Pawnee is one of 20 grasslands throughout the western Great Plains that were established after the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. The goal was to initiate a grassland recovery effort after intense farming led to soil erosion that devastated the land and farming families. Since then, biodiversity here has expanded and now has many birds, mammals, reptiles, insects, amphibians, and fish. During the breeding season, Pawnee is home to the regionally endemic Mountain Plover and Thick-billed Longspur. Colorado’s state bird, the Lark Bunting, arrives in May in dense flocks — quite the spectacle. You may even catch a glimpse of a Golden Eagle snatching a jackrabbit for breakfast.
Don’t miss the Pawnee Buttes, the most notable geologic feature of the grasslands. Stop at the trailhead and hike among the badland-like formations; you’ll probably see Say’s Phoebe, Cliff Swallow, or Rock Wren.
I love living and working in the prairie. Wayne Fields, in a 1988 essay in American Heritage magazine, wrote this about the ecosystem: “The prairie, in all its expressions, is a massive, subtle place, with a long history of contradiction and misunderstanding. But it is worth the effort at comprehension. It is, after all, at the center of our national identity.”
Grassland with some playas (ephemeral wetlands); minimal shrubs.
Mainly flat and level, perfect for walking or driving. Roads can be muddy after a rain. Trails are located at the Pawnee Buttes located on the east side of the grassland.
More than 300 species. Summer: Mountain Plover and Burrowing Owl among the prairie-dog towns, Lark Bunting, Thick-billed and Chestnut-collared Longspurs, Western Meadowlark, Lark Sparrow, Long-billed Curlew, Loggerhead Shrike, Horned Lark, Swainson’s, Red-tailed and Ferruginous Hawks, Prairie Falcon, Northern Harrier, Golden Eagle, American Kestrel, Wilson’s Phalarope, American Avocet, and Long-billed Dowitcher. Winter: Raptors abundant, including Golden Eagle, Rough-legged and Red-tailed Hawks, American Kestrel.
When to go
March and April for Mountain Plover. May and June for migrants, especially mornings or evenings. Winter for raptors.
Educational kiosks, viewing platforms, and restrooms located at Pawnee Buttes trailhead only. Bring plenty of food and water. More information available at Forest Service office at 115 North 2nd Ave. Ault, CO, (970) 834-9270. Crow Valley Campground is nearby.
National grassland. No fees; open daily. Stay on Forest Service property and only drive on roads that have a USFS marker. Keep off private ranches.
Open to the public for hunting and recreational target shooting, so be alert. Check with the office for more information: (970) 834-9270.