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 Pawnee Buttes
This easy hike to two buttes in the eastern prairie gives you spring flowers, birdsong, windblown solitude, and views stretching off to infinity. It’s a journey through time and a blast for everyone, kids included.
At a Glance
|Difficulty||●||Distance/Time||4.5 miles/2 hours|
|Trail Conditions||●●●●||Trailhead Elevation/Gain||5,200 feet/200 feet each way|
|Children||●●●●●||Features||Eroded landforms, prairie, birds, spring wildflowers|
|Scenery||●●●●||Best Season||All year|
|Photography||●●●●||Other Users||Horses, dogs|
|Solitude||●●●●||Notes||Toilets at trailhead, very little shade|
|Property||Pawnee National Grassland||Jurisdiction||U.S. Forest Service|
The drive to this trail near the Wyoming border is crazy circuitous, and things just get weirder at the trailhead, where two buttes appear out on the prairie: startling, boxlike, rising like two gigantic birthday presents. You know you’re in for a different kind of treat, no matter how old you are!
Distances are difficult to judge here. The buttes look reachable within minutes, yet the sign says they are two miles away. Begin walking on Pawnee Buttes Trail toward some cliffs to their west called The Overlook. A cacophony of birdsong rises over the sounds of breeze and feet scraping trail, especially in mornings during migration seasons. You might see the long ears of a jackrabbit fleeing. A traditional windmill spins to the left; on the horizon churn dozens of modern wind turbines. Several crude oil “grasshoppers” bob on the plains.
At 0.7 miles, you’ll pass through a gated fence and descend into a craterlike valley studded with spiked yucca. In spring there are wildflowers: yellow evening primrose, blue penstemon, purple vetch and phlox. A juniper grove graces the dry snaking streambed, contrasting with whitish cliffs above. It’s difficult to stop taking pictures.
Soon you rise into prairie, but West Butte looks no closer than it did at the start. Is it an optical illusion? Land falls away northward as you ford another dry stream and traverse grassland. This prairie is anchored by buffalo grass and blue grama, whose roots form tough sod that holds well against the wind. It took settlers several generations and a Dust Bowl to realize this stuff should never be plowed. On closer examination the diversity of vegetation is impressive. Over 400 native species grow here.
The trail dips to arrive beneath the domineering form of West Butte. What is this? A bit of Mars? A hunk of comet? A corroded alien spaceship? Whatever it is, it looks otherworldly, especially in slanting sunlight. And inaccessible! Ringed at the top by 30- to 50-foot cliffs, there appears to be no way to stand on top.
The buttes are very much of this world. Remnants of ancient High Plains that didn’t erode into the South Platte, they are protected by caps of sandstone and conglomerate that formed 3 to 20 million years ago. Below the hard caps is softer sediment of the Brule Formation, described geologically as “white to pale-pink blocky tuffaceous claystone and lenticular arkosic conglomerate.” It formed 25 to 40 million years ago, before there were words that big.
A trail slants down and up toward East Butte, beckoning you to visit it as well. On the way you’ll pass a sign that reads, “Private Land Ahead, Respect Owner’s Rights,” but it doesn’t tell you not to proceed. The Forest Service owns all of West Butte, but only part of East. In fact, most of Pawnee National Grassland is privately owned.
You will arrive at East Butte within minutes. You can enjoy it from the base or circumnavigate it on a trail of sorts. Rockfall and clay-fall are hazards, so don’t linger beneath precipices. On the east side, gorgeous rippled “clay barrens” melt into prairie. On the north, notches cut into the Brule mark where some people have attempted to scale the butte. Tempting . . . but even if you made it up, how would you get down? Better to enjoy this close encounter from below and respect the summit as a no-go zone.
On the way back you can skirt to the north side of West Butte and confirm there is no summit access there, either. Or you can trust me.
From Denver. Take I-25 north to Exit 269A, then CO 14 east for another 36 miles. Turn left onto CR 77, drive 15 miles, then turn right onto CR 120. Proceed 5.8 miles, veer left onto CR 87 for 0.8 miles, then turn right on CR 122 and drive 0.7 miles into Grover. Turn right onto CR 390 (Railroad Avenue), continue 5.8 miles, and turn left onto CR 112. Proceed 6.4 miles, turn right on CR 107/CR 112, drive 300 feet, then go left to stay on CR 112. In 2 miles turn left at the sign to Pawnee Buttes. The trailhead and its large parking area are 2 miles farther on the left. 2 hours, 40 mins.
What People are Saying About This
"Each hike description includes a number of inspirational good quality photos. There is just enough colorful detail or historical background to add an extra dimension to each hike. There is also a handy directory at the end of the book that will point the reader to different categories of hikes, (kid-friendly, rigorous, and so on), to help in selecting hikes. An excellent guide for a newbie and a valuable reference for a local looking for something new and perhaps a bit out of the way."Joel Smith, Goodreads.com