I absolutely love the mountains. And yet my soul sometimes yearns for the wide open expanse of the high plains, mesmerizing waves of grass in the prairie wind. I’ve found just the place to get my range fix. Pawnee National Grassland in northeastern Colorado is one of 20 national grasslands in the U.S. The Pawnee Buttes, rising 300 feet above the prairie, are the most awe-inspiring feature of the park. The Pawnee Buttes Trail hike transports you back in time a couple of hundred years to the days of the wild frontier.
Why I Love This Hike
I love the contrast of the rugged sandstone Pawnee Buttes jutting up from prairie grasslands. You can easily envision the frontier families that homesteaded there. I went in early fall on a Wednesday, and saw almost no one else the entire 2 hours I was there. The isolation and solitude, being out in the middle of nowhere, enhanced the feeling of going back to another time. The hike itself was less challenging than I normally like, but the unique grasslands experience made up for that. I want to go back to Pawnee Buttes in the spring and camp on the prairie under a clear, moonlit night.
Oops, I Climbed the Buttes
The Arapahoe and Roosevelt National Forest website states Please do not try to climb the bluffs along the trail, as that will cause resource damage. It’s also unsafe, because the loose sediment can’t reliably support weight. I confess, I knew all that before I went, but I climbed the buttes anyway. I was seduced by the trails that lead right up to and on the buttes. In the moment, I also reasoned that climbing the buttes was OK because nowhere on the trail does it say not to. That’s me, I’m compelled to see where trails lead and to climb stuff off trail. Just because I did it doesn’t mean I’m saying you should!
Pawnee Buttes Hike Details
The Pawnee Buttes Trail is an out-and-back. You can extend the hike via short trails that lead to the base of each butte. You can also go off trail and walk through the grass. There is no ranger station at the trailhead to ask for route advice. While there is a large map of the Pawnee Buttes area at the trailhead, there is no trail map that you can take with you. The few markers on the trail don’t include the mileage. But it’s hard to get lost because you can see the trailhead parking lot from almost every point in the area. The trail is easy to traverse. My recommendation is to look at the trailhead map and wander as you like. Note that the areas around the buttes are closed from March 1-June 30 to protect nesting birds.
- Hike Distance: About 4-5 miles
- Duration: About an hour and a half
- Difficulty: Easy
- Low-High Elevation: 5,200′-5,800′
- Dogs Allowed? Yes
- Bikers Allowed? No
- Horses Allowed? Yes
- Entrance Fee: None
- Driving Directions to Pawnee Buttes Trailhead: Google Maps
- Trail Map: Pawnee Buttes Area
- More Information: Pawnee Buttes Trailhead, Pawnee National Grassland, Arapahoe & Roosevelt National Forests
- Other Tips: Bring bug spray. Also, the hike is completely exposed so summer isn’t a great time to go. Dispersed camping is allowed throughout the park. Other notable features: fossils and arrowheads (don’t remove them); grassland plant diversity; and birding (bring your binoculars).
Getting To Pawnee Buttes Trailhead
Be prepared to drive over a mixture of gravel, washboard, and broken asphalt roads that have not seen a maintenance crew in who knows how long. I saw mostly 18-wheelers and work trucks on these roads. Being the tiniest vehicle in a convoy of semis and ginormous diesel trucks was hilarious. You’ll drive over about 25 cattle guards. There are signposts pointing the way to the Pawnee Trailhead, but some of them are so faded you can barely read them. The final road to the trailhead is sketchy and steep with huge potholes. You can get there in a passenger car, but something more rugged, like an all-wheel drive, would be better.
My Pawnee Buttes Hike Route
Pawnee Buttes Trailhead
After bouncing along a labyrinth of roads, you’ll be delighted to reach the nicely maintained Pawnee Buttes Trailhead. The trailhead has a gravel parking lot, pit toilet, interpretative signs, and a picnic area. Bring water! There’s no water at the trailhead or in the park.
For the majority of my 2 hours at Pawnee Buttes, my Impreza and I were the only park visitors.
From the trailhead, walk through a metal gate to the Pawnee Buttes Trail. The trail is mostly soft packed dirt throughout the entire area. You’ll reach an intersection for Pawnee Buttes Trail 601 and the Overlook.
The trail to the Overlook is a 1 mile out-and-back. There’s a great view of Lips Bluff, West Pawnee Butte, and East Pawnee Butte.
Make your way back to Pawnee Buttes Trail and check out Lips Bluff.
Pawnee Buttes Trail dips down through some ravines and washouts that are very cool to explore. I love the falls colors in the brush.
Take the first trail off of Pawnee Buttes Trail to Lips Bluff.
West Pawnee Butte
Go back to Pawnee Buttes Trail and continue on about 1.5 miles to West Pawnee Butte.
East Pawnee Butte
East Pawnee Butte is on private land. I got confused about the sign and didn’t go the .5 mile to the Butte. Turns out you can hike to the butte unless otherwise posted.
Going Off Trail
Coming back from the East Pawnee Butte sign, I scrambled up West Pawnee Butte and Lips Bluff. I also walked through the grass around West Butte and Lips Bluff, checking out the fall colors and marveling at the absolute silence and isolation.
What’s your favorite off-the-beaten path hike? Are you planning to visit the Pawnee Buttes? Let me know if you go!