Any resource highlighting the best hiking trails in Colorado will point due west, taking explorers to the mountains. But some locals know of another great hike that is due east.
Pawnee Buttes, two bluffs approximately 70 miles east of Fort Collins, rise out of the open land as the centerpiece of Pawnee National Grasslands. The 1.5-mile Pawnee Buttes Trail takes hikers to the first butte located within the 193,060 acres of protected land in Weld County. The second butte is on private land.
Visit early and watch the sun rise before heading out to the buttes. This experience provides the best way to absorb the beauty and expansive views of the area, as the air is cool, the wind is mellow, the colors are spectacular and the coyotes are calling. The parking lot and Pawnee Buttes trailhead face east, providing a fantastic viewpoint to watch the sun rise behind the buttes.
Rising a little more than 300 feet above the open prairie, the two buttes have served as landmarks for centuries to American Indians and settlers. But for hikers today, this area offers astounding views, excellent opportunities for wildlife viewing and spectacular varieties of wildflowers.
Late May through the end of June offers the best opportunity to see a vast array of flora. To get the full wildflower experience at Pawnee Buttes, start at the Pawnee Buttes trailhead, take the trail down into the valley and then follow the dry wash, being cognizant of potential downpours. Flowers such as pink locoweed grow prolifically along the walls and in the shady patches. Climb back up to the bluff where the flora changes to more wind-proof varieties such as prickly gilia and hooker desert sandwort and then follow the trail to the buttes.
While hiking out to the buttes, watch for short-horned lizards along the trail; for eagles, hawks and falcons in the sky; and pronghorn antelope off in the distance.
The Pawnee Buttes Trail is open year-round, but the overlook, Lips Bluff and 200 yards from the bottom of Lips Bluff are closed March 1 to June 30 to protect the nesting sites of birds of prey.
There is no cost for use of the area and dogs are permitted on the trails. Bring plenty of water and sunscreen, especially if you visit mid-day or during the summer. Plan on a 90-minute drive. Once you pass Ault, services are minimal.