Pawnee Pioneer Trails
By Carrie Patrick
"There are places and moments
in which one is so completely alone that
one sees the world entire.
-Jules Renard, 1900
Far in the north of Colorado , the plains go on forever. The great blue dome of the sky tents down to the horizon in a vast circle around you, perhaps with a distant windmill nailing it there on the edge of vision-or perhaps nothing but the silhouette of a lone pronghorn antelope.
This is the Pawnee National Grassland.
Let's be honest: this Mini Tour is not for everyone. The young, the thrillseekers, and anyone with a short attention span will be better off going elsewhere. But when the clockspring of your life is wound too tight and you feel the need for solitude, the endless sweep of buffalo grass against serene Colorado skies whispers a subtle call.
"When you get out here, time stops," says Rob Snow, gesturing around at the prairie horizon-a view essentially unchanged from a hundred or a million years ago. Rob is a Californian who came here for a week of prairie time. He likes the fact that "the world feels very far away."
Penny Persson, who has run the 8,000-acre Colorado Cattle Company and guest ranch since 1992, agrees that the solitary beauty of the grasslands takes some getting used to. "People need to make a transition when they visit the prairie. It takes most people a couple of days."
With such caveats in place, it's time to start this Mini Tour, which follows the Pawnee Pioneer Trails Scenic Byway from Greeley to Sterling. Fill your tank, check your spare tire, and pack a lunch and plenty of water. There are almost no towns with services on the Pawnee Grassland, and the only food you'll find along most of the route is still walking around mooing.
As you take Highway 85 north out of Greeley, turn right onto O Street to pick up a detailed map from the Forest Service information center. Cross the railroad tracks and turn right to get back onto the highway.
At Ault, turn onto Highway 14, where the scenic byway begins. You won't see much difference at first. But as the road leads further east, the farms and crowded cattleyards give way to the pure air of the prairies.
A left turn onto County Road 77 at Briggsdale brings you to the first stop, the birdlover's haven of Crow Valley. This beautiful wooded camping area is a true oasis in an otherwise almost treeless land. Three hundred species of birds have been recorded on the Pawnee Grassland, and Crow Valley is an exceptional place to start looking for them. Roll your windows down as you approach the campground, and enjoy-the volume of birdsong in this area is often overwhelming.
In fact, the same goes for much of this tour. Wherever the lack of traffic allows (which is most of the way), open your windows and slow down to a pace which permits the sights, scents and sounds of the grasslands to reach you. The true beauty of this region can't be experienced at speed.
Continue north on County Road 77 until you reach the intersection with County Road 120. Here stands one of the lonely ghosts of the prairie-an abandoned house and ruined barn, sagging crazily to one side as if pushed by a giant hand. Stop and look, but heed potential dangers and do not enter the buildings. In addition, be aware that all artifacts over 50 years old on the prairie are considered historically significant, and must not be disturbed.
Turn right onto 120 and proceed to the little settlement of Grover-population, 153. You'll find a couple of stores here, so stop in for a cold drink if they're open. You can learn about the town's history at the Grover Museum, housed in a brightly painted 1887 railway depot that may be the last surviving building of its type in Colorado.
The depot marks your true departure point from civilization. From here you'll travel into the heart of the Grassland, across open cattle range and vistas of blue grama and buffalo grass to the Pawnee Buttes.
On a recent visit, as my car bumped along the dusty gravel of County Road 390 from Grover, a jackrabbit the size of a dog leaped up from the roadside and bounded into a neighboring field. Other eyes than mine were taking an interest in the jackrabbit-several little faces appeared above the grass, ears perking toward the action like fuzzy satellite dishes as a family of swift foxes weighed up the chance of a rabbit dinner.
As you follow the signposts to the Pawnee Buttes, don't fall into the trap of simply driving. Once the fences disappear, stop the car every now and then. Walk out into the prairie, and just wait and listen. Even the sound of your own breathing seems loud in this world of peace and spacious nature.
Look down: you are standing on 30 million years of Colorado. Once there was an ocean here. Later, people lived and died here, came to lay stone rings for teepees or tracks for railroads, trapping, herding, and finally plowing.
"Grass no good upside down," explained a baffled Pawnee chief to the nineteenth-century settlers-and was proven right when the harrowed fields blew to dust in the 1930s. The relics of those who have passed through the grasslands, from woolly mammoths to cattle barons, are still found today.
Passing an old cemetery-through areas where the cows know they have a right to sleep in the middle of the road-the signposts lead you to a small parking area providing a scenic overlook of the Pawnee Buttes.
There is a cluster of portable toilets here, but no water or other services-unless you feel like sharing the cattle tank beneath the adjacent windmill. Go and take a look at it anyway: the tanks throughout the Pawnee Grassland have a unique feature, a small ramp provided so that birds can climb out of the tank if they fall in while drinking.
The easy 1.5-mile walking trail to the West Butte is well worth a look. Birders will find hawks, eagles, falcons and swallows nesting on the cliffs, and many prairie birds.
For those with the time and inclination, an overnight stay is a special way to experience the prairie. While Crow Valley is the only developed campsite, you can camp anywhere on public land. Far from the city lights, huge stars blaze from a pitch-black sky as coyotes howl and yip in the distance. Waking to what sounds like every bird on Earth singing its heart out, you may wonder how people ever got the idea there's nothing here.
"From sunup to sundown, there's always something happening," says Davel Grigg, who is touring the grasslands the old-fashioned way-by covered wagon, with Pawnee Wagon Train Vacations. "The antelope, the coyotes, the jackrabbits. There's so much life."
"People think it's empty. It isn't," agrees another camper. "It's just that it isn't all there in your face, like we expect these days. You need to stop and look, and then you see it."
When you've stopped, looked and seen, return to your car and follow the blue Scenic Byway markers back to Highway 14 by way of County Roads 110 and 127. From here, you can head east to Sterling or south to Fort Morgan, and complete the tour by heading back west on I-76 along the banks of the South Platte River. The longer option-via Sterling-will still have you completing the Mini Tour in one day of driving, but if you'd like to make a weekend of it, both towns offer a range of accommodations.
While our state's more obvious vistas of natural beauty draw your eye outward, the subtlety of the Pawnee Grassland helps you focus your attention inward. Like the desert, the prairie is not a place for those who are uncomfortable in their own presence. For those who seek peace and do not fear the thoughts that solitude can bring, the book of nature lies open here, its lessons available to the willing.
I ask "Kerosene John" of the Pawnee Wagon Train what the grasslands mean to him. He's one of those significant artifacts we mentioned: over 50 years old, and shouldn't be disturbed when you find one on the prairie.
He offers a quote from Steve McQueen, of all people, which perfectly sums up the strange fascination the quiet places of the world can exert: "I'd rather wake up in the middle of nowhere," he says, "than anywhere else on Earth."
Carrie Patrick is managing editor of EnCompass.
Stop by your local AAA office for a AAA state map, a Colorado & Utah TourBook and a TripTik.
Related Links :
TourBook / CampBook Lookup
(Maps & Directions)