Black Mesa

May 2005

By: Bob Michael



A glance at a US map will show that Colorado extends further east than any other "Western" state. This eastern third is the ignored and disrespected part of the state, usually considered a boring void good only for growing wheat, cattle and cantaloupes, and for holding Kansas at arm's length from the Rockies. There's a lot of truth to this, particularly in the northeastern part of the state. Surely there's nothing out there that belongs in the SAGE? But... for years I had heard vague stories of lonely, largely unknown canyons in the forgotten southeast corner of the state, an "empty quarter" extending into the northeast corner of New Mexico and the western tip of the Oklahoma panhandle. This strange, anomalous region of the Great Plains geologic province is anything ~ boring, with sandstone canyons and volcanic mountains. A place out of mainstream America and out of time.

In May, Karen and Edmund Mohr of Denver and I explored the Purgatoire (cowboy-Anglicized to "Picketwire") Canyon south of La Junta, Colorado. This wide canyon is cut into the north flank of the Sierra Grande Uplift, a broad gentle upwarp in the southern Great Plains that is a "ripple" of deformation in the continental interior caused by the vastly more intense uplift of the southern Rockies to the west. Streams flowing northeast to the Arkansas River from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains cut a series of canyons as the Uplift rose. Most of Colorado east of the Rockies is private ranch or farm land, and there are few public access points into this canyon system. The Comanche National Grasslands affords access to two canyons - Vogel and Purgatoire - off County Road 802 which turns off. Colorado Highway 109, 13 miles south of La Junta. Not far south of the agricultural Arkansas Valley, the land opens up to a vast New Mexico-like sweep of juniperdotted mesas almost completely devoid of any signs of civilization. On the southern horizon are higher dark basalt-capped mesas: Mesa de Maya, Mesa Tecolote and Black Mesa. These are the northern ramparts of the Capulin Volcanic Field, a spectacular gallery of volcanic landforms which erupted quite recently east of the Rockies onto the Great Plains... ~ too far east on the continent for such intense recent tectonic activity.

Like Southeast Oregon (SAGE #283, January 2003), this country possesses all the requisites to be a true Empty Quarter: little water, few resources, a darned hardscrabble place to make a living, and the last time it was on the way to anywhere was in the heyday of the Santa Fe Trail. And, in fact, we felt much closer - physically, and in time - to the Trail than to any Interstate highway.

Our eleven-mile round-trip hike in Purgatoire Canyon began with one brutally steep descent of about 400 feet through the Dakota Sandstone rim. On a hot but not unbearable day softened by a gentle wind, we passed ruins left by both Anglo and Mexican settlers who had been broken by this tough country. The canyon is wide and not spectacular like Utah canyons; its fascination is the sense of hiking into a time-warp. In most other places in Colorado such a wide canyon with a river and verdant bottomland would have a road and houses; here it's just chollas, junipers, cottonwoods, silence and ghosts of the past. This spring the canyon was especially grassy and flowery from a wet winter. 3.8 miles in, you pass the ruins of a Catholic chapel which served a longvanished, mysterious Hispanic settlement with New Mexican roots. A few exquisitely hand-carved native sandstone grave markers (in Spanish, of course) remain in the churchyard. 1.6 miles past this is the piece de resistance, on Jurassic bedrock scoured clean by the river; the longest dinosaur trackway in North America and one of the best ever found on Earth, with stumpy "brontosaur" prints and sinister-looking clawed three-toed prints of their predators. Unfortunately, the main trackway proved to be on the "wrong" side of the river, swollen to a muddy torrent by the heaviest snowmelt runoff in many years. We chose prudence and satisfied ourselves with a few well-preserved predator prints on our side.

