Before Colorado’s early settlers heading west would have seen the towering snow-covered peaks of the Rocky Mountains, they would have traveled across the wind-swept prairie of what is now eastern Colorado and the Pawnee National Grassland.
With 193,000 acres of mostly open short-grass prairie in the northeast corner of Colorado, the land provides an awe-inspiring experience of a different Colorado, a space as wide open as the opportunities that it inspired.
A little history of the Pawnee National Grassland
The Pawnee National Grassland is broken up into two sections: east and west. It’s a checkerboard of both private and public lands with roads crisscrossing and pioneer towns in between.
The United States officially acquired the area in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, but it wasn’t until Native Americans were forcibly removed in the late 1880s that thousands of “farmers” flocked to the area to homestead. The railroad moved in, creating towns like Grover and Keota, and large cattle herds from Texas traveled through the area on their way to Montana. The land was unforgiving, drought and harsh winters often drove many away, and the 1930s Dust Bowl caused many more to flee.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Soil Conservation Services moved in after the Dust Bowl period, replanting native grasses and trees to rebuild the soil ravaged by poorly cultivated cropland. The U.S. built new roads and improved soil conditions and in 1954 transferred the land to the U.S. Forest Service, which established the Pawnee National Grassland in 1960. Over the years, the area has become a world-renowned bird-watching mecca and haven for people of all ages who like hiking, nature, wildlife and geography.
Exploring the Pawnee National Grassland
Whether by car, foot, horseback, or bicycle, the Pawnee National Grassland provides miles of land to wander and explore.
For this adventure, go old school. Instead of relying on your phone for a map, get a Pawnee National Grassland Motor Vehicle Use Map from the Colorado State Forest Service. The map will not only help you get to one of the main hiking attractions: Pawnee Buttes, but it also directs you to approved primitive camping, small historic cattle towns, a campground, and also helpful, the way home.
Once populated with hopeful pioneers as a result of the Homestead Act of 1862, not many residents remain within the area’s few settlements, including Keota, southwest of the area’s main attraction, Pawnee Buttes.
The Pawnee Buttes rise 300-feet from the flat prairie to an elevation of 5,375 feet. The two buttes are about a half-mile apart and home to many of the area’s birds of prey. From the parking lot, where you can access bathrooms and shaded picnic areas, you travel into a maze-like arroyo that will take you to the north side of the buttes. Make sure you bring enough water as it can be hot and dry. Dogs are allowed on the trails but having them leashed is important as it is “rattlesnake country.” There is also an overlook trail and equestrian trails, as well as educational signs providing geological and historical information about the area.
Camping in the Pawnee National Grassland
If you’re looking for a true pioneer camping experience, then look no further than the Pawnee National Grassland. With thousands of acres, primitive camping areas are abundant just off the grid of dirt roads (but make sure you camp within the allowed 300 feet of the road).
Although these spots provide no release from what can be desert-like heat, exploring sand-swept gullies and arroyos surrounding your camp provides hours of adventurous fun — and some shaded areas when the sun is not directly overhead.
Another option — if you plan ahead — is the Crow Valley campground just off Colorado Highway 14 at Briggsdale, Colorado. Mature cottonwood and elm trees provide ample shade for 10 family campsites. Bird-watching trails veer off in several directions and there is an old farm equipment exhibit and several group picnic and camping areas. (The group areas are temporarily closed due to the coronavirus pandemic).
Reservations must be made for family campsites on recreation.gov during the year, except for Sept. 20-Nov. 14 when it is first-come, first-served. You can also enjoy a sand volleyball court, a baseball field, and horseshoe pits. You have to pay a fee to camp but not to enjoy trails and other public areas.
When the sun descends in the Pawnee National Grassland, the area’s “nightlights’’ turn on. On a clear night, millions of stars light the sky. Make sure you’ve tucked away your camp for the night because as the stars come alive, so can the wind and it can easily take your belongings with it.
Stargazing at Pawnee National Grassland
With a minimal amount of light pollution and a flat landscape, the Pawnee National Grassland makes for a great place to stargaze in Colorado.
Late fall, when the nights are longer and the sun sets a little earlier, is the best time for stargazing.
Here are some tips for stargazing:
- Print out a monthly star chart for Colorado and take it with you. There are apps for your phone, but the service is not always reliable and as you’ll read below, your phone can lessen your stargazing experience.
- Lessen artificial light. Turn off (or don’t use) your cell phone or your flashlight as both affect how well you’ll see the night sky. If your flashlight has a red light option, that is best if you need to find something—or your way back to camp.
- For a closer view, a telescope is nice but it isn’t something you have to invest in. Binoculars, which come in handy for the other opportunities in the Pawnee National Grassland, also provide a closer look at the stars.
Bird watching at Pawnee National Grassland
Each spring, thousands of migrating birds stop to visit the Pawnee National Grassland. More than 300 species have been identified in the area, including resident birds like Lark Bunting, Horned Lark, Burrowing Owl, Mountain Plover, Vesper Sparrow and numerous raptors.
At Crow Valley Recreational Area and campground, there are several bird-watching trails to explore. In riparian areas, you may spot Mourning Doves, Red-headed Woodpeckers, Blue Jays, Black-billed Magpies and Gray Catbirds.
The best time of year to visit for bird-watching is May and June, during migration and nesting times. Early mornings and evenings are optimal.
And the recreation area is not the only place to spot birds. The sedimentary rock formation that forms the Buttes also shelter the area’s birds of prey. March through June is their critical breeding and nesting season.
The Main Draw HOV area at Pawnee National Grassland
The unique landscape of the Pawnee National Grassland provides a fun “playground” for non-licensed vehicles such as motorcycles and ATVs. There is one designated 2-mile area in the northwestern corner of the Grassland that allows for such activities from Nov. 1-April 1.
“It’s an easy day trip, or even an afternoon trip, to pack a lunch and head out,” said Carly Nabors, a Greeley resident who frequents the area with her husband and 8-year-old daughter.
As with all areas of the Grassland, the wind can be powerful, she warns, and there is no shade. It is highly used during the weekends, but also very family-friendly.
“It’s a big playground atmosphere. There are lots of kids, so it’s great for learning,” she said. “It’s where I taught my daughter to ride a dirt bike when she was 6.”
Users must have non-licensed vehicles registered with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. They cannot be longer than 50 inches and must have a spark arrester. There are no facilities but a fenced parking area for trailers and RVs.