Jurassic footprints

Hike, bike, or four-wheel to canyonlands dinosaur tracks

This time of year, it seems spring will never come to the high country. Restless Coloradans can, however, escape the tedium of mud season with a long day trip to Picketwire Canyonlands, 142 miles southeast of Colorado Springs. Spring has already arrived here, and you can hike, mountain bike, or take your four-wheel-drive vehicle on a guided tour ― all to see North America's largest collection of dinosaur tracks.

You can access the Picketwire from an 8 3/4-mile trail following the Purgatoire River, which, over the eons, has carved the canyon from the surrounding high, arid rolling plains. Even if you don't own a four-wheel-drive for the Saturday tours, the 10 1/2-mile round trip to the dinosaur trackway is a good outing for hikers and bikers.

The trail starts in an area dotted with juniper trees and sagebrush, then plunges 500 feet through rocky bluffs to a wide river bottom festooned with spring wildflowers. After 3 3/4 miles, you'll spot ruins of a Spanish mission ― a settlement built in the 1870s where 11 families lived ― with an adobe chapel surrounded by headstones. Near the mission, delve deeper into the canyon's human history by searching for 5,000-year-old Native American rock art on cliffs.

It's another 1 1/2 miles to the tracks where, 150 million years ago, predatory Allosaurus and herds of Apatosaurus lumbered beside what was then an immense inland sea. The creatures left more than 1,300 footprints ― a record of passage fossilized in broad slabs of limestone. Some tracks are more than 2 feet long, and the best preserved are across a shallow river section, a perfect spot to spread a picnic and contemplate the drama that played out here. For ambitious bikers, the trail continues another 3 1/2 miles to historic Rourke Ranch, established in 1871.

Break up the long drive home with a stop at Taqueria Mexico ($; 1720 Elm Ave.; 719/254-7319), off U.S. 50 in Rocky Ford. Owned and operated by the Estrade family, the restaurant serves slow-roasted rotisserie pork dishes that will satisfy even dinosaur-size appetites.

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