Ten million years ago the high plains of Colorado had about 300 feet of sedimentary rock on top of the current level of the ground. Nearly all of that soft sedimentary rock has since eroded away. In the north-central part of the state, a few areas of harder Ogallala Formation sandstone capped and protected the softer stone underneath. One of these places is the Pawnee Buttes. These mounds of rock remain as some of the last fragments of the old high prairie landscape, now mostly washed out to sea. They are an evocative landmark that makes a beautiful and easy hiking destination that is not too far from Denver and the northern front range cities.
Located deep within the Pawnee National Grassland, the Pawnee Buttes are a prime destination for visitors to this beautiful area. Driving through the grassland, which is a checkerboard of protected federal land and private property, there is much evidence of both the long history of ranching as well as the current boom in wind energy and oil and gas development. The parking area has picnic shelters, restrooms, and some informative displays as well as a nice distant view of the buttes. The trail to the buttes is quite scenic with gentle rolling hills, white cliffs that are important raptor nesting areas, and increasingly close views of the buttes themselves. Just a short distance from the trailhead there is a spur leading to an overlook of the buttes. The main trail soon loses sight of the buttes and winds around the cliffs and through some rugged washes to reach the floor of the prairie where the buttes again come into view. The trail leads to the base of the west butte and continues another three-quarters of a mile toward the east butte where it reaches the boundary of the park and private property.
Note: The Pawnee Buttes Trail is open year round, but much of the area adjacent to the trail is closed from March 1 to June 30 to protect the nesting raptors. Needless to say, this makes the trail a great birding destination during this time.