Far from the Rocky Mountains, in a remote eastern corner of Colorado where wind turbines outnumber people, two buttes rise dramatically from the prairie. The Pawnee Buttes are so far north they’re practically in Wyoming, and so far from the Front Range that a visit will take you most of the day. But it’s worth it to see these unique geologic features.
Located in Pawnee National Grassland in Weld County, the Pawnee buttes are 300 feet high. The twin humps, made of crumbling sandstone, are what remains of the uplift that shaped Colorado millions of years ago, worn down by the erosive forces of wind and water.
Massive buffalo herds once grazed here, but these days the only wildlife you’ll find are rattlesnakes, deer, pronghorn, lizards and a surprising array of bird species. In fact, an area along the trail to the buttes is off-limits from March 1 to June 30 to protect nesting hawks and falcons. Stay on the trail during this time, as the parents may abandon eggs or young birds if disturbed.
There is only one official hiking trail, an easy 1.5-mile stroll through a pretty canyon and then around the south side of West Pawnee Butte. You may be able to continue on to East Pawnee Butte for another half-mile, but observe any “no trespassing” signs, as there is private property here.
The trail offers long views of this windswept prairie and the Pawnee Buttes, which will seem a lot taller up close than from a distance.
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Because of loose, eroded sandstone and steep cliffs, climbing is not recommended on the buttes. Dogs are allowed, but bikes and motor vehicles are not. Also, be sure to have a good road map and directions before heading out, as navigating the maze of dirt roads in an area where phone service is sketchy could prove difficult.
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