Has winter cramped your soul, crumpled it up like a wadded piece of paper stuffed into your chest? Do you just need to get out? But where to go in April, with the high country still in snow?
Try Pawnee Buttes. These two rugged outliers stand away from the retreating bluff, their capstone roofs towering in the sky. The northern Colorado National Grasslands offer enough space to stretch your legs and open your heart.
This great little hike begins with a good drive. Gas up, as there are few services in this part of the world. While there may be a faster way, the shortest and most picturesque from Cheyenne, WY takes you on Campstool Road, past the Wyoming Hereford ranch. You’re following the bed of the old Colorado & Wyoming Railroad, built in 1887 to tie Cheyenne to Sterling.
Past Carpenter turn south to Hereford, Colorado. Be careful at Hereford. At a confusing intersection take the gravel road to Grover. From there the “Pawnee Buttes” signs will guide you in.
On the sixty mile drive to the buttes you’ll find your breathing easier, with the ranchettes behind you, steadily moving on to big country, checking out the little towns that refuse to blow away. Beyond Grover stretches a vast wind farm, really a “wind ranch“, blades churning to the horizon, taking their little tax on the current of power flowing invisibly overhead.
The Buttes themselves aren’t visible until you reach the trailhead parking area. The two stand out from Lips Bluff, ruling over the prairie, as tall as massive 20 story buildings. Each has a double cap of limestone, stoutly sheltering the soft sandstone of their bases, holding out against the steady erosion of the larger world. (They remind me of many Wyomingites I know.)
The new parking and picnic area has beautiful tables with shelters, interpretive signs and the finest pit toilet you’ll ever see but no water, and, imagine this–no fees! If you are on a return visit you will notice that the old parking area is closed off, requiring a longer walk to the Buttes.
You can take your dogs, on leash. But don’t expect solitude on weekends. This is a popular spot. I doubt if you’ll feel crowded.
You’ll be eager to hit the trail. It’s about a two miles to the West Butte, another half to the East one.
The foot path takes you across the highlands to a broad gap through the badlands of Lips Bluff, a favorite nesting site of raptors. Last month I watched an American Kestrel stoop upon its small prey. I was listening for a sonic boom but all I heard was the “killy-killy-killy” of their cry. A prairie falcon stared down from the West Butte. You may see golden eagles, ferruginous and Swainson’s hawks.
The trail is open year ‘round but the Bluff is wisely off limits from March 1through June 30 to let the birds nest, raising their chicks in peace.
While the West Butte stands like a great courthouse, with dun colored walls and a Chinese roof, the East looks like a great bell placed on the ground. The trail between the buttes crosses private land but foot access is allowed. A narrow path around the East one is passable but is somewhat high and quite unstable. To the right of it is a maze of deep gullies, just sized for people or hobbits, winding to some reward. Primary school kids would love these passages.
A monster of an industrial drill rig is churning a hole more than 6,000 feet deep into the earth just east of the site. It does take away from the pristine wonder of the place.
Pointers: There is a faint trail around the base of the West Butte also. It is low and safe, and if you loose it, no problem. This is short grass prairie and you really don’t need a trail here at all.
I’ve been told that the grill in Hereford makes the best hamburgers around but it’s closed on Sundays so I’ve never tried it.
(P.S. There is a way to the top of the east, bell-shaped butte, without ropes, but it is extremely dangerous. The two walls that must be climbed are not rock at all but a compressed clay that crumbles and gives little hand hold. The climb down is far more risky and frightening than the climb up because it is impossible to see where your feet should be placed on the way down. So, with my injunctions not to attempt this, here’s how. At the east Butte take the path up the scree and then follow it around the Butte to the left. When you reach the north side there is a broken area where you can scramble up to the first big wall. Carved into the wall are steps to climb up. Only at the top of the wall are decent hand holds of limestone. Above this wall circle to the left until you reach the south side. Again there is a break to scramble up and a few cut steps to climb the shorter, upper wall. Then you are on top. At the end of the photos is a shot of the first wall, although without a person in place there is no perspective. There is also a shot from the top. For more and better pictures see: http://www.summitpost.org/climbing-the-east-butte/288304/c-287602)