The 4.1-mile roundtrip Pawnee Buttes Trail explores the shortgrass prairie and two huge buttes in the Pawnee National Grassland. The buttes, formed of Arikaree sandstone, are distinctive geologic features of eastern Colorado. The trail crosses a bluff and then descends gullies to an old road that passes 5,325-foot West Pawnee Butte to 5,375-foot East Pawnee Butte. The 193,060-acre Pawnee National Grassland protects two large sections of prairie between Colorado Highway 14 and the Wyoming border west of Fort Collins. The grassland supports a huge variety of birds and other wildlife. The trailhead has shaded picnic tables, vault toilets, and interpretative signs. The maintained trail offers easy grades for children but no shade in summer. Wear a hat, bring plenty of water, and watch out for rattlesnakes during the warm months.
- Reaching the trailhead requires lots of driving and turns on county roads. Get a good map to plot the best course from I-25. The trailhead is off Weld County Roads 111, 110, and 113.
- Start from the trailhead and descend to the floor of the prairie, and then head northeast on the trail which climbs over a ridge and descends a dry wash. Bend west on an old road and hike to West Pawnee Butte, 1.5 miles from the trailhead. Continue around the south side of the butte and hike east on the level trail to East Pawnee Butte at 2.05 miles. Return on the trail to your vehicle.
- The trail is open year-round and is a good winter hike if the access roads are dry. The area along the trail, including the twin buttes, is closed from March 1 to June 30 to protect nesting raptors. Stay on the trail to avoid disturbing the birds. Rattlesnakes live along the trail and may be seen in summer. Watch where you put hands and feet to avoid snakes. Don’t climb on the buttes unless you’re an experienced climber. The rock is soft, fragile, and breaks easily.
- Backcountry camping is allowed in the Pawnee Buttes area, but camp at least 200 feet from trails. Crow Valley Recreation Area and Campground, west of the buttes, is a ten-site, first-come first-served camping area at Colorado Highway 14 and County Road 77.
Recommended season(s): Year-round.
–Stewart M. Green