Tarantuals, a famous fort, local art and more can be found in La Junta, Colo.
for The Fence Post
Cool, fun things to do in La Junta, Colo., who knew?
When La Junta is mentioned some people might scratch their head and ask, “Where exactly is La Junta?” Others might mention cattle or the famous Rocky Ford cantaloupes that are grown nearby.
La Junta has many interesting attractions that are worth a second look or a weekend visit to this small Colorado plains town. Attractions like the largest set of dinosaur tracks in North America, a replica of an 1833 fort that has been featured in prize-winning novels and TV miniseries and an annual tarantula crawl you’ve got to see. It also has cute little shops owned by friendly town matrons that will tell all the local lore and things not to be missed, homey cafes and galleries filled with local photographs that have personal stories to go along with them.
La Junta is the county seat of Otero County in southeastern Colorado with a population of about 7,000 people. It’s located on the Arkansas River and is 68 miles east of Pueblo. La Junta means “the junction.” It was named the junction because it sat at the junction of the Santa Fe trail and the pioneer road to Pueblo (the first established city in Colorado).
La Junta is also a stopping point for the Amtrak train. When customers disembark in the morning many of them end up at the Copper Kitchen for a home-cooked breakfast. Owner Larry Tucker greets his customers with a twinkle in his eye and his son-in-law Adam Thompson busily rushes from table to table. Thompson is an amateur archeologist and can tell you stories of a local ancient Indian “Stonehenge” and rock drawings. He can tell you all about the dinosaur tracks and the best ones to see.
A local customer jokes about Larry, “Be real careful. Give him the ticket but don’t show him your money or the bill will start getting bigger and bigger.” Larry just winks and his eyes twinkle even more.
SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE
You can also go around the corner and down the block to the Junction 50 Galleria. In the Galleria there are numerous booths filled with items fashioned by locals. You can find everything from antique books, to homemade quilts made by Pat Miller and fascinating whimsical pottery crafted by Marianne Hale.
“I’ve had people come in here and say there’s nothing to do,” Hale said. “Are you kidding? There is a lot to do.”
She will tell you all about the fuzzy tarantulas on their perilous walk of love or the quiet beauty of a prairie vista called Nine Mile Hill just south of town.
Visitors can walk a couple of blocks to the south and visit Shorty Schockey at Gallery 313. His photographs might remind you of Ansel Adams and each one comes with a story he is willing to divulge. Like the one of the lightening and the tree.
“I wanted a picture of a tree and there was moonlight that night.” he said. “Just before my shutter closed that lightning hit. The tree was called Lightning Tree because it had been hit by lightning three times.” He goes on to say, “Photography is a moment capturing a moment.”
To the north of La Junta you can visit Old Bent’s Fort. A replica of an 1833 Fort built by Charles and William Bent, along with Ceran St. Vrain. The fort was built as a trading post for buffalo robes with the Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians. For much of it’s 16 years it was the only major white American settlement on the Santa Fe Trail between Missouri and the Mexican settlements.
Kit Carson was employed as a hunter by the Bent brothers in 1841 and John C. Fremont used it as a staging area for his expeditions. The replica built in 1971 was featured in the miniseries The Chisolms (1979-1980) and Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel Lonesome Dove and the 1989 Emmy winning miniseries.
Picketwire Canyon lands, home to the largest known set of dinosaur tracks in North America, sits on the banks of the Purgatoire River, south of La Junta. The tracks are over 150 million years old and were part of a large shallow lake. There are over 1,900 tracks by three different kinds of dinosaurs. Inside the park there is also Native American rock art that is between 345–4,500 years old, an old Mexican mission and cemetery, and an historic ranch.
To hike to the dinosaur tracks the roundtrip is 10 miles and to the ranch site it is 17.4 miles. If you have your own four-wheel drive vehicle you can arrange an all-day tour with the forest service at the Commanche National Grasslands headquarters in La Junta.
If you are in La Junta around mid-September (to be specific Sept. 10), you can also observe the Oklahoma brown tarantulas in their annual “love” migration. At the age of 8 years old the male tarantulas set out in groups to find their mate. They must cross Highway 109, braving semi trucks, school buses and speeding motorists, all for a little romance. The tarantulas are harmless and are not venomous, they are just looking for love.
Who knew La Junta was such a fascinating destination? It cannot be said there is nothing to do in La Junta. ❖
— Hall is a freelance writer from Platteville, Colo., when she’s not writing she is riding her horse in the mountains. She can be reached by email at email@example.com.