We don’t often head east on our wanderings, unless of course we are already very far west. The Pawnee National Grasslands sit in the north eastern Colorado plains. With snow lingering in the high country, truck in need of new tires, and not enough time for a desert run we decided to buck tradition and head out into uncharted territory.
The Grasslands are most easily accessed off of Highway 14. The bulk of the zone sits between the towns of Pierce and Stoneham and stretches north to the Wyoming and Nebraska lines.
After an hour and a half or so on the road from home base we left the pavement of Hwy 14 for one of the gravel roads heading in the direction of the Pawnee Buttes. With such an extensive network of roads in the area every direction at every junction seemed to be able to get us to where we were trying to be. I left things to the navigator and soon we were at the trailhead with the rig comfortably coated in brown Colorado dust.
The wind howled hard out of the north with no topography, save for the buttes, to knock it down on its way down from Wyoming, the source of all wind. The trail quickly channeled us down into an arroyo studded with yucca and a fine collection of mature juniper. Evidence of flash flood was everywhere and we marveled at how different this place would be during a storm.
With the hot wind in our faces we reached the base of the first Butte. According to some signage back at the trailhead the top of the butte some 500 feet above us represents ground level as it was in pre-historic times. The rest of the land in this area had eroded away leaving the two buttes stark against the horizon.
Back at the trailhead we evaluated out camping options for the evening. The Forest Service allows dispersed camping anywhere in the Grasslands outside of the many private and leased land holdings. We passed several appealing sites on the way in high on a bluff overlooking the Buttes. With the wind gusting as it was we opted for a less scenic, though more sheltered, spot in a small valley. The wind died at dusk and we passed an enjoyable evening listening to the many birds of the area as the sky filled with stars.
Next morning dawned clear, windy and warm. The dog patrolled our front yard while the espresso brewed on the battered Coleman and we reacquainted ourselves with warmth after a long winter (the main goal of the trip).
The drive back out to the highway gave us a clear view of the huge extent of the energy production going on in this area. Wind farms dotted the horizon in all directions and gas rigs were frequent. There were still pockets of wildness to be seen but they were few. Despite this, a sparse beauty defines the place and it is impossible not to think of how raw this land must have been when first traversed by wagons headed west.
Though not a place we will likely return to frequently, the Grasslands were quite interesting to explore and proved to be a great first (without snow) trip of the year. As we sat under the stars out in the prairie we joked about being at the edge of our range. It is good to go there now and again, check the peripheries and see what is there. Now it is time for some new tires and new adventures up and to the west.