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Yes, this is Colorado: Discover canyons, grasslands and chilling history in state’s southeastern corner

The eastern third of Colorado, some joke, might as well be part of Kansas or Oklahoma. The undulating plains are marked by relentless heat waves in the summer and bitter winds in the winter. There’s not a mountain in sight.

But take a closer look.

You’ll find canyons carved into the seemingly flat prairie, wagon train ruts along the Santa Fe Trail Colorado National Scenic and Historic Byway, the largest known dinosaur track site in North America, four National Park Service sites and a Colorado State Park in a six-county area that marks the far southeastern corner of the state.

All are tied to the rich history of the region, dating back 150 million years to when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

This rugged land, too, has seen horrific tragedy, its soil stained with the blood of slaughtered Native Americans and the tears of Japanese American citizens forced from their homes and imprisoned during World War II. There are cemeteries where children of pioneering families who succumbed to scarlet fever or typhoid fever are buried.

Whatever might draw you to Southeast Colorado, there are plenty of reasons to stay and explore for a few days.

There’s even a unique six-county organization – Canyons & Plains of Southeast Colorado – that will help you with itineraries and maps. Want to see wildlife? They’ll tell you where to go. Museums? Ditto. Looking for hiking trails? They know where they are.

You can also get tips at either of two Colorado Welcome Centers that bookend the Colorado portion of the Santa Fe Trail, one in Lamar and one in Trinidad.

Spring or fall are ideal times to visit, before or after the sweltering heat of summer. Most attractions are open year-round, but some may have limited hours during the winter months, so be sure to check before you go.

Here are a few highlights of the region:

Santa Fe Trail

So, it’s not just the “Santa Fe Trail” we’re talking about here. It’s the “Mountain Route” or “Mountain Branch,” though you’d be hard-pressed to spot a mountain from the eastern portion. The famed trade route splits in western Kansas, with the Cimarron Route cutting south through the Oklahoma panhandle and just a bit of Colorado. The 165 miles of the Mountain Route in Colorado follows U.S. Highway 50 from Holly on the east and angles south along U.S. Highway 350 from La Junta to Trinidad.

Many of the attractions are along or just off this route, so it’s a good starting point. The towns along the route, including Trinidad, La Junta and Lamar, offer a selection of motels, inns and restaurants. There also are camping options along the route.

Camp Amache

Officially, it’s the Granada Relocation Center National Historic Landmark. It is one of 10 internment camps built beginning in 1942 to house Japanese Americans who were forced from their homes and communities.

At its peak, Amache housed more than 7,300 people, two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens. In August 1944, some of those imprisoned were given “indefinite leave,” and in December, the Exclusion Order that had led to the imprisonment of Japanese American was lifted. But the camp emptied slowly.

A sign at the entrance to Camp Amache, the site of a former World War II-era Japanese American internment camp in Granada. From 1942 to 1945, more than 7,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants were forcibly relocated to what was then called the Granada Relocation Center.

“Some families chose to remain at Camp Amache until the end of the school year in June 1945,” the National Park Service says on its website.

“For others, reverting back to outside life was a concern, especially after the hostility they had encountered during the war. Furthermore, many had been forced to give up almost all of their property and belongings when they were evacuated and they were now concerned about leaving the relocation center with little savings on which to live. In March 1945, 6,000 internees still remained at the center.”

The camp closed on Oct. 15, 1945. Most of the buildings were demolished and the land reverted to agricultural uses.

The Amache Recreation Hall 11F is loaded onto a truck to be moved to its original foundation at Amache, Colorado’s only Japanese-American incarceration site in Granada.

Little thought was given to preservation of the camps until the 1960s, when the Redress Movement to seek compensation for the wrongful detainment began. The first formal pilgrimage to Amache was in 1975, according to an Amache Preservation Society timeline.

The camp was listed on the U.S. Register of National Historic Places in 1994 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 2006. Since then, a few restoration and reconstruction projects have occurred.

The Amache Preservation Society maintains the camp site and has a museum in Granada.

John Martin Reservoir State Park

This is a mecca for birding, with 373 documented species of birds in Bent County, including the threatened piping plover and the endangered interior least tern, according to a Colorado Parks and Wildlife brochure. It’s also a favored wintering site for the threatened bald eagle. Not to mention the fishing, boating, camping and wildlife viewing.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the dam that created the reservoir between 1939 and 1948 as an irrigation and flood-control project. It has a visitor center at the park that includes a dinosaur track display done by the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center in Woodland Park.

Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site

This important frontier trading post was opened in 1833 on the north bank of the Arkansas River by traders Charles and William Bent and their partner, Ceran St. Vrain. The river then was the boundary between the U.S. and Mexico. It was a bustling place, with trade from Mexico and Native Americans, and Santa Fe Trail travelers stopping to rest and replenish supplies.

From the upper level of the reconstructed Bent’s Old Fort, you can see into the main courtyard, which is lined with rooms, which included blacksmith and carpenter shops, trading rooms and a dining room. After his brother died in 1847, William Bent moved his trading post 40 miles downriver to Big Timbers, where he built Bent’s New Fort in 1853.

What stands on the site today is a reconstruction that uses similar materials. It is furnished mostly with reproductions. It is a popular destination for school field trips.

It’s just a few miles off the Santa Fe Trail, on Colorado Highway 194.

Comanche National Grassland

There are two areas – one along the Santa Fe Trail on Highway 350 and the other south of Springfield on the Oklahoma panhandle border.

The first is home to Picket Wire Canyon and the famous dinosaur trackway along the Purgatoire River. The U.S. Forest Service website says there are more than 1,500 prints along 100 trackways that extend across a quarter-mile of bedrock.

But they’re not so easy to get to.

Native American rock art in Picture Canyon in the Comanche National Grassland in Southeast Colorado often is marred by graffiti from more recent times. Many examples of the art can be viewed along a trail closed to the parking and picnic area, although there is also an 8-mile loop trail. The area has covered picnic tables and a vault toilet, but no other amenities, so bring water and pack out your trash.

If you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle, you can reserve one of the limited spots for a scheduled auto tour on Saturdays during four months of the year (May, June, September and October).

Or, for you hardier souls, you can hike or bicycle the rugged terrain on an 11.3 mile round-trip – including descending 250 feet into the canyon – to see the tracks. The Forest Service recommends leaving very early in the day and carrying lots of water.

Colorado Trails Explorer, or COTrex, has details.

It might be off the beaten path, but Carrizo and Picture canyons in the southeast portion of the grasslands are a bit more accessible for hiking. Here, it’s a relatively short distance from parking areas to places where you can view petroglyphs and pictographs.

The remains of rock houses and other remnants of homesteaders and ranches in Southeast Colorado are seen along a trail through Picture Canyon in the Comanche National Grassland. The region was home to vast cattle ranches in the 1870s and 1880s.

If you plan a fall trip, check for public tours during the equinox, when the Springfield Chamber of Commerce holds a festival and offers sunrise tours to Crack Cave because some researchers have suggested the rock art there holds astronomical significance.

There are picnic areas and vault toilets here, but no drinking water and you must pack out your trash.

Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

This site is about 40 miles north of Lamar, but worth the detour off the Santa Fe Trail. There is plenty of material on the park website to help prepare you for a visit.

Capt. Silas Soule was one of two U.S. Army officers who refused to fire on the Arapaho and Cheyenne families killed at the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864. Soule later testified against his commanding officer in the attack, Col. John Chivington, and was later shot and killed in downtown Denver.

Within a couple weeks of the Nov. 29, 1864, attack on the Cheyenne and Arapaho camp at Sand Creek two soldiers – Capt. Silas Soule and Lt. Joseph Cramer – penned letters to military leaders about the horrors of the attack. Military and congressional investigations were launched, and within months, the attack, led by Col. John Chivington, is denounced as a massacre.

Chivington, a Methodist minister, was already out of the military. He was never charged. Territorial Gov. John Evans was removed from office for his role in the massacre.

Though the slaughter of 230 Native Americans that day had a profound and lasting effect on the tribes and the deteriorating relations between Native Americans and the U.S. government, it took decades to recognize the significance and to memorialize the site.

In 1950, the Lamar and Eads Chambers of Commerce and Colorado Arkansas Valley Incorporated placed a “Sand Creek Battleground” marker on the bluff overlooking the massacre site.

The Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site is about 40 miles north of Lamar. In 1864, an attack by U.S. troops killed 230 Native Americans.

It was another 48 years until official government efforts were made to “identify and locate” the massacre site and designate it a unit of the National Park System, according to a timeline on the park website.

The Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site was authorized in 2000 and dedicated in 2007.

Since 1999, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe of Montana, the Northern Arapaho Tribe of Wyoming and the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes (Oklahoma) have sponsored an annual Spiritual Healing Walk/Run from the site to Denver to honor those killed.

Today, the national park site is a place where the public can delve into and contemplate its history – and continue the healing.

There is no entrance fee.

Sue McMillin, a longtime journalist and former city editor at The Durango Herald, is a freelance writer and editor living in Victor, Colorado.

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