Pawnee National Grassland: Photograph the Pawnee Buttes, Pronghorn, and Wildflowers

View of the Pawnee Buttes at Pawnee National Grassland in Colorado.

Nature Photography at Pawnee National Grassland

Pawnee National Grassland is an excellent place for photography in the Eastern Plains of Colorado. The national grassland is in Ault, which is approximately 2 hours from downtown Denver. Although the Pawnee Buttes are the main attraction at the grassland, there are innumerable opportunities for nature photography.

However, getting to the Pawnee Buttes Trailhead is no easy feat. The national grassland encompasses nearly 200,000 acres, which can make navigating a bit tricky. In addition, traveling to the buttes requires driving down unpaved backroads. Therefore, this drive can be treacherous and is not recommended for smaller vehicles or those that are lacking four-wheel drive.

Watch Out for the Cows!

When driving to the Pawnee Buttes Trailhead, visitors often encounter free-range cattle. The grassland homes several ranches; therefore, herds of cattle can be seen roaming aimlessly throughout the land. Cattle are commonly spotted in open fields or near gravel roads. In return, this gives you the perfect opportunity to put your camera to work.

Cattle herd in Ault, Colorado.

Before doing so, however, it is important to note that cows are large mammals and can become dangerous if they feel threatened. Even though cows are domesticated farm animals, it is better to treat them as wild beings and keep your distance. Therefore, it’s advised to remain in your vehicle if you encounter any free-range cattle during your visit.

Get Lost in the Wildflowers

One of the best photo opportunities the grassland has to offer is its abundance of wildflowers. Nearly 200 species of plants and wildflowers are found throughout the grassland. While hiking through Pawnee National Grassland, visitors have the chance to photograph some of the most beautiful flowers found in Colorado. Plants that are native to the area include prickly pear cactus, evening primrose, yucca, and a variety of thistles.

Pink thistle plant in Weld County, CO.

Explore the Pawnee Buttes

As mentioned earlier, the Pawnee Buttes are the main attraction of the grassland. Each butte is a flat-topped rock formation that measures nearly 300 feet tall. The west butte rests on the national grassland, while the east butte is located on private property. Unfortunately, there is no access to the east butte at this time.

Pawnee Butte trail featured in Pawnee National Grassland photos by Sara Turbyfill.

Even though you can’t access the east butte, the Pawnee Buttes Trail leads to an overlook that gives you a panoramic view of both buttes. To get an even closer look, you can continue down the trail. The Pawnee Buttes Trail is approximately 3 miles roundtrip and takes visitors right up next to the west butte.

East Butte featured in Pawnee National Grassland photos by Sara Turbyfill.

It is important to note that there are no shaded areas along the trail. When visiting the grassland in warmer months, make sure you’re prepared for the heat. To avoid heat exhaustion and dehydration, it’s important to wear appropriate clothing, apply sunscreen, and drink plenty of water.

West Butte featured in Pawnee National Grassland photos by Sara Turbyfill.

The Pawnee Buttes Trail is open for hikers to enjoy for most of the year. However, a portion of the trail closes from March 1st through June 30th every year. The trail closes to help protect nesting raptors, including northern harriers and prairie falcons. For more information on trail closures for nesting birds, check out the Pawnee Buttes Area Map provided by the USDA.

Birdwatch in the Eastern Plains of Colorado

Pawnee National Grassland is for birds and birdwatchers alike. Birders visit the national grassland to enjoy unique opportunities for birdwatching and photography. Countless species of birds live on the grassland, including burrowing owls, broad-tailed hummingbirds, mourning doves, and even the state bird of Colorado – the lark bunting.

Broad-tailed hummingbird featured in Pawnee National Grassland photos by Sara Turbyfill.

If you’re interested in a self-guided tour, make sure you check out the Pawnee National Grassland Birding Tour Guide provided by the USDA.

Catch Up with a Pronghorn…If You Can

Finally, while driving through the Pawnee National Grassland, you might encounter an odd-looking creature known as the pronghorn. Slower only to the cheetah, the pronghorn or North American antelope is the second fastest land mammal in the world. Pronghorn can reach speeds of up to 60 miles per hour.

Pronghorn in Weld County, Colorado.

Since pronghorn are extremely fast, photographing them in the wild can be difficult. These interesting animals graze throughout the grassland and tend to be shy around humans. However, if you’re patient, you might be lucky enough to spot one!

Visit Pawnee National Grassland

To conclude, Pawnee National Grassland has plenty to offer. Whether you enjoy hiking trails, wildlife photography, or birdwatching, you’ll surely find it here. Like many outdoor recreational areas in the state, visiting the grassland is free. For more information, check out the resources below.


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