A little way off the beaten path, down quite a few miles of dirt roads, this national grassland is the perfect place for a pit stop and a hike. Here’s what you need to know about hiking Pawnee Buttes National Grassland.
Pawnee National Grassland is in Weld County, northeastern Colorado, about 35 miles east of Fort Collins. Eastern Colorado quite unlike the rocky mountain views most expect from this state. In the eastern plains, you’ll experience low, rolling hills and expansive views of flowing grass, cattle, oil rigs, and wind turbines. The Fence Post has an excellent overview of the area’s history.
We stop here on almost every road trip between Arizona and Minnesota. While national parks aren’t always the most dog-friendly places to visit (but Petrified Forest and White Sands are our favorites!), national forests and national grasslands are some of the BEST places to go with your pup!
Getting to the Pawnee Buttes Trailhead
From either direction, you’ll turn from a dirt county road onto more of a two-track dirt road. A few signs are pointing the way there. But I usually rely on Google Maps to guide my way to the trailhead. I got decent cell service through most of the grassland unless I was tucked into a dip between the prairie hills.
Hiking Pawnee Buttes Trail
Pawnee Buttes Trailhead has several covered picnic tables, grills, toilets, and informational signs. The trail is about 4.5 miles roundtrip and relatively easy for most hikers.
Dogs are allowed on the trail but must be on a leash or under voice control at all times. There are free-range cattle in the area, along with plenty of wildlife: coyote, prairie dog, swift fox, mule deer, burrowing owl, pronghorn, rattlesnakes, and more.
From the trailhead parking lot, you’ll pass through a gate to begin the trail. After that, you’ll come to a short trail forking off to the right for a lovely view of Lips Bluff. Continuing on the main trail, you’ll cross in front of Lips Bluff. Eventually, you’ll drop down between Lips Bluff and Overlook escarpment. Here you’ll notice a slight change in this semi-arid landscape, with more trees and bushes sprouting up along the washes.
Along the backside, after your hike up out of the washes, you can hike up onto Lips Bluff. There is a seasonal closure of Lips Bluff and the Overlook from March 1 to June 30 to protect birds nesting in the area. Many visitors come to the buttes for bird watching (prairie falcon, red tail hawk, golden eagle, lark bunting, and more). Even if that area is closed, you can continue on the main Pawnee Buttes Trail to West Pawnee Butte and East Pawnee Butte.
The second butte, East Pawnee Butte, is on private land. Be sure to leave any gates you pass through as you found them. Additionally, do not climb on the west butte, east butte, or other surrounding mesas. The ground easily erodes, causing damage to the landscape and danger to the hiker.
Camping at Pawnee National Grassland
Throughout the Pawnee National Grassland, there are options for dispersed camping or staying in a designated campground. Most of the dispersed camping is along the dirt road to Pawnee Buttes Trailhead. If you’re selecting a camping spot along this road, be sure to stay only in a previously used site. For a designated campground, consider the Crow Valley Campground, along the eastern section of the grassland closer to Briggsdale and Greeley, Colorado.
Check the Weather and Be Prepared When Hiking Pawnee Buttes National Grassland
We’ve camped in the Pawnee Grassland multiple times, and each time there were strong winds and usually a storm right before or during our stay. The county road is typically passable, but the dirt road leading to the trailhead is a bumpy washboard on a good day. After a strong storm, there are large standing puddles, mud, and some severe washouts. Know the capabilities of your vehicle and what to do during a lightning storm.
Additionally, the weather can get quite warm. Be sure to bring plenty of water along during your hiking. Check out these dog bowls for hiking if you need one for your pup!