A Quartet of National Grasslands

Leaving the Amarillo, TX area, we headed northwest to visit four National Grasslands (NGs) in a relatively small area, but one that spanned four states: Rita Blanca NG in the northwest corner of the Texas panhandle; Kiowa NG in northeast New Mexico; Comanche NG in southeast Colorado; and Cimarron NG in SW Kansas. As we headed north and gained elevation, the weather turned even worse, and finally it started to snow. We stopped in the small town of Dumas, TX, which had a municipal park where you could camp for 24 hours, with free electric hookup. After breakfast-for-lunch at a small diner and some shopping, we hunkered down in a ferocious wind with rain at about freezing temperature, and hoped the forecast for a genuinely nice morning the next day was accurate, though it was hard to believe.

The forecast was indeed correct and the next morning we headed into Rita Blanca NG.  But the clay roads were too slippery to be safe – even in four-wheel drive in low range with a locked rear differential, and new all-terrain tires, we could hardly get any traction. So we returned to pavement and saw somewhat less terrain than we hoped, but we were able to camp in a nice area that, not surprisingly, we had to ourselves. Grassland species we saw in this area included Ferruginous Hawk and Burrowing Owl.

We continued to Kiowa NG, NM, where we hoped to see Swift Fox, a small grassland species, among our most-wanted mammals in North America. But first we camped on the rim of Mills Canyon, and took an all-day hike down into the canyon. The scenery here was some of the best of the trip, with the Canadian River alternating between stillwaters and riffles. Eileen got diagnostic photographs of Spiny Softshell Turtles basking on rocks in the river. Two singing Black-chinned Sparrows were a surprise, a couple hundred miles northeast of their mapped distribution in the field guides. We found 8 new species on the hike, our best day in about two weeks, and found our first Pinyon Jays of the trip.

Canadian River, Mills Canyon, Kiowa National Grasslands, NM
Canadian River, Mills Canyon, Kiowa NG, NM

The next day we slept late and took it easy, to prepare for the Swift Fox marathon. We left in mid-afternoon and drove to Springer, a tiny town with just one place to eat. Over pizza we caught up on e-mail, then after dark started driving slowly, with Eileen spotlighting. After about 45 minutes, she spotted an animal, and we got good looks at the tail pattern, nailing the identification! In total, between about 8:00 p.m. and 1:00 a.m., we covered around 100 miles, with a total of four Swift Fox sightings, of at least three individuals – great fun!

We next headed to Picketwire Canyon in Comanche NG, CO, driving over Raton Pass in high winds. We camped at the trailhead for 3 nights, and on the first full day hiked about 11 miles round-trip to the dinosaur track site on the Purgatoire River. It is a phenomenal experience to visit this 150-million-year-old site — you can walk right on exposed limestone terraces that are covered with tracks from three dinosaur groups: sauropods (an herbivorous group containing Brontosaurus); theropods (a group containing carnivores such as Tyrannosaurus and Velociraptor); and ornithopods (another herbivorous group containing duck-billed dinosaurs). Of note, the sauropod tracks are mostly oriented in one direction and in some cases form closely parallel trackways, indicating that the animals traveled in groups. Just amazing!

Dinosaur (sauropod) tracks, Picketwire Canyon, Comanche National Grassland, CO
Sauropod dinosaur tracks along Purgatoire River, Picketwire Canyon, Comanche NG, CO


Dinosaur (theropod) track, Picketwire Canyon, Comanche National Grassland, CO
Theropod dinosaur track, Picketwire Canyon, Comanche NG, CO

Our water system was acting up again and the truck needed an oil change, so we headed to La Junta, CO, to spend one night in a campground. Along the way we had several special prairie flowers, including a new phlox (pink), a new violet (yellow), and a spectacular white lily, Leucocrinum, which we had only seen in fruit before. Once at the campsite, I inspected the whole water system, and could see some small plastic debris in the water tank. I wondered if it could be clogging the system, so I drained all the water and then flushed the system and topped it off. It’s only been a week, but the system has been performing very well since then.

Leucocrinum montanum, David Canyon Rd, CR 802, Comanche National Grassland, CO
Sand Lily (Leucocrinum montanum), Comanche NG, CO

We next headed for a different unit of Comanche NG, farther southeast. We had nice camping at Carrizo and Picture Canyons, though the seemingly perpetual wind of the prairies reached a crescendo at the latter site. A highlight in these two canyons was a tiny cactus, Echinocereus viridiflorus, which stood only two inches tall, and had greenish-yellow flowers, an uncommon color. In Cottonwood Canyon, we saw about 28 Bighorn Sheep, reintroduced decades ago. This herd exists only through the cooperation of the ranching family that owns the valley, with the state wildlife department.

Echinocereus viridiflorus, Picture Canyon, Comanche National Grassland, CO
Echinocereus viridiflorus, Picture Canyon, Comanche NG, CO

Cimarron NG, in extreme southwest Oklahoma, contains part of the Cimarron Cutoff, which in an alternate route along the Santa Fe Trail, a major covered wagon trading route between Franklin, MO and Santa Fe, used from 1822 until the railroad was completed in 1880. Eileen’s final project for her Master’s Degree in Education was on the Santa Fe Trail, and as part of the project she drove along its main route. So it was fun for her to see the Cimarron Cutoff, a shortcut that was, however, treacherously dry.

We spent several nights camped out near a remote Black-tailed Prairie Dog town, which hosted many Burrowing Owls. Our first Lark Sparrows and Cassin’s Sparrows of the trip were here; the latter is an obligate grassland specialist. Like a few other open-country birds, this species sometimes flies well up into the air before delivering its song, a behavior termed “skylarking”. Presumably this helps the song carry further to other members of the species.

Up next: an area in central Kansas that is considered to be the most important shorebird migration stopover in the western hemisphere.

Map showing four national grasslands mentioned in this post.

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