Our exploration of the Colorado eastern plains had been limited to the views afforded from I-70 on trips back to Illinois. Our outdoor adventures had always taken us west toward the Rocky Mountains, but last March we headed east for an impromptu visit to the Pawnee National Grasslands.
It was an escape from our hand-foot-mouth-disease house arrest. Our little one slept well in the car and we thought a drive and a little fresh air on an unseasonably warm March day would do us all some good.
We drove 35 miles east on highway 14 through Ault and other little towns that to this point had only been white letters on green signs. We got up close and personal with fracking operations and wind turbines. After many dirt roads and following the much needed signs, we arrived to find a vast, quiet landscape. We piled out of the car, greeted by song birds in this serene corner of Colorado. The Pawnee Buttes rose in the distance, geological phenoms reminiscent of Devils Tower and thus mashed potatoes and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The Buttes are quite impressive, popping out of an otherwise flat horizon.
With a sick toddler we weren’t prepared to hike but we hung around the picnic shelter, enjoying the warm breeze and soaking in the sunshine while L searched for rocks.
And in her five-year-old world, rocks became dinosaur teeth. She scoured the ground searching for the perfect specimens she’d convinced herself belonged to vanished giants. She ran to show us her archeological finds while C watched her every move.
The flat open trails are definitely kid friendly, but sunscreen is a must. This place would be a scorcher in the summer but right now, early spring, Pawnee Buttes Natural Area is a perfect antidote to cabin fever.
Drive Time: 35 miles, approx 2 hours from Fort Collins
Trails: There is a 1.5 mile trail open to hikers and horseback riders, we did not hike on this trip, but it appeared flat and kid friendly, although no shade
Camping: Dispersed camping is allowed and Crow Valley Campground is close by, it opens in April, visit website for details
Designated Rating: Easy
Usage: Medium (according to the USDA website, on our visit we saw one hiker)
Elevation Gain: Flat
Trail Highlights: Views of Pawnee Buttes, Popular birding location
Trail Lowlights: No Shade
Optimal Time of Year: Spring and Fall are optimal, and even nice winter days
Would we go back? Scoped out some possible dispersed camping spots that we might want to return for some off season camping, kind of a haul for a day trip
Directions: Head East on Highway 14 35 miles, approximately 2 hours from Fort Collins
Amenities: Bathrooms- yes, Covered Picnic area- yes
Visit USDA website for more information