A little way of the beaten path--down quite a few miles of dirt roads--this national grassland the perfect place for a pit stop and a hike. Here's what you need to know about visiting Pawnee Buttes.
Pawnee National Grassland is in Weld County, northeastern Colorado, about 35 miles east of Fort Collins. Eastern Colorado quite unlike the rocky mountain views most expect from this state. In the eastern plains you'll experience low, rolling hills and expansive views of flowing grass, cattle, oil rigs, and wind turbines. The Fence Post has a nice overview of the area's history.
We stop here on almost every road trip between Arizona and Minnesota. While national parks aren't always the most dog-friendly places to visit (but Petrified Forest and White Sands are our favorite!), national forests and national grasslands are some of the BEST places to go with your pup!
Getting to the Pawnee Buttes Trailhead
From either direction, you'll turn from a dirt county road onto more of a two-track dirt road. There are a few signs pointing the way there, but I usually rely on Google Maps to guide my way to the trailhead--I get decent cell service through most of the grassland unless I'm tucked into a dip between the prairie hills.
Hiking Pawnee Buttes Trail
Pawnee Buttes Trailhead has several covered picnic tables and grills, toilets, and informational signs. The trail is about 4.5 miles roundtrip and fairly easy for most hikers.
Dogs are allowed on the trail and must be under voice control at all times. There are free-range cattle in the area, along with plenty of wildlife: coyote, prairie dog, swift fox, mule deer, burrowing owl, pronghorn, rattlesnakes, and more.
From the trailhead parking lot, you'll pass through a gate to begin the trail. You'll come to a short trail forking off to the right for a lovely view of Lips Bluff. Continuing on the mail trail, you'll cross in front of Lips Bluff, eventually dropping down between Lips Bluff and Overlook escarpment. Here you'll notice a slight change in this semi-arid landscape with more trees and bushes sprouting up along the washes.
Along the backside, after your hike up out of the washes, you can hike up onto Lips Bluff. There is a seasonal closure of Lips Bluff and the Overlook from March 1 to June 30 to protect birds nesting in the area. Many visitors come to the buttes for bird watching (prairie falcon, red tail hawk, golden eagle, lark bunting, and more). Even if that area is closed, you can continue on the main Pawnee Buttes Trail to West Pawnee Butte and East Pawnee Butte.
The second butte, East Pawnee Butte, is on private land; be sure to leave any gates you pass through as you found them. Do not climb on the west butte, east butte, or other surrounding mesas--the ground easily erodes, causing damage to the landscape and danger to the hiker.
Camping at Pawnee National Grassland
Throughout the Pawnee National Grassland, there are options for dispersed camping or staying in a designated campground. Most of the dispersed camping is along the dirt road to Pawnee Buttes Trailhead. If you're selecting a camping spot along this road, be sure to stay only in previously used spot. For a designated campground, consider the Crow Valley Campground, along the eastern section of the grassland closer to Briggsdale and Greeley, Colorado.
Check the Weather and Be Prepared
We've camped in the Pawnee Grassland multiple times and each time there were strong winds and usually a storm right before or during our stay. The county road is typically fine, but the dirt road leading to the trailhead is a bumpy washboard on a good day. After a strong storm, there are large standing puddles, mud, and some severe washouts. Know the capabilities of your vehicle and what to do during a lightning storm.