Historic markers are placed throughout Trinidad's Purgatoire River Walk. Rocky bluffs, nearby mountains, native plants, and wildlife make an ideal retreat for outdoor enthusiasts. Reach the river walk from the south side of the Animas Street Bridge. An accessible walkway for the disabled is provided as you journey through time and revisit the INfamous Kearny's Encampment under the umbrella of old Cottonwoods near the end of the River Walk. Another section of the River Walk stretches from Linden Street to near the Kit Carson Trail Bypass. Park at the Linden street entrance parking lot and hike or bike on the trail and absorb the serene natural environment of the Purgatoire River.
In 1846, this area was part of the Republic of Mexico. The U.S.- Mexican border was the Arkansas River, 80 miles north of the Riverwalk. In August of that year, the U.S. Army of the West, commanded by Colonel Stephen W. Kearny, marched through here on its way to conquer the Mexican territorial capital of Santa Fe and ultimately, all of New Mexico. The army camp stretched up and down the river, for there were 1,600 soldiers, 1,500 supply wagons and wheeled field pieces, 15,000 oxen, 4,000 mules and uncounted teamsters, muleteers and drovers, many accompanied by women. Although they were here a brief time, as they prepared to struggle over the crude trail across Raton Pass, they left the riverbanks stripped and trampled. To bring his huge army via this route was a gamble by Colonel Kearny, for few if any wheeled vehicles had ever crossed the Pass. But he made it, with all of his army. It was the beginning of the Mexican-American War, which ended in 1848 with this spot, along with all of the American Southwest and much of the west coast, becoming U.S. territory.
From the Santa Fe Trail diary of Susan Shelby Mogoffin, August 13, 1846. Mogoffin wrote of Purgatoire River, Camp No. 6, ". . . The road on to this place is fine . . . Here we find one or two camps . . . Though the stream has rather an awing name it wears a clear smooth face at present . . . Its banks like the Arkansas are covered with cottonwood and some such undergrowth." As Mogoffin's wagon party found, the Purgatoire River is like nature's general store. It supplies life-giving water, shade, shelter, food and fuel. Farmers use the River's water to grow crops. Streams and their plant communities bring the gifts of life to arid Eastern Colorado. Wildlife is abundant amidst the calming riverbanks.
The Purgatoire riverbank was used by many, from the first inhabitants of this land, the American Indians, to the Spanish explorers. It was a favored campground for travelers on the Mountain Route of the famous Santa Fe Trail. It became a vital link for commerce between Missouri in the United States and Santa Fe, New Mexico (at that time Mexico.) From the time the first traders came this way, until the railroad was built through here in 1878. Each year, thousands of lumbering freight wagons passed by here, most of them pulled by six or eight-span of oxen. Usually, they traveled in trains of 10 to 30 wagons. Most travelers arrived here exhausted, with wagons needing repair. They had either just completed a four-to-five day journey from the Arkansas River over a prairie with only sparse water holes, or they had made the grueling trek across Raton Pass. They rested and recuperated here along the Purgatoire river bank where there was ample water, shaded campgrounds and good forage for the livestock. The trail was not a single wagon track. Each guide had his preferred route. However, most wagons followed the path along what is now Trinidad's Commercial and West Main Streets, leading to or from Raton Creek and Raton Pass which lies South of the Purgatoire River walk.
The towering cottonwood trees along the banks in this stretch of the Purgatoire River may have helped determine the location of the city of Trinidad. It was their welcoming shade, along with the coolness and humidity they help create, that caused early travelers on the Santa Fe Trail to camp here. The trees are named from the clouds of cottony seeds they release in the spring. Cottonwoods are found throughout the Southwest at elevations below about 6,500 feet. Often they are seen as a ribbon of green in arid country, marking streams or drainage gullies of permanent water (some times below the surface), for they must have wet soil. Their arching canopy, as much as 80 feet high, helps create the lush riparian environment along the river. In autumn, their green leaves turn a brilliant yellow and rival the famed aspen of higher elevations.
Stream side locales such as these form ribbons of green in the semiarid Southwest. The canopy of tall cottonwood trees helps create this environment by providing cooling shade and humidity much higher than on nearby hillsides. Plants found here differ from those just a few yards away. Within this benign atmosphere bushy narrow leaf cottonwoods, small willows, lush sedges and a variety of grasses flourish. The flowing water attracts a wide variety of birds and animals. Although riparian habitats are only a small percentage of Colorado's land area, they are used by more than 90 percent of the state's wildlife. Bald eagles, hawks, Canadian geese, and the Great Blue Heron, as well as beaver, fox, squirrel, toads, and frogs live entirely in riparian area. Other animals such as elk, deer, fox, prong horn and coyote visit for water, forage, and to find prey. Many wild animals utilize these green ribbons as life-sustaining highways when they travel and migrate.
Almost 150 varieties of birds have been spotted along the river and around Trinidad Lake a few miles upstream from present day Trindad. More than a hundred varieties are known to nest in Colorado, many in this area. Along the river, the most exotic of the water birds is the Great Blue Heron, often seen wading on skinny legs in a calm eddy at the water's edge. With a wing span up to five feet, the blue-gray bird carries its long neck in a S-shape, ready to stab into the water for small fish and amphibians. Other water birds are the handsome Canadian goose, colorful mallards, both blue winged and green winged teals, canvasbacks and a dozen other ducks and geese. Terrestrial birds spotted along the river include our national bird, the bald eagle. More common are golden eagles and red tailed hawks. Also often seen are the large, handsome back and white magpies, the crested blue Stellar's jays, glistening black ravens and smaller red-winged blackbirds with bright red and yellow shoulder patches. Both swifts and swallows skim just above the water. Most colorful are the western tanagers and Baltimore orioles. The riverbank and lakeshore are a bird watcher's utopia.
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