Historic La Junta sits along the banks of the Arkansas River about 60 miles east of Pueblo. The Arkansas River which plows across southeastern Colorado from Canon City is a lush river corridor filled with towering cottonwood trees, rich riparian habitat for birds and animals, years of ancient history from Indians to mountain men and trappers. Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Area northeast of La Junta is the best place to discover local history. Explore the reconstructed 1840s fur trading post, stroll around the site’s grounds or time travel to 1840 and live for five days as a trapper, blacksmith, or trader at the annual Living History Encampment.
Almost 30 State Wildlife Areas, managed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, scatter along the Arkansas River and in southeastern Colorado. They offer a wide range of outdoor recreation, including hunting, fishing, wildlife study, camping, and hiking. Find some of the best ones at Arkansas River, Timpas Creek, Oxbow, Two Buttes Reservoir, and Sikes Ranch.
If watery recreation is your deal, spend a couple days at 13,176-acre John Martin State Park. A massive dam on the Arkansas River east of Las Animas forms Colorado’s second largest lake. It’s an oasis for fishing, boating, hiking swimming, camping, and nature study. The park is also one of the state’s most prolific birding areas with 373 recorded species.
The Comanche National Grassland’s Timpas Unit lies due south of La Junta. The historic Purgatoire River slices through Picketwire Canyon, leaving a little-known wonderland of cliffs, badlands, and historic sites. The remote Purgatoire River Track Site in the heart of the canyon is one of Colorado’s best natural attractions. An exposed sandstone slab on the river’s north bank is covered with a quarter mile of dinosaur tracks left by plodding Allosaurs and Brontosaurs over 150 million years ago. The trackway, with 1,300 separate tracks, is the largest in North America. Native American sites also fill the canyon, with rock art adorning boulders and teepee rings atop hills. Crumbling Dolores Mission and a cemetery marks a 1870s Hispanic settlement. Picketwire Canyon can only be reached by foot or mountain bike, although the US Forest Service offers occasional ranger-led 4×4 tours.
La Junta itself offers eight city parks for recreation and relaxation. City Park, established in 1904, makes a good summer stop to picnic, play tennis, and fish. The park’s Sk8way Skatepark just might be southern Colorado’s best place for skateboarding. It offers a nine-foot bowl that leads to a street course, a pyramid with a street skating area, and night lights.