Although Sam and I love the mountains of Colorado, we were craving a change of pace last Saturday.
I like big buttes, and I cannot lie. So we decided to drive the quiet back roads of eastern Colorado, western Nebraska and southern Wyoming to explore the bluffs and grasslands of the high plains.
Our curiosity led us to Pawnee National Grassland, past a huge wind farm, through a herd of grunting bison, up to the highest point in Nebraska, along the Oregon Trail, to the summit of Saddle Rock, and then home again through eastern Wyoming bluff country.
We left Fort Collins around 10am and returned by 8pm. Here are the day’s shenanigans:
Map Pin B: Pawnee National Grassland
Pawnee National Grassland is full of birds, including Mountain Plovers, American Kestrels, Burrowing Owls, Long-billed Curlews and more. The U.S. Forest Service, Fort Collins Audubon and the Audubon Society of Greater Denver put together a handy Pawnee National Grassland Self-Guided Birding Tour brochure. The guide provides a good list of resident and migratory birds, a clear map and insider viewing tips. May and June are supposed to be the best times for birding here, so we used our drive as a scouting trip and moved on. I plan to tackle this three-hour, 21-mile birding tour in late spring/early summer, so watch for a future blog.
We also drove past the sizable wind farm you can barely spy from the top of Horsetooth Rock on a clear day. Every time Sam and I have climbed Horsetooth we’ve asked each other, “I wonder how far away they are?” Well, now we know – 65 miles northeast of town. Boom! They are colossal, whirring structures. Sam was smitten.
Map Pin C: Panorama Point
During our quest to find the highest point in Nebraska, we played “Count the Minuteman Missile Silos.”
Although we didn’t keep a final tally, they seemed to be everywhere. After a little Googling, we learned there used to be 200 launch sites clustered around the three-state region we were touring. Today, there are still 150 active launch sites in a 9,600-square mile area commanded by the 90th Missile Wing of the United States Air Force. A sobering thought on an otherwise carefree day.
After making multiple right turns on county roads, and getting dive-bombed by countless birds, we found the private ranch that welcomes visitors to Panorama Point.
We paid $3 per person at the gate and drove – yes DROVE – to the highest point in Nebraska (elevation 5,424 feet). Directions to Panorama Point.
But first, we used our car to gently herd some bison off the road.
Panorama Point unceremoniously emerged at the end of the relatively short drive. After checking that the coast was clear of bison, we hopped out of the car and Sam signed the guest registry.
Of course Sam and I took a “summit” selfie. We’re standing (and sitting) around the Panorama Point monument stone set in concrete in the middle of a brown bison pasture. Someone left a summit sign with the wrong elevation. (Sad trombone sound.) No matter, we had fun finding this quirky destination off the beaten path. So much so, we’re kicking around the idea of visiting the highest points in all fifty states. I guess that means I’m training for Denali, Mom.
Map Pin D: We Brake for Old Sh*t
If you’re a photographer who loves lonely windmills, faded barn wood and dust-bowl era abandoned buildings set against stark, limitless horizons, then get your keister to western Nebraska. So many cool photo ops.
Map Pin E: Scotts Bluff is the Real Deal
Next, we drove north to Gering and Scottsbluff, Nebraska, to hike the Saddle Rock Trail of Scotts Bluff. Scotts Bluff National Monument is the perfect place to binge on Mormon Trail, California Trail and Oregon Trail history. The visitor center is loaded with exhibits. You can view wagon wheel ruts just past the parking lot, and there are loads of interpretive signs and points of interest at the top of Saddle Rock.
You have the option of driving to the top, or you can hike the 3-mile RT asphalt trail that provides 435 feet of elevation gain and some pretty cool views.
This hike isn’t a slam dunk. There are plenty of possible perils on the trail, such as falling rock (they aren’t kidding … I swear the bluff erodes before your eyes), rattlesnakes in the summer, and of course THIS:
Map Pin F: Sam Screams for Ice Cream
At this point in our journey, Sam set his laser beam focus on food. We stopped at Runza, a fast-food restaurant big in Nebraska. Sam inhaled a twist cone, crinkle-cut fries and his very first gut-busting mushroom and Swiss cheese salty-beef-melty-sandwich stomach rock. In the heartland, they call it the #5. Once again, THIS:
We used to have a Runza in Fort Collins where Dunkin’ Donuts stands today. According to a map on the restaurant wall in Gering, the only Runza left in Colorado is in Loveland. NoCo, you’ve been warned.
Map Pin G: Torrington Turning Point and the Turkey Trots
Somehow Sam survived the Runzas, and we headed toward Torrington, Wyoming – our turning point home. I want to point out that along the back roads of eastern Colorado, western Nebraska and southern Wyoming, we saw an amazing amount of wildlife. Song birds, hawks, bison (not so wild, but very cool), deer and pronghorn galore, to name a few.
Along Highway 85 outside of Torrington, Sam pulled over so we could hear and watch a flock of nearly 40 wild turkeys. As we hit the road again, Sam spied a male pheasant on the other side of the highway. We smiled from ear to ear as we counted, and re-counted, all the different animals we saw in one day.
Map Pin H: “H” is for Home
We stopped just north of Cheyenne to enjoy a beautiful sunset then headed south for home. After logging 350 miles, we made it back to our front door by 8:06pm. Our biggest takeaways:
- Taking the road less traveled is a wonderful escape from the traffic and congestion of local trails, Front Range cities, and popular mountain destinations.
- The high plains are filled with wildlife and interest if we’re willing to give this area our attention.
- Our neighboring states have some cool things to explore.
- We’re eager to go birding at Pawnee National Grassland in a few months.
- As long as you have plenty of food, water and gas, it’s fun to keep your plans open when traveling rural roads. It gives you the flexibility to spontaneously stop and enjoy the good surprises that pop up along the way.