Colorado / Hiking trails

Hiking the Pawnee Buttes Trail

Pawnee Buttes in Colorado

For most, the word Colorado brings to mind images of snow-capped mountain peaks, trickling streams, and golden aspen groves.

But there is a “different Colorado” situated in the eastern plains of the state. Stretching for as far as the eye can see, short prairie grass covers most of Northeast Colorado in an area called the Pawnee National Grassland. An expansive landscape spanning over 193,000 acres, the grassland has a deep geological history which is made evident by one of its most popular attractions. The Pawnee Buttes Trail.

Pawnee National Grasslands

Pawnee National Grassland at sunsest
Pawnee National Grassland at sunset

Nestled deep within the Pawnee National Grassland are the Pawnee Buttes. Towering 300 ft. over the flat grounds of the Eastern Plains, the buttes still stand as a true testament to time. In an area that was once underwater, these mounds of clay and chalk-like sediments have endured as some of the last fragments of a life that once was, 90 million years ago.

The Pawnee National Grasslands, now an excellent example of short grass prairie, was once a large Inland Sea where vegetation was lush and the climate was tropical. Most of the land has since been washed out to sea and The Pawnee Buttes are what’s left for us to admire and explore via the Pawnee Buttes Trail.

Hiking the Pawnee Buttes Trail

hiking the Pawnee Buttes trail
Pawnee Buttes Hiking Trail

To get to the trailhead, a mosaic of county roads leads visitors through acres of private land, large ranches, wind farms, and oil derricks. The trailhead comes with a parking lot, picnic tables, restrooms, and distant views of the buttes. The gentle route is one of simple beauty. Discover rolling hills, sprinkles of evening primrose (in the spring), and an abundance of yucca plants, all with approaching views of the buttes.

A short distance from the trailhead the trail splits and a short path reveals views from the Pawnee Buttes Overlook. Continuing on the main trail takes hikers through white cliffs and rugged washes to reach the ground level of the prairie. This 4.7-mile out-and-back trail brings visitors close to the buttes before turning around. This trail is a true treat for those seeking a different view from the other side of the Rockies.

Note: While the trail is open year-round, a large portion adjacent to the trail closes from March 1 to June 30 to protect the nesting raptors.

Pawnee Buttes, Pawnee National Grassland
Distant views of the two buttes

Other things to do in Pawnee National Grasslands

Aside from hiking, many people come for an evening of stargazing. Miles from any major city or town, the only light you have to compete with is the lone rancher’s porch light. Camping is another popular activity, particularly in the fall or early summer months.  

Birding at Pawnee Buttes

birding at Pawnee Buttes trail
Birding is a popular activity at Pawnee Buttes

The Pawnee Buttes Trail is one of the best bird-watching trails in the Pawnee National Grasslands and in Colorado. More than 300 bird species have been tracked in the area. Including Mountain Plovers, Lark Buntings, and a variety of raptors. While May and June, during migration, are the best time for birding, the winter months offer a quiet reprieve with bare naked trees to easily catch a glimpse of feathers in flight. 

Pawnee Buttes Trail Details

Total Distance: 4.7 miles

Restrooms: yes

Trail type: out and back

Elevation gain: a little over 300 ft.

Distance from Denver: 112 miles (roughly a 2-hour drive)

Activities: hiking, trail running, camping, horseback riding, birding

*all images were taken by me and are subject to copyright.

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