Hiking the Pawnee Buttes Trail

For most, the word Colorado conjures up thoughts of snow-capped mountain peaks, trickling streams, and golden aspen groves sitting at 10,000 ft.

But there is a “different Colorado” situated in the eastern steppes of the state. Stretching for as far as the eye can see, short prairie grass covers most of Northeast Colorado in an area called the Pawnee National Grassland. An expansive landscape spanning over 193,000 acres, the grassland has a deep geological history which is made evident by one of its most popular attractions.

image of the Paween Buttes Trail with green grass

Nestled deep within the Pawnee National Grassland are the Pawnee Buttes. Towering 300 ft. over the flat grounds of the Eastern Plains, the buttes still stand as a true testament to time. These mounds of rock have endured as some of the last fragments of a life that once was, 90 million years ago.

The Pawnee National Grasslands, now an excellent example of short grass prairie, was once a large Inland Sea where vegetation was lush and the climate was tropical. Most of the land has since been washed out to sea and The Pawnee Buttes are what’s left for us to admire and explore via the Pawnee Buttes Trail.

image of the Pawnee Buttes Trail
One of the buttes along the Pawnee Buttes Trail

To get to the trailhead, a patchwork of county roads leads visitors through acres of private land, large ranches, wind farms, and oil derricks. The trailhead comes with a parking lot, picnic tables, restrooms and distant views of the buttes. The gentle trail is one of simple beauty with rolling hills, sprinkles of evening primrose and approaching views of the buttes.

A short distance from the trailhead the trail splits and a short path leads viewers to the Pawnee Buttes Overlook. Continuing on the main trail takes hikers through white cliffs and rugged washes to reach the ground level of the prairie. This 4.7-mile out and back trail brings visitors close to the buttes before turning around upon reaching private property.

image of the buttes along the Pawnee Buttes Trail

This trail is a true treat for those seeking a different view from the other side of the Rockies.

For other unique things to see when driving through Colorado, visit my blog on New Landscapes, highlighting artwork, rural life and the beauty of the eastern plains.

Note: While the trail is open year round, a large portion adjacent to the trail is closed from March 1 to June 30 to protect the nesting raptors.

Pawnee Buttes Trail Details

Total Distance: 4.7 miles


Trail type: out and back

Elevation gain: a little over 300 ft.

Activities: hiking, trail running, camping, horseback riding, birding

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