High Plains Drifting – Pawnee Buttes, Pawnee National Grasslands

The areas in the outdoors I seem to gravitate towards are the austere and desolate places. Places such a the high alpine areas of the mountains. The red rock country of the Colorado Plateau. And add to this place the High Prairie of Colorado.


The trip for this weekend was a camping and hiking trip to the Pawnee Buttes located in the Pawnee National Grassland.

Besides being known for the Pawnee Buttes, this is area is where James Michener set the historical fiction novel Centennial. The “Rattlesnake Buttes” in the novel are actually the Pawnee Buttes. The fictional town of Centennial itself is an amalgamation of such nearby towns as Stirling and Ault. Finally, Michener visited the town of Keota, CO while researching the novel. Keota, which aptly translates to “The fire goes out“, served as the basis for the fictional places in the novel that became ghost towns. Throughout the immediate area, there are also many other semi-ghost towns as well.

Why the ghost towns? Between the ending of the cattle railroad lines in post-World War II and the devastation brought by The Dust Bowl , many plots of land were abandoned. From this abandoned land, parcels were bought by the federal government, the land recovered and a national grassland was set aside.

All in all, a trip to the Pawnee National Grassland has much beauty, a deep history and a place that has inspired a best selling novel (and mini-series). Some hiking and mountain biking can be done, a little exploring in the prairie and apparently some world-class birding.

The trip started off Saturday morning as someone and I made it past Ft. Collins and immediately noticed the change in terrain. The high plains started to stretch before us and true farming country began.

As we drove the dirt roads in the grasslands, we started noticing homes from The Dust Bowl-era:


To think this area supported many people all in thriving communities. Now there are remnants of past dreams and hopes.

We arrived at trail head for the Pawnee Buttes. Only a few cars were present as we began our relaxing five mile ‘hike’ (more of a stroll, really).

The Buttes, though only a few hundred feet off the prairie, dominate the landscape.



This area was once in a shallow sea during the Cretaceous period. As such, fossils can be found if someone has the eye for it. (I do not; someone does!)


Look closely and you can see the impressions of an ancient fish

After the hike, we sat on the tailgate. someone and I gazed upon the expansive terrain around us.



After this navel gazing, we drove along the road and found one of the many ample sites that make for a suitable camp. With the exception of a few area, camping is allowed anywhere on public land.


We found a spot overlooking the Buttes and had it all to ourselves. Looking back from where I was taking some photos, I could not help but chuckle. It looked like a Chevy truck commercial! (Except I doubt Chevy used circa-1999 S-10 pickups in their new ads!!! )

Not a bad view from camp… (Note: We did not use the firewood. Too dry and windy to take the chance!)

The sunset from our campsite was amazing. Seeing the sun set over the expansive plains with the distant Rockies forming a backdrop? Well…I’ll let the photo say it all:

The night sky was amazing as well. Gazing up from our sleeping bags, the Milky Way painted a streak across the sky.

And the sunrise from our truck bivy? I’ll let the photo say it all again….

someone and I had a leisurely morning as we made breakfast and packed up. We enjoyed our time in the Grassland.

It is not a place I will go back to frequently….but it is a place we will come to again. A place of austere beauty, deep history and cultural roots. A place of solitude and wide, open spaces. And yes, we did see some antelope play….

We’ll be back.

All the photos…

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Permanent Drifter
Permanent Drifter
13 years ago

Thank you for a very sympathetic view of our area. Our home lies twenty miles below the Buttes and they are framed by our kitchen window. You are very correct about the Sonoma and the background, it looks like a magazine ad from not long ago. Thank you, also, for not using the firewood, as it was very dry this last summer and fall. I was wondering what house that was: do you remember the County Road? I don’t recognize it, are you out back? But great photos.

13 years ago

This is a TERRIFIC website !!!!
BEAUTIFUL photos !!!

robbie (NC resident, now in the mid-west)

12 years ago

I’m so glad you took the time to see this spectacular part of Colorado. Growing up I traveled Hwy 14 with my family more times than I can possibly remember. My father always made sure we had an appreciation for the plains. It is seldom that you will find a “non-flatlander” that can find the beauty, or will even take the time to see what those of us who grew up with it see. Now that I have returned to Colorado i still drive 14 as often as possible and can see the beauty in every curve, as seldom as… Read more »