Out on the expansive eastern plains past Ault, it’s easy to forget you’re in Colorado. But it’s well worth leaving the mountains behind you to follow this four-mile ramble through a vast landscape. Your goal is the Pawnee Buttes, two giant sandcastle-like formations that tower a few hundred feet overhead of the lowlands. This easy hike snakes through an unearthly landscape, sandy arroyos and rugged cliffs carved by wind and water, and wildflower blooms in spring. Be on the look out for wildlife, too. Raptors, eagles, pronghorns and coyotes all make their home here.
Note: The Pawnee Buttes trail is open all year, however the Overlook and Lip Bluff areas are closed March 1 through June 30 for nesting raptors. Please respect all closures and do not disturb any wildlife.
Getting there: Finding the trailhead can be the most challenging part of this adventure. You will want to use a GPS. From Fort Collins, travel east on Highway 14 for 54 miles. Turn left onto CR 103. After 4.8 miles, turn right onto CR 103. After 6 miles, turn right on CR 112. Continue for 2 miles and turn right onto CR 107, then left onto CR 112. After 2 miles, turn left onto FR 685. After 1.2 miles, pass the old trailhead on the left and continue to the new trailhead.
Starting at an interpretive sign with a map and information about the natural and human history of the area, walk north on a wide dirt trail that immediately passes through a gate before meandering through a grassy field teeming with white, pink and orange blooms including prairie ragwort, white evening primrose, puccoon, sand lily, prickly pea, wallflower and carpet phlox.
2. Overlook Trail
Continue straight past a junction with the Overlook Trail (closed March 1-June 30). Step lightly, keeping an eye out for prairie residents: coyote, pronghorn, rattlesnakes, jackrabbits, prairie dogs and birds of all sorts flitting in every direction.
3. Lip Bluffs
Crest a slight hill, pass through a wooden gate and reach an intersection with the Lip Bluffs Trail (closed March 1-June 30). Continue straight on the main trail to drop into an alien landscape featuring towering rock formations reminiscent of sand castles and arroyos filled with phlox, puccoon and wallflower accompanied by Drummonds’ milkvetch, slender wild parsley, plains milkvetch, Hooker’s sandwort, spiked gilia, manystem pea, mountain bladderpod, silky milkvetch and Missouri milkvetch. Descend along a sandy, well-maintained trail to explore the canyon’s depths..
From a series of sandy arroyos. The scene then opens up and West Pawnee Butte, which rises 300 feet, dominates the skyline.
The trail dips down once more to reach a sweeping, grassy ravine where giant clumps of yucca and light pink roses thrive. Tackle a short, steep set of stairs to pick up the level trail that briefly curves back toward the Lip Bluffs, giant brown sandstone cliffs shaped like tables whose hearty capstone tops protect the skinnier and softer bottom legs from erosion,, before heading straight for the buttes.
6. Lip Bluffs Junction
At another signed junction with Lip Bluffs Trail, continue east (straight) toward the Buttes.
7. West Pawnee Butte
Reach West Butte. Carry on to explore the butte’s east side. Wade through the magenta, purple, yellow and white blossoms growing directly out of the rocky surface.
8. East Butte and Turnaround
Past a sign that reads “Private Property.” East Butte towers in the distance. Turn around here and retrace your steps to the trailhead or continue onto the butte (unless posted otherwise by the landowner).
Big Agnes Porcupine Hooded Pullover
Near-constant wind howls across the plains, but it was no match for this durable, wind-and-water-resistant piece that keeps you warm without weighing you down thanks to PrimaLoft Gold Active insulation. Women’s version is called the Willow. $240 | bigagnes.com
This women’s packs weigh less than three pounds, but an innovative suspension and ventilated back panel make it feel like a sturdier pack. Smart details–like a sunglass holder on the shoulder harness and a built-in water reservoir sleeve that can be removed to double as an ultralight summit pack—seal the deal. Men’s version is the Paragon 38.
$160-$250 | gregorypacks.com
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