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Standing among the large boulders on the gravel shore watching bald eagles soar over the water, it's easy to believe that John Martin Reservoir is an oasis in the surrounding high desert prairie. Abundant wildlife, good fishing, and a rich history add to the lure of this relatively remote western treasure.
Situated halfway between Las Animas and Lamar, John Martin Reservoir is the largest body of water (by surface area) in southeast Colorado. The reservoir was created as an irrigation and flood control project by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by building the John Martin Dam across the Arkansas River. The dam's history is as rich as that of the rest of the region. Originally called the Caddoa Project, the dam was started in 1936 by the Corps of Engineers. It was only about 85 percent complete when construction was stopped because of World War II. The Corps finished the dam in 1948, but before its completion it was renamed the John Martin Dam and Reservoir to honor the late John A. Martin.
Mr. Martin was a congressman who served his state for more than ten years. Repeated flooding in the Arkansas River Valley led him to push for legislation to approve the dam project. He was also part of passing the Social Security Act, and is remembered as a great humanitarian. Today the US Army Corps of Engineers manages the dam and reservoir, but the recreation areas and campgrounds are under the control of the Colorado State Park system.
Flooding hasn't been an issue in recent years, however, just the opposite is true. Lake size is highly variable, ranging from 2,000 to 17,000 acres, depending on rainfall/snowfall and irrigation water withdrawals. Average depths range from five to 10 feet, 30 to 50 feet at the dam. Reservoir levels have stayed low for several years. In fact, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers bought 2,000 acre-feet of water from Colorado Springs to protect the reservoir's fish populations. The project was successful, and fishing on the reservoir is good.
Anglers can fish from the shore or boat for walleye, crappie, perch, and catfish. The bass fishing is particularly good, and because the lake isn't crowded, the bass have not been over-fished. Lake Hasty, just below the John Martin Dam, is periodically stocked with trout. It also has the only designated swimming area. One interesting side effect of the low reservoir levels is the 2002 discovery of fossilized dinosaur tracks. Park rangers found 79 tracks in two separate locations. More dinosaur tracks can be found within 100 miles of the reservoir in the Canyonlands of the Comanche National Grasslands.
Dinosaurs may be the oldest residents of the Arkansas River Valley, but they certainly weren't the only ones. Native Americans wintered in the valley. Downstream from the dam the "Big Timbers" area, named because it was historically covered with large cottonwood trees, provided shelter and good hunting for the native people. Beside the reservoir in the John Martin Reservoir State Park, the Red Shin Trail is named for a Cheyenne warrior whose tribe lived in the area in the early 1800's. Local legend says that the warrior named Red Shin fought with another warrior over a maiden. Red Shin armed himself and was able to hold off his attackers. Since then, the Dakota Sandstone formation has been called Red Shin's standing ground. The 4.5 mile long trail starts below the dam and winds past Indian carvings. It also offers ample opportunities to see wildlife and the reservoir.
The trail ends at a marker for another historically significant trail. The Santa Fe Trail, which brought immigrants west before the railroad arrived, ran through the area. A section of the trail from Las Animas to Hasty is preserved for visitors to see.
In addition to the area's rich history, visitors to the reservoir can also enjoy watching the 373 species of birds that make their homes at John Martin Reservoir. Bald and golden eagles winter there and the shoreline is one of the few remaining nesting areas in Colorado for the federally protected Least Tern and Piping Plover. There is plenty of wildlife at the reservoir and state park, but there is no hunting. Hunters can use the campgrounds as base camp, however, and find exceptional hunting within a five minute drive of the reservoir. Boaters will find plenty of room on the uncrowded lake, and there is jet skiing, water skiing, and sailboarding. There is no marina, but there is a small retail shop and visitor center.
With southeastern Colorado's mild weather, the reservoir's wildlife, beautiful open water and the area's fascinating history, everyone will find something to love at John Martin Reservoir and State Park.
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