Travel to Pawnee National Grassland
If you are looking for a new destination to takes pictures, photographing Pawnee National Grassland is an excellent choice. The main attraction of the grassland, the Pawnee Buttes, are located just two hours from downtown Denver, making it a great day trip. Like many outdoor recreational areas in the state, visiting the Pawnee National Grassland is absolutely free!
However, getting to the Pawnee Buttes trailhead is no easy feat. The national grassland encompasses nearly two hundred thousand acres, which can cause confusion when looking for directions. In addition, traveling to the buttes requires navigating down unpaved back roads. Therefore, this drive can be treacherous and is not recommended for smaller vehicles or those that do not have four-wheel drive.
How to Get to the Pawnee Buttes Trailhead from Denver:
- Take I-25 North toward Fort Collins
- Exit 269A and Merge onto Co-14 E toward Ault
- Turn Left onto Co Rd 105
*Beware: you will encounter unpaved roads for the duration of the trip
- Continue onto Co Rd 390
- Turn Right onto Co Rd 105
- Turn Right onto Co Rd 104
- Take a Left onto Co Rd 111
- Turn Right onto Co Rd 110
- Continue onto Rd 113
- Turn Left
- Park your car and walk to your destination
If you prefer to look up directions on Google Maps, make sure to enter Pawnee Buttes Trailhead as your destination. Otherwise, you may receive inaccurate directions.
After parking, you can access the west butte by walking a 1.5-mile trail that leads you right to it. However, please note the roundtrip distance is 3 miles. Also, the east butte is located on private land and cannot be accessed.
Watch Out for the Cows!
As soon as you turn left onto County Road 105, you will pass a cattle guard. From this point on, the remainder of the trip is unpaved and can make driving a bit challenging. After traveling down the gravel road for a few minutes, you will likely be bombarded by free-range cows. The grassland homes several ranches and herds of cattle can be seen roaming aimlessly. In return, this gives you the perfect opportunity to put your camera to work.
Before doing so, however, it is important to note that cows are large mammals and can become dangerous if they feel threatened. Even though many people associate cows as a type of farm animal, it is better to treat them as wild beings and keep your distance. Therefore, it is advised to remain in your vehicle if you encounter any free range cattle.
Get Lost in the Wildflowers
Once you have parked your car, you are now ready to explore the grassland. One of the best photo opportunities that the grassland has to offer is its abundance of wildflowers. There are several types of wildflowers that can be found along the Pawnee Buttes trail, including the Flodman’s Thistle. Also known by its scientific name Cirsium flodmanii, the Flodman’s Thistle has a thorny green stem and a blossom that ranges from deep purple to pink, making it the perfect photography subject.
The Flodman’s Thistle is just one of more than one hundred and fifty types of wildflowers that call the grassland home. While photographing Pawnee National Grassland, you will likely stumble upon common sunflowers, yucca, and prickly pear cactus.
Explore the Pawnee Buttes
The Pawnee Buttes are the main attraction of the national grassland. Each butte is a flat-topped rock formation that measures nearly three hundred 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.
After parking your car at the trailhead, you can walk to an overlook that gives you a panoramic view of both buttes. If you are interested in getting a closer look, you can embark on the three mile roundtrip Pawnee Butte trail. The trail brings you up close to the west butte, providing you with a more hands-on experience. When visiting the grassland in the warmer months, make sure you’re prepared. In order to avoid heat exhaustion and dehydration, it is important to wear appropriate clothing, apply sunscreen, and drink plenty of water.
The Pawnee Buttes trail is open for the majority of the year. However, a portion of the trail is closed to hikers from March 1 through June 30 to help protect nesting raptors, including norther harriers and prairie falcons. For more information on trail closures for nesting birds, check out the Pawnee Buttes Area map provided by the United States Department of Agriculture.
Bird Watch in the High Plains
Pawnee National Grassland is for the birds…and the bird enthusiasts. Birding and bird photography are other great opportunities that the High Plains has to offer. For instance, numerous species of birds can be spotted at the grassland, including burrowing owls, broad-tailed hummingbirds, mourning doves, and the state bird of Colorado – the lark bunting. If you are a frequent birder and are 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
While driving through the Pawnee National Grassland, you might encounter an odd-looking creature, known as the pronghorn. Subordinate only to the cheetah, the pronghorn or North American antelope is the second fastest land mammal in the world. For example, pronghorns can reach speeds of up to sixty miles per hour. Not only does this make them extremely difficult to get close to in the wild, but also nearly impossible to photograph. These interesting animals can be seen grazing throughout the national grassland and tend to be shy to humans. But if you’re lucky, you might just spot one!
Visit Pawnee National Grassland
If you’ve read this far, hopefully you’re interested in photographing the Pawnee National Grassland. Obviously, one of the best ways to do this is by visiting the grassland for yourself. For more information, please visit the Pawnee National Grassland website or stop by the office in Ault.
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