It’s a steep ride.
And it takes a while to get there.
But it’s worth the trip.
All of it.
And for 11 riders anxious to get down the trail after a long drive, the trailhead of Withers Canyon begins with a 250-foot drop down a rocky slope on the side of one of many buttes scattered throughout the region.
Withers Canyon Trailhead is the starting point for the 17.6 mile Picket Wire Canyon Trail and the 0.5 mile Picket Wire Canyon Overlook Trail in the Comanche National Grassland outside of La Junta.
It takes a few hours to get there but the terrain and history cannot be replaced.
If your horse isn’t shod, it is a good idea to have boots on them.
This trail is rocky.
Be ready to lean back and let your horse find its way down this trail.
A good trail horse will be watching every step, and if you are smart, you will be looking to the horizon and remembering to breathe.
But it’s only this portion of the trail that gets your heart rate racing.
After getting your heart slowing down a bit, the trail evens out and meanders along the bottom of the canyon.
Ruins of old adobe structures appear out of the brush along the way and picture graphs can be seen on various rocks that clutter the valley walls.
Arriving at the Dolores Mission and Cemetery, 3.7 miles from the trailhead, we rode eastward about 10 minutes toward the Purgatory River, where there was a place for the horses to stop and get a drink.
The river was low but there was spring-fed pools that could be quite deep.
We stopped for lunch since were all hungry, and the dinosaur track location was still another mile and a half.
There wasn’t much grass to be found for the horses to munch on but they all seemed to appreciate the drink and some cooling off by wading into the water up to their bellies, much to the dismay of their owners because of the mud and wonderful fishy smell that they rode away carrying with them.
Riding back toward the mission, we found several cars parked and people viewing the ruins.
The forest service was conducting a tour of the site that is accessible for high clearance vehicles from the Rourke Ranch end of the canyon.
The forest service employee apologized for disturbing our escape from civilization with the convoy of vehicles that we stepped off the trail to let them pass as they made their way back to the ranch.
Arriving at the dinosaur track site, we found a hitching rail to tie some of the horses to while walking down to the site.
The site itself is off limits to horses, but is just a short walk away.
We took turns holding some of the horses because not all 11 would fit on the hitching rail.
The return trip back up the 250-foot elevation was as much of a challenge going up as it was going down.
The horses worked hard to climb back up but everyone arrived at the top no worse for wear.
And we were happy to be back at the trailers.
We shared the trail with hikers and bicyclists who were all pleasant and courteous.
There were several people camping out at the trail head where there was a pit latrine and camping sites among the cedar tree.
I believe they were all listening to our conversations about the trail as we unsaddled horses, wet our thirsts and grabbed a snack before loading the horses for the drive home.
We stopped in La Junta at the Hob’s Breath Saloon for barbecue and headed home.