by a three-year drought, the whole area became a swirling cloud of dust. The Federal government bought the land from the bankrupt homesteaders and in 1960 established Comanche National Grassland.

We drove through occasional rolling hills and stopped at a lone crumbling stone building set away from the road and marked with “We’re watching you” signs. We made another stop at a marker for the Barlow and Sanderson Stage Route, and could see the ruts from the wagon wheels. Thinking about our air conditioned comfort was quite the contrast to the stagecoaches that had made those grooves, especially considering that section of the trail hadn’t been used since 1876.

Santa Fe Trail Comanche National Grasslands
Santa Fe Trail

Our stop at the Vogel Canyon picnic area was short, basically just long enough to stretch our legs. The sun was starting to set. While the trail was only a mile to the canyon we didn’t want to get stuck on those back roads at dusk, so we hiked a few hundred feet, came back and signed the trail register, and Jim threw away a couple of empty beer cans someone had left in the box. (Who does that?)

That night we ended up at the nearly deserted but clean and courteous Bent’s Fort at America’s Best Value Inn just east of Las Animas. The Inn was fifty years old with an antique safe from Spain in the lobby. The nice gent behind the counter said it was because the Mexican border used to be just south of the hotel. I had on my Chicago Cubs t-shirt, and he was wearing a Chicago Cubs hat, so we chatted and found out he’d moved to Colorado from Naperville. Small world.

The next morning we added another unplanned stop to our itinerary. The hotel was named after Bent’s Old Fort, a National Historic Site less than twenty minutes away. As we’d said so many times before, “we’d come this far.”

Nope, we definitely did not have to worry that we weren’t doing enough on this trip. It was a good thing we were a few days from home.

This is part of our EPIC Southwest USA road trip from the Chicago-area to San Diego and back!

Comanche National Grasslands is located in the southeast corner of Colorado. #USA
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