Colorado is, of course, known best for its mountains. People flock here for the skiing in the winter and the beauty of summer, but did you know that Colorado’s eastern plains have a few gems of their own? I
If you head east from Fort Collins on Hwy 14 about an hour and a half, you’ll start seeing signage for the Pawnee National Grasslands. This is a vast area of protected land totaling around 193,000 acres. It starts close to our ranch in Purcell, Colorado and stretches east to Sterling and north to the Wyoming border. On the grasslands you can go horseback riding, hike, birdwatch, work dogs and target shoot. To be honest, I’ve lived out in this area almost 6 years and I’ve never stepped foot onto this land. Basically, our ranch has all the same features, so I’ve never felt the need to venture out there. But last Saturday, the girls and I woke up on a rare Saturday morning with nothing planned for the day. We had already traveled west to the mountains the day before, so heading back that way onto the busy trails on a weekend is not always attractive to this country girl, haha!
So on a whim, I told the girls to grab their hiking shoes, some snacks and some water and let’s go check out the Pawnee Buttes!
They in turn replied, “The what?”
I said, “The Buttes! They’re like a big hill that the wind and rain shaped into a table top. I hear there’s a trail that will take you right up to it and there’s lots of birds. How does that sound?’
Well, if I know my girls well at all, saying that a place has wildlife will always get them excited and it did. They were pumped!
So we jumped in the minivan (don’ judge, I love my minivan!) and headed east. I followed the directions on Apple Maps and wound up in someone’s yard, so I recommend not following the Apple Maps, but just follow the signage once you get passed Briggsdale. It really is marked well and will take you straight to the Pawnee Buttes Trailhead. At the trailhead, there are restrooms, picnic areas and informational signs detailing the geological area and wildlife. This trailhead area was clean and impressive!
We arrived about 9:30 am with only 3 other cars at the trailhead. There were also a few occupied camping sites. After a quick bathroom stop, the girls and I were off. The buttes are visible right away, so it’s fun to be able to see your destination from the start. We followed the trail that was apparently crossing through a cattle pasture. With cow patties and cactus galore, we made our way to the first interesting spot which happen to be surrounded by a few smaller bluffs. We saw lots of birds and a few holes in the hillsides that we decided may belong to the Swift Fox that is known to roam these parts.
When we ventured back out into the open from it small canyon area we passed through it got windy and pretty chilly. I’m sure you can guess what happened next when you’ve got two kids in tow…complaining! I have to agree a little with their dislike, the wind was not fun. But we kept trekking and made it to the first larger butte. It’s pretty amazing how these big beasts just stand alone out here on the prairie. A couple hikers we met on the way stated that they saw a golden eagle on top. From what we read about these buttes, lots of raptors build their nests into the rock cliffs on the sides of the buttes, but we weren’t able to spot any.
Overall, we hiked close to 3 miles without making it to the farthest butte, but maybe we’ll try again when the wind is calmer. I definitely would call this an “easy” hike. It was very flat and the terrain is very simple to navigate. I’d recommend packing a jacket, water and wearing tennis shoes or hiking boots to be most comfortable. Depending on the weather, you might want to throw in some light gloves and warm hats (You’ll notice Odessa wearing extra socks we had in our pack on her hands, since we didn’t bring gloves!) We also wish we would’ve brought our binoculars to get a better visual of the bluffs for raptors.
So all in all, we enjoyed our time out in the Pawnee. I do think my girls get spoiled by all that the mountains have to offer. So, this wasn’t quite as exciting to them, but I really do believe it was important for them to see a few of the less popular sites of our beloved state because you never know when you’ll find something amazing that’s off the beaten path.
Let us know if you’ve visited this area and what your experience was! Also, is there a hidden gem in Colorado that you think we should check out?