That evening, we continued to our "climbing" destination in the bizarre long thin appendage - a true "panhandle" - tacked on the northwest corner of Oklahoma. Black Mesa is the eastern end of a huge lava flow that began in Colorado, curved through the north-east corner of New Mexico, and stopped a couple miles into what would become Oklahoma, after it was known as "No Mans Land". Seems that, after surveyors finished laying out the states from what had been territories around the turn of the (last)century, they were left with a little block on top of Texas that didn't belong to anybody. Nobody really wanted it, as it was thought to be a profitless malpais of value only to cattle rustlers as a hideout. Not even Texas jumped at the chance to make itself even bigger. No Mans Land eventually went by default to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma.

The high point is administered jointly by the State and the Nature Conservancy as a wilderness park. The 8.4 mile (RT) trail to the summit begins at a very obvious roadhead just off the narrow (but at least paved) road north out of Kenton, OkIa., to Baca County, Cob., 5 miles out of Kenton. The overly well-marked trail (with a number of green steel arrows marked "Summit" along the way) ambles along the north side of the Mesa through pleasant high desert country dotted with junipers and the ubiquitous cane cholla, a different sp~cies from our cholla friends in the California deserts. We enjoyed a great wildflower display in May. I saw several totally new and strange flowers, including a square primrose, probably a Texas species at the limit of their range. Eventually the route abruptly turns south (another arrow) and joins what once was a very steep, narrow and eroded jeep trail hacked into the north flank of the Mesa. You abruptly top off on the basalt cap and hike a rather flat, featureless mile or so to an impressive, ten-foot red granite obelisk marking the pinnacle of the Sooner State, about 1,200 feet east of the New Mexico line. There is a register! A few numbers from the appropriate Rodgers & Hammerstein musical were lustily sung. There had been a tree-bending windstorm the night before, so there was a tan dust haze which ruined the view; we could just make out to the southwest Sierra Grande (8,730'), the highest volcano in the Capulin Volcanic Field and the easternmost peak over 8,000 feet in the United States.

We returned to contemporary America via New Mexico Highway 456 west of Kenton, a state highway which for quite a distance is a dirt road through the completely deserted northeast corner of New Mexico. As we went west, the mesas grew higher, the air thinner and cooler, the landscape somehow "bigger". Past the tiny settlement of Folsom, we took little-traveled (at least paved) State Highway 72, a spectacular drive which climbs up, up, up to over 8,000 feet on top of Raton Mesa, an arctic prairie blasted clean of trees by winter blizzards. Topping a little rise, the dazzling Alaska-white spectacle of the Culebra Range of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains (with Culebra Peak, the southernmost Fourteener) burst upon us. We were back from the strange shadowlands of the southeastern semidesert to the Colorado of peak guides and picture books.


Camping opportunities in this country are limited, as most of the land is private. Black Mesa State Park, 32 miles west of Boise City, Okla., (but some distance from the peak itself) has camping. Not only is there no camping in Purgatoire Canyon, but you must be out by dusk. Primitive dry camping is permitted in the parking lot for the Vogel Canyon trailhead, which is passed on County Road 802 en route to the Purgatoire trailhead.

In fact, there is pretty much no nothin' south of La Junta. There are no gas stations, with the exception of the tiny hamlet of Kim, Colorado. There are no restaurants, although the general store proprietor in Kenton will whip you up a burger if he's in the mood to open for business. (No gas in Kenton). There are no motels per se - the night before Black Mesa, we stayed at the Black Mesa Bed & Breakfast 2 miles north of "town" on the road to the trailhead. We highly recommend this place; it's owned by a really nice down-home couple who have made their neat century-old native sandstone ranch house and outbuildings into a cozy lodging. This also solved the no-restaurants problem. P.O. Box 81, Kenton, Oklahoma 73946; 580.261.7443.

Midsummer would be murderously hot in the Purgatoire Canyon; don't go there. May was green, flowery and not too hot, but we had the problem crossing the river to see the mega-dino trackway. October might be the best time for cool weather, golden cottonwoods, and a low, crossable river. Comanche National Grassland, 1420 E. Third St., La Junta, Colorado 81050; 719.384.2181.

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