East of Greeley drought shapes the Pawnee Grasslands and winds shave layers of sandstone from chalky bluffs. Tuffs of grasses support throngs of small birds and the Pawnee Buttes rise 300 feet like ships in a sea of grass. The buttes, striped white and pink, red and orange, brown or gray, reflect the waning sunlight. Within thirty minutes the sky changes from wispy to thunderous clouds, although rain is scarce. Grasses survive on a gush of water in the spring, which carries them through a parched summer. These eastern plains are serene and spiritual. Empty spaces and an eerie quiet contribute to a solitary experience.
The Pawnee Grasslands are a patchwork of land both private and public, spanning 193,000 acres. It’s one of 21 national grasslands permitting multiple uses–so visitors are welcome as are the 8,700 cows that graze, cropping the short grass. A few cows wander onto the gravel roads and drivers are warned to be respectful of livestock as well as privately owned land.
Surrounded by yucca, with juniper-filled ravines, the Pawnee Grasslands are home to a wide array of wildlife and a major destination for bird lovers. Originally doled out to homesteaders in 1862, many farms failed to thrive when the rains dried up by 1920. Farmers saw their soil and livelihoods blow away into huge storms of dust burying fences and houses. The 1930s Dust Bowl was a national tragedy and one that scientists realize could have been prevented by soil conservation. Many farmers gave up and sold their homesteads back to the federal government. Others remained and the patchwork design is the result.
The only way to identify private land is with a map and possibly a compass. Without mountains as a guide, you can lose a sense of direction. At the northwest edge of Greeley the district ranger office offers maps, information and advice. It’s worth a stop because once you arrive at the grasslands, there’s no help in sight. You’re advised to have a full tank of gas, a reliable vehicle and plenty of water. Mile after grassland mile will zip by without sight of another person but you’ll see plenty of birds, loping coyotes and an occasional deer or elk.
It’s easy to see how plowing the plains encouraged erosion. Wind sifts the dry soil of fields plowed today. Dry land wheat crops are replaced by sunflowers, which require less water. And many farmers leave the stubble in the fields rather than expose the bare soil. Some of the grassland patches have recovered from the plow. You’ll find tuffs of blue grama and buffalo grasses among the 60 other grass species spreading on bare land. But recovery is slow and it’s blue grama grass that is dominant. Once you leave the Colorado foothills or mountains you’re in grass country. These are not the wildflowers that evolved with a favorite pollinator. Instead, grasses evolved with a grazer—the bison. Grasses have small, nearly undetectable flowers called panicles, but they do not require a bee or butterfly for pollination. They are pollinated by the wind and the prairie produces plenty of wind for an ocean of grass.
Blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis) is a bunch grass with a decorative spike of panicles. They look like eyelashes when it forms seeds. Blue grama thrives in sandy soil. Buffalo grass (Buchloe dactyloides)creeps along the ground, sending runners ahead. These are hot weather grasses that can take heat and drought. By the end of summer, the blue grama panicles wave in the breeze, each bluish green clump easy to spot. Blue grama, too, grows higher in elevation and can be found in the Colorado foothills and mountains. Buffalo grass is not as distinct as blue grama and associated almost exclusively with the short-grass prairie. Look for runners to identify the grass that once supported enormous herds of bison.
Those of us who are home gardeners imitate the action of grazers when we cut back our ornamental grasses each spring, pulling out the dead interior of a clump of grass, which will sprout growth from the outer perimeter. Bison provided this same rejuvenation by keeping on the move, pulling and yanking as they grazed. Today, pronghorn and cattle graze nearly as efficiently as the bison, although they’re not the majestic herds that once swept over the plains.
Nearly all grasslands around the world evolved with large grazing herds. Humans, too, relied upon the herds of grazers and cultivated grasses that would become the foundation for a civilization–wheat or corn, millet or rice. Grasses have determined where we live and what we grow, what we eat and, sometimes, what we build with. Sugar cane is a grass and so is bamboo. The pampas grasses from Argentina serve as ornamental horticulture in our gardens. But the most influential grasses are rice, wheat and corn.
In North America, corn is king, the single most dominant grass from our prairie. It’s not only the sweet corn found at the farmers markets each summer, but a corn grown for cattle, corn syrup sweetener and ethanol fuel. A grass that originally fed ancient Puebloan people in the Southwest now is the basis for several major industries. Modern varieties of corn require huge amounts of water, pesticides and fertilizer. Sometimes the water runoff pollutes streams and, as a single crop, corn is subject to blights. It offers a powerful economic benefit but comes with a cost, too.
