High plains drifter

For a spring fix ― and some peace ― head out to the prairie
Lora J. Finnegan

Southeastern Colorado's plains are America's steppes, a land with a rich history and oceans of windswept grass. Spring weather can be iffy here, but on a sunny May day the plains near La Junta stretch bright green ― with splashes of yellow prairie sunflowers ― to the horizon, where herds of antelope graze.

La Junta is a classic farming town, with silos, a working train depot, and a downtown that looks as it did when the Big Band Era was in full swing. The town's biggest surprise is the Koshare Indian Museum (10-5 Tue and Thu-Sun, 10-9 Mon and Wed; $4; 115 W. 18th St.; 719/384-4411).

Inside the pueblo-style building, you'll see basketry, katsinas, and a replica kiva (a ceremonial chamber). But the museum's real riches are a collection of iconic Southwestern art, including San Ildefonso pottery by Maria Martinez and paintings by Taos Society of Artists giants like Oscar Berninghaus and Ernest Blumenschein.

 

 

Take a lunch break at family-run Felisa's ($; closed Sun; 27948 Frontage Rd.; 719/384-4814), which offers American and Mexican fare, including the house specialty: potato burritos with green-chile sauce.

About 6 miles east of town, drive down a sleepy side road to another gem, Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site (9-4 daily; $3; 35110 State 194 E.; www.nps.gov/beol or 719/383-5010). The towered adobe fort houses a trading post set up as it was during the outpost's 1830s-'40s heyday. Interpreters dressed as traders and trappers lead free walks that illuminate the fort's vital role along the Santa Fe Trail.

 

 

If there's enough daylight left, take a loop drive through the Comanche National Grassland; on your way back through La Junta, pick up a map or trail guide at the Forest Service office (8-12 and 1-5 Mon-Fri; 1420 E. Third St.; www.fs.fed.us/r2/psicc/coma or 719/384-2181). Scan the waving grass ― and the barbed-wire fences ― and you'll likely find lots of meadowlarks, saffron-hued Bullock's orioles, and horned larks, perhaps spiraling and singing in their courtship flight. You'll also find a sense of peace and solitude that will linger long after your return to the city.

Fort fun

La Junta is a three-hour drive from Denver and 90 minutes from Colorado Springs. Contact the La Junta Chamber of Commerce ( www.lajuntachamber.com or 719/384-7411).