Natural Qualities of the Mountain Branch
of the Santa Fe Trail


Southeast Colorado is rich with a diversity of natural values. In this unique part of Colorado, prime agricultural land gives way to expanses of native grassland. The landscape changes dramatically as elevation increases in the vicinity of Raton Pass. Here the pinion pine/juniper ecosystem dominates. The natural splendor of yucca and brightly colored cactus adorn the prairie. The unspoiled beauty of Raton Pass and the nearby Spanish Peaks, lure many visitors to the area. In places, rivers have carved canyons and valleys leaving unusual rock formations along their path. Numerous warm-water lakes dot the landscape, providing critical wildlife habitat. Significant waterfowl populations live within and migrate through the Santa Fe Trail corridor.



The area rivers and lakes also support relatively lush vegetation. Even at a distance, one can discern the meandering paths of rivers by following the ribbon of trees nurtured by the waterway. The ribbon of trees known as the Big Timbers played a prominent part in the history of the Santa Fe Trail. Wildlife is abundant throughout the region, supported by the extensive public land holdings managed by various agencies. Comanche National Grassland alone provides habitat for approximately 275 bird species, 60 mammal species, 40 reptile species, 11 fish species and 9 amphibian species.



The Santa Fe Trail corridor also provides a natural experience that is rapidly disappearing elsewhere. The opportunity to experience the peace and quiet of an undisturbed and relatively pristine landscape. The prairie flora and fauna are spectacular during the spring, providing a kaleidoscope of color unmatched in its splendor as it unfolds throughout the Byway corridor.



The cactus in the spring blooms and offers the most spectacular displays of bright and vivid colors I have ever seen. Mother nature works extra hard to entice us with its splendor on the prairie. It is as though she makes up for the lack of versatility in the trees and sparse water supplies. The tiny flowers are particularly colorful.




Significant Natural Qualities

Comanche National Grassland-Pioneers going to Bent's Fort passed through the Timpas Unit of the Comanche National Grassland. Now, one can hike, camp, and ride horseback through the preserved grasslands.

Pinon Canyon Army Maneuvers Site

Fisher's Peak and the Spanish Peaks, two historically significant landmarks which the National Park Service has designated high potential historic sites.

Dinosaur tracks at Picket Wire Canyonlands on the Comanche National Grassland. The nearby dinosaur track ways in the Purgatoire Valley are unique and can be viewed with guides or alone.

Picture Canyon

Lesser Prairie Chicken Viewing Area

The Arkansas and Purgatoire Rivers

John Martin Reservoir State Park and Trinidad Lake State Park and the adjacent State Wildlife Areas

Higbee and James M. John State Wildlife Areas

Prowers, Bent, Otero and Las Animas counties have been designated prime farmland by the Soil Conservation Service.

Prowers County is the wintering ground for thousands of flocks of Canadian and snow geese. Many hunters come to Prowers County to participate in the annual Two Shot Celebrity Goose Hunt. There are also many deer, pheasants, duck, dove, and quail in the area. Wildlife watchers may see up to 15,000 geese at a time flying in formation and feeding on grain fields. There are also humming birds, hawk and wintering bald eagles to watch. In the southeast corner of our Byway bird watchers will delight in the annual display of the mating season of the lesser prairie chicken, a rare and unusual occurrence during the spring each year.


Throughout the Mountain Branch Byway there are vast herds of prong horn antelope viewable along the sides of the roadways as you drive through the prairie. It is quite a site! Nature is abundant and I personally have seen many astounding displays of the wildlife in the outskirts of the Trinidad area. I have seen up to 17 fox during the twilight of the evening. Among them, only 1 red tailed fox trapped and encircled by the others. It looked like a showdown from the old west, with mighty unfair odds. My presence alarmed them and they scurried off into the night.



Trail visitors can spot an occasional bear and her cubs waddling across the mountain in search for berries. Racing road runners and 30 wild turkeys pecking around my yard for bugs, worms, tarantulas and many other gaudy looking insects that inhabit the Santa Fe Trail. I once saw a large hairy red ant sting a tarantula, paralyzing it, and carrying it off to his hole in the ground for an afternoon snack. This country is wild and spectacular. Those who visit have a hard time saying goodbye and carry many treasured moments home with them. While visiting our Byway exercise caution with all wildlife and respect their habitat, for their safety as well as yours.


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