Most outdoor junkies head to the mountains come springtime—but don’t overlook the state’s vast prairies. With wildflowers in full bloom and no crowds to be found, this is the perfect time of year to explore the east side of Colorado.
[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]here’s no better time to visit these big, open spaces than spring, when temps are ideal, tiny flowers bloom in colorful contrast to the oceans of grass and dry soil and critters—among them pronghorn, coyote, black-tailed prairie dog, burrowing owls and a range of birdlife from ferruginous hawks to mountain plover—become active after a long winter.
Read on to discover our favorite adventures in this oft-overlooked region that rewards visitors with solitude, subtle beauty, wildlife, historic gems and unheralded outdoor adventures.
Enjoy an easy, peaceful 4.0-mile-out-and-back meander through these unearthly badlands, sandy arroyos and rugged cliffs carved by wind, water and time. Your destination is the two giant sandcastle-like rock formations that tower a few hundred feet above the surrounding prairie. In spring, colorful blooms stand in stark contrast to the severe, flesh-toned landscape that supports a diversity of wildlife including raptors, eagles, pronghorn and coyote.
Closest Towns: Grover (population 150) and Raymer (population 109) are the nearest towns, if you can call them that—and there are the ramshackle buildings of the (almost) ghost town of Keota nearby. Claiming 1,757 souls, Ault, located on Highway 14, is the nearest major population center with a range of facilities and spots to grab a bite.
Environmental Note: The Pawnee Buttes trail is open year-round; however the nearby Overlook and Lip Bluff areas are closed March 1 through June 30 for nesting hawks, eagles and falcons.
More Info: Pawnee Buttes National Grassland, fs.usda.gov/main/arp
CASTLEWOOD CANYON LOOP
Revel in a unique opportunity to explore a giant creek-carved chasm cutting through rolling grasslands as you meander through a healthy riparian corridor and forest dominated by scrub oak, Douglas fir and ponderosa pines. Full of understated wonders, this two-mile loop will activate all of your senses as it skirts the rim of Castlewood Canyon before dropping down to follow the swirling waters of Cherry Creek. Views of Pikes Peak and the Front Range stretch out above the expansive space of the high plains.
Closest Towns: Franktown/Castle Rock
More Info: Castlewood Canyon State Park, cpw.state.co.us/placestogo/Parks/castlewoodcanyon
PICKET WIRE CANYON
Steeped in history, the 350-foot deep Picket Wire Canyon offers an interesting adventure complete with ruins, an old mission, dinosaur tracks and grassland wildflowers. The scenery along this gentle 11+-mile hike through a rugged canyon dappled with grassland flowers and rimmed by piñon-juniper forest is only surpassed by the historic, prehistoric and archeological surprises it harbors. Go back in time as you follow the river past the ruins of an old Mexican mission, Native American rock art, and an early 19th century homestead. Travel even farther back as the exposed rock layers of prehistoric seabeds and ancient lakeshores reveal the largest dinosaur track site in North America, containing over 1,300 prints in 100 separate trackways. Along the riverbanks, you can find three-toed allosaurus tracks and herds of brontosaurus prints.
Closest Town: La Junta
Environmental Note: Picket Wire is the only portion of the entire U.S. Forest Service system with a specific mandate for the management and protection of fossil resources. Though you might not see them, there are also bones and skeletons representing as many as 100 different animals that lived 150 million years ago. Federal law protects all cultural resources within Picket Wire. Collecting or damaging artifacts is strictly prohibited so please take only pictures and leave only footprints. Return the way you came.
More info: Comanche National Grassland: fs.usda.gov/psicc
Carved out of sandstone by the Purgatoire River, Vogel is a unique and captivating destination nestled within the state’s southeastern prairie lands, which—in wet years—can be awash in spring and summer wildflowers. Explore this hidden gem by combining the easy Overlook and Canyon trails to create a 2.1-mile loop that meanders across a mesa top, over sandstone planks, through the valley bottom and past steep cliffs. Sandy, grassy landscape, delicate blossoms, stony red rock formations and sweeping prairie sky join to create an expansive and tantalizing scene, while piñon pine forest, Native American rock art, natural springs and homestead ruins make a visit to Vogel beyond worth it. Four varied hiking trails allow visitors to explore the canyon bottom and rim so you can also extend your journey on the Mesa and/or Prairie trails.
Closest Town: La Junta
Environmental Note: Rock art is a sensitive and important piece of history that is protected by federal law. Please help preserve this valuable resource by taking photographs, but not touching or vandalizing the petroglyphs.
More Info: Comanche National Grassland, fs.usda.gov/psicc