Pawnee Grasslands: A Kingdom Unto Its Own
The distant thunderhead was towering high enough to scrape the moon, which hung in the sky like a silver kite. The onset of dusk painted the westerly side of the storm vermilion; the lightning flashes and thunder-quakes tickled our senses like little chemical jolts, visceral but evanescent.
“Shouldn’t we, um, take cover?” asked my companion, a newcomer to the High Plains.
“David, that thunderstorm is 50 miles away,” I mentioned.
He raised his eyebrows and cast measuring glances to the ground, then the storm, as if he could triangulate the accuracy of my assurance. We were watching evening come calling from the campground in Crow Valley on the Pawnee National Grasslands, and as always in summer on the plains, thunderstorms were patrolling the horizon, fending off the night.
There are hundreds of places in the West with big skies, but none I’ve ever found more so than Colorado’s High Plains grasslands, where a simple breeze is a thousand miles long and thunderstorms a half-county distant loom big enough that neophytes fear they are about to burst overhead. Even when they pass demonstrably out of range eastward, the light show fills the eastern sky, and then the horizon, well past midnight.
For those who have never witnessed the sheer majesty and exotic beauty of a thunderstorm, it seems strange to announce that the possibility of seeing one is a potential highlight of a trip to the grasslands in northeastern Colorado.
But this is a place where most of the rewards are more subtle than they are spectacular, and I’ve found it takes some vigorous advertising to lure friends and family out east into the once-and-maybe-future buffalo commons.
Colorado’s rep is based on high, snowy peaks, tumbling rivers and international ski resorts, not on limitless prairies riven by shoulder-deep gullies, carpeted with thumb-sized grass and scoured by winds born far north.
It’s the kingdom of hawks and eagles; buzzards and owls; falcons and magpies. Since the land lacks much in the way of four-footed hunters, a remarkable proportion of Pawnee birds are predators, evincing the no-nonsense character of the landscape. Coyotes and badgers prowl its reaches.
The wind is its daily melody. The sun bores high overhead in summer, and snow scurries sideways in winter. Guides all advise visitors to make sure their gas tank is full and their spare tire sound, and for once the warning is not alarmist. Tender folk need not apply.
That covers the farmers and ranchers who settled here, most in the late 19th century and early 20th — and most now long gone, driven out east or west by drought, wind, cold, heat and sheer unmitigated solitude. What’s left of what they left — tumble-down barns, old pickups listing leeward, stone, frame and sod homestead houses — slumps ghostly at odd spots that bear no discernible appeal.
I don’t mean to make it sound unattractive. It has a clean, measureless beauty that reaches way back in the visitor’s mind. The campground is in one of the Pawnee’s riparian washes, with gnarled old cottonwoods shading wild rose thickets where cottontails dash for cover and squirrels pitch twigs to the ground. Woodpeckers tap quick rhythms. Meadowlarks ring out their bell-like round. At night, coyotes sing the news from the nearby hills.
After packing up camp the next morning, on a cool dawn with a light breeze in the cottonwoods at breakfast, David and I head off to Pawnee Buttes, the most-visited spot in the grasslands. These two capstone bulwarks loom 300 feet above their surroundings, and were landmarks for Native Americans, trappers and explorers, and then the cattle drovers who came by.
The Texas-Montana cattle trail, a lesser-known cousin of the Chisholm, rolled past just east, and cattle still graze in the valley nearby. James Michener appropriated these landmarks for his book Centennial, renaming them for the rattlesnakes common in the area.
Today a popular trail leads to the foot of the westernmost butte, dropping from a buffalo-grass plateau past sheltered gullies, then back upward to the foot of the butte. Along the way prickly pear cactus enliven the chromatic scheme with butter-yellow blooms, and ground squirrels scamper into rocky abutments.
Though you can’t climb the butte itself, unofficial trails lead partway up its base, through hardscrabble shale, to knobby ledges where it’s rewarding to brush aside the rattlesnakes and perch a few minutes. The smell of sun-warmed sage and dust colors the air. Hawk calls slice the breeze. I like to imagine buffalo hunters, cattle drovers and pioneers nearby, the whispers of history still audible.
You can also ride a bike for what seem infinite miles in open territory on back roads; thorn-proof tires are essential to fend off goatheads and cactus bits. Keen eyes and binoculars are handy for bird watching, though so is simple alertness: it’s possible, on the Pawnee, to drive right by a fencepost and discover the largish raptor sitting on it is a golden eagle, close enough to stare you down when you alight from your car for a minute.
There are 250 different birds here, some seasonal passersby, some hardy year-rounders. One of the most vivid wildlife memories of my life is of rounding a corner in a narrow gulch to come face to face with a simply huge great horned owl roosting in a box elder. Yes, they are that big. And a staring contest is not a wise idea.
Neither is a close encounter with a more modern Pawnee novelty, one of the missile silos that dot the terrain. I thought the federal government had decommissioned most ICBMs, so one day I drove up to one and began peering through the fence at the featureless ground-level concrete pad within.
Five minutes later, a military Jeep materialized from nowhere — there was literally nothing around for 30 miles — and a polite but stern young fellow clambered out. He had the posture of steel girders.
“Sir, may I ask your business here?” he inquired.
I took a moment to notice the two other fellows in the back of his vehicle, both holding automatic weapons in ready position.
“I was just curious. I thought these missiles were all decommissioned.”
“No sir, they’re not,” he replied.
“Let me guess: You aren’t able to tell me what’s in this silo?”
This question elicited the merest flicker of a smile, like a glimpse of a fox at half a mile.
“No, sir, I’m not. And I do have to ask you to move along.”
And so I did, just as virtually everyone else who has ever come here has done. Even the Pawnee and Cheyenne who wandered these plains two centuries ago did not really stay long, preferring the grassy river bottoms of the Platte River forks 50 miles north or south. Nor did the buffalo stay, passing through twice a year.
That’s what I’d do if I could — first in late spring, say, May when the cactus bloom. Then again in late summer, thunderstorm season. Or early October, when the valley cottonwoods are deep gold.
One has to pick a season carefully to be assured of solitude in most outdoor places. But not the Pawnee. Here, almost any day, in any weather, you can drive out on a gravel road to a dirt track, hike a hundred yards, and be certain to hear absolutely nothing but the wind, and the hawks in the wind.
That’s why I advertise a sojourn here as a spiritual adventure. Missile silos not withstanding — even they are lost in the unlimited space — to me it is liberating, opens my heart in a full circle, to stand in the prairie breeze and let all the things I worry about seep out in every direction. Then the wind catches them up and sweeps them away.
If You Go
The Pawnee National Grasslands are about two hours northeast of Denver, via U.S. 85 through Greeley to Ault, then east on Colorado 14.
Crow Valley campground is along Colorado 14 near Keota; it has 14 campsites, water and toilets.
For more information on the grasslands, call the National Forest Service Pawnee Grasslands division at 970-353-5004 or visit www.fs.fed.us.
Lodging is available in Grover at The Plover Inn, 970-895-2275; and nearby, on the grasslands, at West Pawnee Ranch, 970-895-2482, www.westpawneeranch.com.
Eric Lucas, who lived in Colorado for 17 years, now lives in Seattle. He writes for Western Journey, the Los Angeles Times, Alaska Airlines Magazine, National Geographic Traveler and numerous other publications.
From the Editors: We spent a heap of time making sure this story was accurate when it was published, but of course, things can change. Please confirm the details before setting out in our great Centennial State.