In contrast, at the Pawnee, grasses are modest and remind us of what a variety of grasses do best: conserve water, prevent erosion and allow a diversity of plant and animal life. At first, the plains may look empty and hardly lush. But sit quietly at a lonely corner of a road and the grasslands come alive with the sounds of birds. The grasses provide seeds for millions of tiny birds that swoop and dive in concert skimming the tops of grass tips.
When these grasses knit together they form a tough mat that will anchor soil in place without becoming so invasive as to keep out other plants. Pull up to the Pawnee Buttes overlook and you’ll see yucca and prickly pear cactus. In the spring, the sand lily blooms. Milkweeds and sagebrush, sunflowers and asters, blazing stars, daisies and rabbitbrush are everywhere. Cushion plants on the rocky cliffs have given rise to suggestions that these desert plants are related to alpine miniatures. Drought-tolerant, wind-tolerant and tolerant of sandy soil—their relatives in alpine areas acclimated to extreme cold. Here mat plants are not at all dissimilar.
There are some unwelcome invaders, too, like weedy thistles, muscling in on sunflower territory alongside the road. Even so, the variety of drought-tolerant shrubbery provides enough cover and food for the remarkable birds that call the grasslands home. At the ranger district office in Greeley, pick up a pamphlet titled “Birding on the Pawnee by Automobile or Mountain Bike.” The self-directed tour will take you to a variety of places where birds can be found abundantly. Horned larks are easy to spot with their tiny black caps, a few feathers pointed upward that do look like horns. They’re quick and darting, found year around. But you can also discover lark buntings (the Colorado state bird). Hawks, falcons and eagles feast on prairie dogs and smaller birds. Burrowing owls claim abandoned prairie dog homes.
From there head to the buttes and begin at the Overlook. From the Overlook, you’ll see the two main buttes. Continue down a narrow dirt road to a small parking lot and you’re at the trailhead. Two trails branch from the trailhead. One climbs atop a bluff and is closed between March 1st and June 30th to protect the nesting hawks. The other 1.5-mile trail leads left (north) into a canyon, circles around the bluffs and heads to the buttes. It’s eroded in the sandy soil, but easily spotted. Other social trails can be misleading, ending abruptly. The eastern butte is on public land, but you must traverse private land to reach it, so hiking there without special permission is discouraged. The two available Pawnee Buttes are magnificent enough on their own.
Directions: Start at the Pawnee National Grassland headquarters for maps and guides.
Grasslands Headquarters: From south Greeley (US-34 and US-85), go north on US-85 for 4.2 miles and exit at “O” Street. Turn east on “O” Street to the Grasslands Headquarters at 660 “O” Street or, at 40.4518N, 104.6918W.
Pawnee Pioneer Trail Scenic Byway:
- From the Grasslands Headquarters in north Greeley, go north on US-85 for 9.25 miles to the town of Ault. The Scenic Byway starts in Ault.
- From Ault, go east on Colorado 14 for 22.5 miles.
- At CR-77, proceed north for 15 miles to CR-120. Proceed on CR-120 6.6 miles to the town of Grover.
- From Grover, take CR-390 southeast for 5.5 miles.
- At CR-112, turn east and follow the signs to the Pawnee Buttes, 10 miles.
- From the Buttes, the Scenic Byway proceeds east toward New Raymer on CR-110 for 9.25 miles and then south on CR-127 and CR-129 for 13 miles to New Raymer.
- From New Raymer, take Colorado 14 west back to Ault, 49.5 miles.
Features: Be sure to stop at the Grasslands Headquarters in Greeley. A map specific to the area is definitely needed for this vast area. Also, pick up a copy of the Scenic Byway guide, which emphasizes the practical side of traveling the Byway –little water, few facilities, limited services such as gasoline. There is also a birding brochure that describes an excellent self-guided bird tour that is otherwise difficult to discover, featuring horned larks, lark buntings, burrowing owls and other prairie birds.
There are several trails going up and around the cliffs and gullies of the Pawnee Buttes, those twin sandstone towers. The main trail, directly out to both Buttes, is a fairly flat 4-mile out-and-back. Walking sticks are useful here to ensure that you don’t surprise some of the snakes and critters that may be about. The trailhead is located at 40.8095N, 103.9917W.
If you’d like to spend the night in the grasslands, you’ll not find any motels, but there is a campground nestled in the Crow Valley Recreation Area. It’s near the small town of Briggsdale, ¼ mile north of the corner of Colorado 14 on CR-77. Surrounded by cottonwood trees, it’s a riparian area for birds, although you’ll see the gullies filled with water only after a spring deluge. Reservations: 877-444-6777 or http://www.reserveusa.com/.
More Info: Pawnee National Grassland, 660 “O” Street, Greeley, CO 80631, 970-346-5000 or 303-353-5004, http://www.fs.fed.us/r2/arnf/about/organization/png/index.shtml.