Dramatic landscapes and breathtaking buttes meet on land that is a rich part of our state's history.
In the 1890s, millions of hopeful settlers trekked to the West's plains searching for a bright future. The Pawnee National Grasslands, just 25 miles east of Greeley, played a part in that migration, hosting homesteaders as they tried, and often failed, to eke out a living in the harsh conditions.
Today, the sweeping scenery is a protected area and provides 193,000 acres of beauty and activities that are perfect for all ages.
Wildlife Viewing and Birdwatching
The grasslands are internationally renowned for its bird-watching opportunities, especially birds of prey, as well as wildlife viewing. Early mornings are the best times to see birds and other wildlife, and a good place to start is by walking the Birdwalk Trail.
"The legendary Pawnee National Grassland is one of the only places near Denver where you can stand in native prairie, with gayfeather and pasqueflower tickling your feet, watching McCown’s longspurs and lark buntings skylark against a backdrop of snow-covered peaks, in one of the very few areas in the country that has changed very little in the past 200 years," says coloradobirdingtrail.com.
Seasonal wetlands, dramatic buttes, and the overall are amazing places to view a variety of flora and fauna. You can also see some pretty impressive bird migrations in the spring and fall from locations like the Crow Valley Campground. Kit foxes, burrowing owls, mountain plovers, pronghorn antelope, golden eagles, jackrabbits, and so much more call the prairie home.
Hike to the Pawnee Buttes and More
A major attraction of the Pawnee National Grasslands are the amazing Pawnee Buttes. Rising nearly 300 feet from the grasslands are the remnants of Colorado's high plain landscape that has long since eroded away. They are a sight to behold.
Pawnee Buttes. Courtesy of CDOT.gov.
You can access the buttes (please note: climbing on them is prohibited) via the Pawnee Buttes Trail. This five-mile trail is ideal for most trekkers, as it walks across the rolling plains, only gaining about 364 feet in elevation. Depending on the season, the landscape offers wildlife and wildflowers, and dogs are allowed if kept on a leash.
"Taking the Pawnee Buttes trailhead is a beautiful trail embracing unique features of rock formation and dried river bed (only spot on the trail that is shaded by a few trees) as well as the vast green open space of the prairie. The lush rolling green contrasted stunningly against the blue sky and the dark clouds of a storm to the north," said one hiker who left a review on Alltrails.com.
There are other trails throughout the grasslands, including the Birdwalk trail, perfect for birding, and the Lips Bluff Trail, which gives you another route to the buttes.
Pawnee Pioneer Trail Scenic Byway and Pawnee Bird Tour
Retrace the steps of Native Americans and pioneers as they traveled across the open plains. This scenic byway will take you on a 125-mile drive on several highways and through our eastern plains towns. You'll pass by the Pawnee Buttes trailhead and Crow Valley Recreation Area, as well as other parts of the Overland Trail. Check out the Overland Trail Museum for a step back into the area's rich history. You can also learn more about the byway on CDOT's website.
Another driving tour is the self-guided Pawnee Bird Tour. It travels on gravel roads throughout the area and is 21 miles of bird-watching heaven (don't forget your binoculars). The birds present will vary depending on the season. You can access the tour guide here, and you can complete it either by vehicle or a mountain bike.
A stop on the Pawnee Bird Tour. Courtesy of USDA Forest Service.
Camping and The Lee and Dorothy Rhodes Farm Implement Museum
There are a couple of camping areas available in the Pawnee National Grasslands, some open specifically to groups. The Crow Valley Recreation Area offers camping spots, tables, water, fire grates, and grills, as well as recreational fun like a baseball diamond, volleyball court, and horseshoe pit. It will really make a wonderful home base if you decide to extend your vacation a few days.
The Lee and Dorothy Rhodes Farm Implement Museum is also located at the Crow Valley Recreation Area. Check out this exhibit for displays on early machinery used by pioneers and farmers on the plains.
You can reserve your spot for camping, as well as find out the latest park conditions and more on Pawnee National Grassland's Forest Service site.