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 parking area has two new porta-potties but no water, and, imagine this–no fees! (Don’t tell the Forest Service or they are bound to correct the last problem.) 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 mile and a half to the West Butte, another half to the East one.
The foot path takes you down 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.
Beyond the East Butte the land stretches as far as the horizon without a fence, a power line or two-track. Just the way the pioneers saw it. Take a deep, expansive breath before you turn back to town and the rush of the 21st century.
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.