The lands of northeastern Colorado have been inhabited for at least 12,000 years, originally by nomadic hunters. More recently, these lands were the home of the Arapaho and Cheyenne, who were forcibly removed in the 1880s to allow white settlers to establish homesteads and farm the land. As settlers soon learned, though, this shortgrass prairie landscape was not well-suited to farming. It’s an arid, unforgiving region plagued by frequent drought that got decimated in the 1930s by the Dust Bowl; most farmers didn’t last long before fleeing in search of better weather and more productive soil. By the 1950s, the USDA stepped in to attempt to revitalize the land, damaged after 50 years of poor farming practices. In 1960, Pawnee National Grassland was formed.
Northeastern Colorado isn’t a place Pat and I had ever been before. And it’s probably not a place we’ll ever return to. But it was interesting to explore a new area and gain some insight into what life is like way out on the hot, flat, barren Colorado plains. Nowadays, most of the land has been turned into farms, ranches, oil fields, or wind farms. Pawnee National Grassland, however, preserves a 193,000 acre span of the native shortgrass prairie habitat in all its glory.
The Grassland has two units; east and west. It’s co-managed by the Forest Service and the BLM and has many uses; it’s an open range for cattle, a nesting ground for birds of prey, the site of a few dilapidated old homesteads and ghost towns, and a camping/hiking/birding destination. Some areas are interspersed with private land. Definitely do your research before you visit to ensure you’re obeying the land usage rules and not trespassing on private property. (Click here to view the land usage maps.)
Pawnee National Grassland is a place that’s been on my to-do list for a couple years but we just never made it there… probably because it’s about 2.5 hours from Denver and involves a whole lot of driving through the middle of nowhere on dirt roads. Fortunately the roads are in good shape, and the view of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains is expansive and spectacular… although this photo was taken through the car window, so it’s not the best depiction.
The main purpose of our visit was to hike so we headed to the Pawnee Buttes Trailhead in the Grassland’s east unit. It’s the only thing we saw any signs for; it’s definitely the main attraction. There are informative signs, bathrooms, and picnic tables at the trailhead, as well as parking for maybe 20 cars. Despite the remote location, the parking area did fill.
A 4.4 mile (7.1 km) out-and-back path travels across the prairie, winding between Overlook Bluff and Lips Bluff en route to Pawnee Buttes. From March 1-June 30 each year, these two bluffs are closed to all human activity to protect nesting raptors. Raptors, when disturbed, will completely abandon their nests. As we visited in April, the area was closed so we were not able to climb either of the bluffs. However, we could see trails to the top and I’m sure it’s a great view from up there.
The trail between the bluffs, on the other hand, remains open year round. It crosses through a small section of terrain that looks similar to the badlands of South Dakota or Makoshika State Park in Montana.
Beyond the bluffs, we were now approaching West Pawnee Butte. The trail curves around the base and then continues out to the Grassland Boundary just shy of East Pawnee Butte.
While the land around and within the grassland is relatively flat, the buttes rise fairly substantially above the landscape and reveal many geologic layers which have been invaluable in helping scientists understand the history of the plains.
The rock in the buttes ranges from 5-80 million years old and is rich in fossils. Geologists and paleontologists have uncovered marine fossils from 65 million years ago when the region was covered by a shallow inland sea. Once the ocean receded, land animals moved into the area. Fossils from these later years reveal that the region was inhabited by ancestors of various hoofed animals, ranging from pigs to horses to rhinos. The most recent layers contain mammoth fossils. Anthropologists have also uncovered artifacts left behind by the original human inhabitants.
Today, the land is home to many species of drought-resistant plants, more than 50 mammals, and over 300 bird species. I’m no bird expert; we saw a few different small birds that I can’t identify. I was, however, able to figure out that the really neat bird call we were hearing was from a Western meadowlark. The video I took with my phone is too low quality to share, but here is the link to a YouTube clip of what they sound like.
Overall, I enjoyed our visit to Pawnee National Grassland. It was a stark departure from our typical weekend mountain adventures. It was a pretty long drive. But it was also a chance to get some sunshine, see some unique terrain, and learn some Colorado history. And also to poke our heads into Nebraska for the first time… more on that next post!
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: Pawnee National Grassland is comprised of two units on the northeastern plains of Colorado; dozens of dirt county roads run through both units so there are many ways in. Pawnee Buttes trailhead is in the east unit, not far from the town of Keota; a GPS should get you there
- Fees and passes: none for day use
- Hiking: the full Pawnee Buttes trail is 4.4 miles (7.1 km) round-trip with about 245 feet (75 m) of elevation gain
- Where to stay: Dispersed camping is allowed in the Grassland as long as guidelines are followed (no more than 300 feet (91 m) from the road and only in designated areas). There is one established campground at Crow Valley Rec Area in the western unit. The nearest city is Greeley, about an hour to the west.
- Other: Our visit was in April and it was 80°F (27°C), sunny, and dry as a bone. We got lucky with just a light breeze, but the Colorado plains are notoriously windy. Come prepared for exposure to all the elements… at minimum, bring plenty of water, a wind jacket, a rain jacket, and sunscreen. The Grassland is miles away from the nearest services, so bring food and fill up on gas before you head out. Also, phone service is extremely limited so be prepared to navigate without it.