LA JUNTA, Colo. – Every September, a unique wildlife migration occurs in southeast Colorado that can’t be seen many other places.
The Comanche National Grassland is home to thousands and thousands of Oklahoma Brown tarantulas. The grassland is comprised of nearly half a million acres of remote, undeveloped public land just south of La Junta and it is the optimal place to view the tarantulas.
“It’s pretty easy. I see them every year. I don’t even have to try,” said Michelle Stevens, a heritage resources and recreation program manager with the U.S. Forest Service.
While it is commonly referred to as tarantula "migration," the spiders aren’t really migrating from one place to another. Instead, they are emerging from their burrows and traveling an unknown distance in search of a mate. Outside of mating season, tarantulas always stay within two or three inches of their burrow.
Tarantula mating season is weather dependent, but it is always generally at the end of summer or early fall. In 2018, when the weather was cooler, tarantulas could be seen as early as August. This year, peak season is expected the last week of September into the first few days of October.
The best time to view them are early in the morning while it’s still cool and in the evenings beginning in the hour before dusk.
“There are thousands moving but you’re not going to see thousands at one time. They don’t travel in a herd,” Stevens said.
During peak season, though, lucky tarantula viewers could spot dozens in a short time.
“Between La Junta and Trinidad, you might see 60 tarantulas,” wildlife enthusiast Stephen Nielson said. “Cars, you’ll see them swerving to dodge tarantulas.”
Nielson is a former science teacher and now spends at least one day each week viewing tarantulas and other wildlife near the Comanche National Grassland.
“What I like about teaching these young people is that they’ve got that excitement they have about life and about living things,” he said. “When you’re out in nature, there’s always something interesting and if you’re not excited, then you’re not looking closely enough.”
To spot the tarantulas, you simply have to look in the middle of the road.
“For watchable wildlife, they’re really distinctive, everyone can identify them, you don’t need any special skills,” Stevens said.
The tarantulas are also unique because they are one of the only wildlife species people are encouraged to approach.
“You can get up nose-to-nose to them if they’re not moving that quickly,” Stephens said.
If you are brave enough, you can also pick the tarantulas up. However, if they are harassed, squeezed or threatened, they may bite you with their sharp fangs.
“All of those things that you associate with them -- from maybe hearing about them being scary, freaky, all of that -- none of that’s true,” Stevens said.
She says the real horror of tarantulas are the spiders' predator, called the tarantula hawk.
Tarantula hawks are giant wasps that paralyze tarantulas with their stingers. Adult tarantula hawks are not carnivorous. They feed on nectar from flowers. But, after stinging a tarantula, they drag the giant spiders into their nests and lay eggs on their backs.
The tarantula hawk larvae are carnivorous and will eat the paralyzed tarantulas alive for weeks.
“It’s a little gory. It’s a lot gory,” Stevens said.
Tarantula hawks rarely bother humans unless harassed. Their stings are said to be extremely painful, but the pain only lasts a few minutes.
The best place to view tarantulas during their mating season is in the undeveloped roads south of La Junta. Visitors can stop in the USFS Comanche National Grassland Resource Office (1420 E. 3rd St., La Junta) for the best viewing locations for the day.
While tarantula tourism has gained popularity over the past few years, it is still a relatively unvisited area.
“That doesn’t mean that they’re going to see when they’re out there a waiting line, long lines of cars, nothing like that,” Stevens said. “There’s enough [tarantulas] out there that [visitors] can really have their own experience.”
“If you’re on a dirt road, you can stop your car and spread out a blanket and you can have a picnic. And you’ll finish your picnic before the first car comes along,” Nielson said. “This area, there are not many people.”
While there are few cars on the roads, visitors are still encouraged to be careful of passing cars when getting out to view tarantulas, especially on U.S. 350 and Highway 109.
Since the area is so remote, visitors should also plan ahead with a full tank of gas, maps to navigate through areas with no cell service, food, water and a spare tire.