Discover dinosaurs and massacres through historical sites in Southern Colorado

Heather Willard
The Pueblo Chieftain

Many consider Colorado to be a state with a lot of new growth and fresh opportunities, one of the first portions of the "Wild West." But the state has held opportunities for some of the world's largest and most legendary animals at one point, too.

Dinosaurs were once prominent fauna across the Southern region of Colorado, and their footsteps remain as evidence.

To the west, in Cañon City, the Royal Gorge Dinosaur Experience features dinosaur fossils, interactive displays and full-scale dinosaur casts to illustrate what animals once roamed that region. 

An on-site paleontology lab run by a local nonprofit allows the facility to prepare recently unearthed fossils for display. The fossils come not only from the Garden Park Fossil area in Colorado but also include samples from other fossil projects located across the United States.

Native Americans also lived throughout the area in years past, and their interactions with incoming white settlers through late 1800s and early 1900s have been documented for modern visitors.

Probably the most well-known historical site in Southern Colorado is the Santa Fe Trail, stretching through seven Southeast Colorado counties. The trail was originally a trade route stretching from Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico. The trail sites are good for hiking or learning about the events of the early 1820s, during which the trail started its most heavily-trafficked and profitable era.

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The trail is used to inform visitors of how settlers first began to live in the area of Otero County, as well as how the trail was a gateway to the rest of the West.

If that's not historical enough for you, perhaps the town of La Junta could wet your palate. This is where visitors can quite literally walk in the footsteps of the past reptilian fauna that roamed the planet, with an area south of town called Picketwire Canyonlands. Here is where an almost half-mile stretch of land is covered in nearly 1,300 dinosaur tracks — in addition to animals that can be found living in the wilds of Colorado today.

The area was heavily trafficked by Brontosaurus and Allosaurus, with the footprints marching through the muddy edges of the large, shallow lake that existed there 150 million years ago. The area also is home to some Native American rock art, which has begun to disintegrate due to the fragile nature of the sandstone and abrasion from visitors touching the artwork.

Which group of Native Americans inscribed the artwork is not known, but scientists suspect that nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes are the root.

Once a thriving town, Ludlow is now just a stopping point for the historical-minded traveler. The ghost town is located 12 miles northwest of Trinidad, near the New Mexico state line.

On April 20, 1914, a shot signaled the beginning of a skirmish between striking coal miners against the Colorado National Guard, which resulted in 20 deaths.

The site has been restored by the United Mine Workers of America and shows the miners' living conditions and tells the story of the 20 individuals' chilling demise.

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Ultimately, the tent city was burned to the ground and at least 11 children were included in those killed, alleged to have suffocated in a pit they dug under a tent to escape machine gun fire.

Nearby is also the Scenic Highway of Legends, which has its starting point in Trinidad. The historic drive is one of America's Byways in Colorado, and brings travelers to the Trinidad History Museum, the A.R. Mitchel Museum of Western Art and an 1862 adobe fort that has been turned into the Francisco Fort Museum.

The highway also allows visitors to view coal smelting ovens along the roadway, the distinct red rock abutments of the Dakota Wall and Devil's Stairsteps, for those who wish to view some of the region's best geological structures.

The landscape has been the root for many legends and tall tales, including tales from Native Americans of the Great Prophet Grandote coming to the area for water during a drought.

Chieftain reporter Heather Willard can be reached via email at hwillard@gannett.com or on Twitter: @HeatherDWrites.