Spring on the Pawnee

Published on March 04, 2022

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Story and photos by Jennifer Finch, Public Information Officer for Weld County.

If you’ve been to the History Colorado Center in downtown Denver, then you’ve been to Weld County…sort of. The Destination Colorado exhibit highlights the Weld County town of Keota in the early 1900s, complete with a homestead, a general store and a virtual ride in a Model T that takes you toward Weld County’s best-known landmarks – the Pawnee Buttes. The exhibit is a great primer to learning about what life was, and is, like on the short-grass prairie of northern Colorado.

But to experience the Pawnee National Grassland (PNG) in person, well, that’s an entirely different type of experience that you and your family won’t soon forget.

Located about an hour north of Greeley, the PNG encompasses more than 193,000 acres of forest service land intermingled with private property, so please grab a map at the U.S. Forest Service Visitor’s Center in Ault before heading out. (Also, make sure to grab some snacks, water and fill your tank with gas as there are no amenities on the grassland.)

Spring on the PNG is really when the area shows off its simple beauty. Once the snow recedes and days grow longer and warmer, visitors to the grassland will be welcomed by green grasses, pronghorn, flowering prickly pear cactus and something that may be a surprise to some visiting an area with very few trees – birds.  A lot of birds.

So many birds, in fact, people from around the world travel to this location for some of the best bird watching around.

The Colorado State Bird, the Lark Bunting, can be found on the PNG, along with its feathered friends including: the Western Meadowlark, Burrowing Owl, Mountain Plover, Vesper Sparrow, Horned Lark, Mourning Doves, Night Hawks, Swainson’s Hawk, and so many more!

A self-guided birding tour on the PNG not only highlights areas where these birds can be found but also provides additional history and context of the area.

2019_JF_PNG_060219_086_w.jpg If the buttes are your destination, then just follow the signs and the gravel roads to what is arguably the most photographed location in Weld County. The Pawnee Buttes, two sandstone buttes that rise 300 feet above the prairie, feature a trail that leads hikers from a parking area (complete with picnic tables and restrooms) to one of the buttes (the other butte is actually on private property). The views are amazing but be mindful of prickly pear cactus and rattlesnakes. And, as with any of Colorado’s beautiful locations, leave it as you found it, pack it in/pack it out, and be respectful of the land and those you meet upon it.

Perhaps the best thing about the PNG, you don’t have to fight the crowds found at a lot of Colorado’s other well-known destinations – it’s our little secret. A visit to the PNG reveals one of those rare places where you can truly get away from the hustle and bustle of people and enjoy some peace and quiet in nature.

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