In Colorado’s remote northeastern corner, a two hour drive from Denver and three hours from the Rockies, the Pawnee Buttes tower 300 feet above the high plains. The 4-mile round trip hike to the buttes is arguably the most popular in the Pawnee National Grassland, but don’t worry about crowds: the trail’s isolated location (reachable only by several miles of dirt road) weeds out many tourists. While the Pawnee National Grassland might not dominate Colorado postcards the way the state’s “14ers” do, it offers a chance to experience wide open space and to imagine the land as it was. Many hikers who are used to hiking in California and the L.A. area in particular will likely never have seen anything like this stark but beautiful landscape.
TIPS FOR L.A. HIKERS
Getting to Pawnee Buttes: The nearest major airport is Denver (2 hours, 107 miles). Northern Colorado Regional Airport, near Fort Collins, is about an hour and a half, but flight options from the L.A. area are more limited. The Pawnee Buttes Trail Head is located on County Road 105 in Weld County, near the town of Grover. The last 13 miles or so are on dirt roads. High clearance vehicles are best, but with caution, all cars should be able to make the trip without difficulty. The hard-to-miss trail head features picnic tables, restrooms and interpretive plaques describing the history and geology of the area. There are no trash cans so be prepared to pack out all waste. The approximate trail head coordinates are N 40.8079, W 103.9898. For up to date information about Colorado road conditions, click here.
Staying at Pawnee Buttes: The Pawnee Buttes Trailhead is only open for day use, but dispersed camping is allowed elsewhere in the Pawnee National Grassland. For more information, click here. Hikers who want more developed accommodations can stay in Fort Morgan (just over an hour a way), Greeley (an hour and 20 minutes) or Fort Collins (an hour and a half).
Weather: The Great Plains are known for unpredictable and extreme weather. Nearby Grover, CO’s weather ranges from an average daily low of 15 degrees in January to an average daily high of 86 degrees in July. Average annual precipitation is 29 inches (about twice that of Los Angeles). The moderate nature of the hike makes it a feasible year-round destination, but exercise caution during snowy winter conditions or during summer heat – the route is entirely exposed.
Cell phone reception: Reception is weak to none for most of the route. If you are coming from Denver, your last reliable cell phone reception will probably be on state highway 14, about 16 miles from the trail head.
Dogs: Allowed on leash; exercise appropriate caution depending on the weather conditions. Also watch out for snakes in the warmer months.
4 miles round trip, approximately 300 feet of elevation gain; allow 3 hours for a leisurely stroll with time for a picnic
From the parking area, follow the signed trail north and then northwest. You will pass by a junction with the Overlook Trail (closed from March to June) before reaching a gate at 0.6 mile. Head east and begin a short but sometimes steep descent into a juniper-dotted wash. At the bottom, you will see the buttes straight ahead. The trail follows the wash (there are a few spots where the route is a little ambiguous, but the overall direction is obvious – toward the buttes.)
At about 1.6 miles from the start, you reach the base of the larger first butte. The trail circles around the south side of the sandstone formation before making a descent to a market (2 miles from the start) that marks the preserve boundary. Though this is officially the turnaround point, many hikers continue, now on private land, toward the second butte, less than half a mile away.
More information about the Pawnee Buttes: Trip descriptions here, here, here and here; All Trails report here; Prairie National Grasslands home page here
Text and photography copyright 2019 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.