It’s that time of year when some people come out of their hibernation and start hitting the trails. Warm weather hiking season has begun, especially now that seasonal closures are over! The sun on your skin and the fresh air in your lungs is hard to pass up. Frankly, it’s addicting if you ask me (duh), so you can’t blame the hordes of people getting out on the most popular trails – the ones that are pretty much in our Fort Collins backyard. Horsetooth, Lory State Park, Devil’s Backbone, Maxwell Natural Area, Bobcat Ridge Natural Area, Coyote Ridge Natural Area, Greyrock – everything in the foothills within a hop, skip, and a jump away is going to be jam packed with people. Parking lots fill up quickly and the community managers with Fort Collins Natural Areas and Larimer County Natural Resources frequently update their social media channels with at-capacity alerts.
I know a lot of people don’t mind the madness, but it feels like we’re loving those trails to death. Plus, it’s no fun planning on a hike only to have to leave for a different area because the trails are too full. It’s why I name them some of the worst hikes in Fort Collins. And with the increase of new residents flocking to Fort Collins, those trails are only getting more trampled with high traffic. It’s a fine line to encourage everyone to get outdoors while still maintaining the benefits of trail time, like increased peacefulness.
March is an excellent month to explore new areas, to travel a little bit farther out, to try a new trail, to drive new roads, to do new things, and to leave the same old ideas to those who don’t know any better.
It’s the perfect time to head east on long rural roads and hike in Pawnee National Grassland.
Pawnee Buttes is the only trail system in Pawnee National Grassland, about and hour and a half drive east of Fort Collins, 13 miles south of the Colorado-Wyoming border. It isn’t going to be impacted by mud season as much as some of our local foothill trails that get sloppy quickly with mud and late season snow (still watch for trail closures during rain seasons). And with it being dry right now, before rattlesnakes come out of hibernation in April, and a little farther off the beaten path – you should add it to your hiking list this month!
Last year guest blogger Becky wrote about the birding activities that you can do in Pawnee National Grassland. There’s also target shooting access on the grassland and at Baker Draw shooting range. Pawnee Buttes is just about in the middle of the grasslands, which feels like being in the middle of nowhere. There’s nothing but prairie, windmill farms in the distance, oil fields, and ghost towns (more on that in a bit). Make sure you have a full tank of gas, plenty of water, some snacks, and a map before heading out! Especially the road map. Once you become familiar with the area, it’s pretty easy to drive around. If you’ve never driven on prairies before, I think it could be a little easy to get lost. At least you know that you just head for the mountains when you want to come home (provided you can see them).
There are two significantly large buttes on the Pawnee Buttes trail, rising over 300 feet above the prairie. There’s a seasonal closure on the bluffs section from March until June 30th to protect nesting raptors, like hawks and falcons. But, that closure won’t impact your experience on the trail at all. You’ll still be able to hike the 4 miles (round trip) to east and west buttes.
The trail is very easy with breathtaking views of the Colorado plains. In the spring, the prairie is filled with wildflowers. There are pronghorn running around all year round. I love being out there at sunset watching the golden hour fall upon the buttes, and watching the stars come out across the wide open dark skies. We watched the perseid meteor shower out there and it was incredible. I’m a subalpine high country gal myself, but I cannot deny the unique beauty, and history, this area holds.
Because it takes some time to drive out there, and the hike is easy and short, I highly recommend making a day out of it and exploring some of the nearby ghost towns. Yes! Ghost town adventures!
The nearest ghost town is Keota, which is a fairly new as a ghost town. It was established in 1880 by two sisters, and reached its heyday in the 1920s. The homesteaders of the Dust Bowl and the station stop for the Burlington-Missouri Railroad also known as the “Old Prairie Dog Express” that ran through the town kept things going until about 1975. That’s when the railroad was removed. The town lost its incorporated status in 1990, and the last residents moved out passed in the early 2000s. There are about 5 residents in the area now, but it’s mainly an empty town filled with dilapidated buildings, like the creepy general store/post office that honestly gave me the ghost town chills, and an old cemetery with Keota residents passed on from the early 1900s – many of them children.
Pawnee National Grassland might not offer complete solitude compared to some high elevation backcountry trails, but it’s surely not going to be as busy as Horsetooth. It’s most definitely worth the drive for the lesser-traveled trails and historical experience as spring begins to bloom in the plains.
Total Length: 4.1 miles to both buttes
Beginning Elevation: 5,420 ft.
Peak Elevation: 5,420 ft.