Pawnee Buttes Trail

Mike at the trailhead with the Pawnee Buttes in the background
On our second trip to Pawnee National Grassland of the year, we decided to visit the more easterly section and hike out to the Pawnee Buttes. This remote area was a welcome contrast from the traffic and crowds in Estes Park for the Long's Peak Scottish-Irish Highland Festival and parade.

We chose a route along Route 14 past Ault, then north at County Rd 103 to Keota. From there we zig-zagged northwest across more county dirt roads until we turned off of County Rd 110 to take the southern approach of the loop road to the Pawnee Buttes Trailhead.

[Click on a picture to see a larger version of it.]

We probably didn't see a dozen people all day
Spotting a restroom and parking area, we pulled off at what we thought was the trailhead. We were greeted by small herd of Angus and Black Baldy cows with heifers finding some shade in behind the structure. Finding no sign of a trail, and running out of wisecracks to amuse ourselves about the cows that peeked around the corner of the restroom and generally stared us down, we drove on a little further. The actual trailhead was just around the next bend in the road.

Northern Harrier swooping by
Expecting the Buttes to rise out of total grassy flatness, we were happy to discover the surrounding terrain to be varied and interesting. The wind turbines of Cedar Creek Wind Farm spread across the horizon to the north of the buttes, a jarring juxtaposition of modern with an ancient and otherwise unadulterated landscape. On the trail, a short walk through flat grasslands led up to a sizable and long rocky outcropping, fairly narrow in places, that we hiked up and across, before descending the other side to go out to the Buttes.

The western butte often appears larger, but from the base, they look about the same height. With good reason -- they are within a foot of the same height, about 300 feet above the main elevation of the grasslands. We walked the half mile trail that separates the two buttes, spotting various birds, insects and a few horned lizards along the way. The occasional breeze kept us reasonably comfortable in the increasing afternoon heat, and we were glad to be hiking in September rather than the heat of summer!

Wind turbines at the Cedar Creek Wind Farm

Lots of grasshoppers along the way
After a total of 4 miles of hiking, we were back at the car eating the lunches we'd picked up in Loveland (Subway for Mike, Big City Burrito for Susan). Refueled and rehydrated, we continued along the loop road, passing a few campers and 1 or 2 other trailheads, until we reached the Pawnee Butte Overlook.

Inspired by this new perspective and a desire to see more buttes, we followed a trail towards a knifelike rocky point to the north. The out and back was about 1 1/2 miles mostly along the cliff edges. We watched the sun setting and the moon rising before calling it a day.

Evening light on the Buttes at Moonrise

Long shadows

I forgot to mention earlier that we saw tiny Horned Lizards frequently along the trail. Too cute!


  1. Very nice photography. I found your site while looking at Pawnee Buttes images on Bing. I have been thinking about a motorcycle ride out to the Buttes this spring, but those dirt roads don't look Harley-friendly. Cheers.

  2. As a motorcyclist myself (Harley Fatboy), I'd say you could do these roads if you know what you're doing. They are passenger car friendly unless you're in a Corvette or something.