The Pawnee National Grassland in Eastern Colorado is not a place you are likely to find in a brochure for Colorado. It is dry, flat, has few trees, and zero mountains, but that does not mean it is not worth a visit.
As Joyce and I started to venture out from COVID-19 quarantine we thought the Grasslands would be a great place to start because it is not popular and has plenty of space to maintain social distancing. Plus with its lack of trees it was a great place to take our new drone out on its maiden flight.
If you’ve never experienced grasslands you can think of it as a grassy flat desert. On the drive out it looks like a whole lot of nothing but when you look closer you’ll discover an amazing ecosystem and hints of the American Wild West. The Pawnee National Grassland is a popular destination for bird watchers because it is home to Burrowing Owls, Long-billed Curlew, Western Meadowlark, Swainson’s Hawk, American Kestrel, Loggerhead Shrike, Mountain Plovers, Lark Bunting, and many other unique bird species (Click here for PDF guide to birding in the Pawnee National Grassland).
But if birds are not your thing, don’t worry, as you are almost guaranteed to see a few, if not many, Pronghorn – the fastest land mammal in the Western Hemisphere. Often you can spot them without even slowing down or leaving your car. If you do pull over to try and get a photo most will quickly run as they are quite shy.
By far the biggest attraction to the Pawnee National Grassland is the Pawnee Buttes. Two buttes that rise about 300 feet above the grasslands that can be seen from miles away. Hiking the Pawnee Buttes trail is a great reason to get out and explore the grassland. It is a pretty easy hike with little elevation gain but bring plenty of water and sunscreen because you’ll not find any trees. Also the weather out there can change quickly so go early to reduce your chances of getting caught in an afternoon thunderstorm.
On our recent trip (see video) we camped near the trailhead and woke up to very thick, unexpected, fog. As the sun rose the fog quickly burned off and we were on the trail before 9AM. Some areas near the trailhead are closed in Spring due to nesting birds but you can still get a great hike in and it does not limit your access to the buttes.
The trail is basically an out and back trail with a loop around each butte. You can skip the loops and still get a great hike in. It was a Monday morning in May and we probably saw about 10 people on the trail the whole day which made for a very peaceful hike. The air was warm and filled with sounds of many bird calls. Being able to see to the horizon in all directions is truly and American West experience.
When you find yourself looking for a bit of an “off the beaten path” Colorado adventure, consider heading to the Pawnee Buttes Trailhead.