(Note: This is a great hike and activity to do with kids aged 9 and up.)
Location: Northeast Colorado, approximately 55 miles north of Ft. Morgan
Directions: From Denver: Take I-76 to Ft. Morgan. From Ft. Morgan, exit on Main Street and CO 52 (exit number 75). Turn left (north) on CO 52. Go 25 miles to CO 14 and turn left (east) to road 390. Turn right (north) on 390. Weld County Road 105 is the first right angling off Road 390 just past Keota. Stay on it until it dead ends into County Road 112. Turn right, and when you cross a cattle guard, you’ll see the first sign directing you to the Pawnee Buttes. The signs for the Pawnee Buttes are small and brown and could be easy to miss if you’re not paying attention. Follow the signs to the trailhead. It’s 18 miles trip from CO 14 to the Buttes, all on gravel roads.
To reach the Pawnee Buttes from Ft. Collins, Loveland or Boulder, consult a map to see the best route to CO 14 and go from there. You may need to take US 34 east to I-76 or CO 14 east.
Duration: 1-1/2 hours
Access Notes: The gravel roads to the Buttes are completely passable by passenger car. This hike is best done in late spring, around May 25- June 10th when it’s not too hot and prairie wildflowers are in bloom. This is a completely exposed hike with no real shade. Be mindful of forecasted thunderstorms, as this area is prone to hail and tornadoes in spring and summer. It’s best to go as early as possible in the morning to avoid the worst weather. There are no facilities at the Buttes, and the nearest food and gas is at least 20 miles away, so pack food and water for your hike. Dogs are allowed on leash.
Although two of the trails are closed March 1- June 30 to protect nesting birds, the main Buttes Trail is open from the parking lot. This is an easy 1-1/2 mile hike each way with barely any elevation gain or loss, however, the first quarter mile descends down into a shallow canyon where water has eroded sandstone walls. Junipers, yucca and a variety of prairie grasses and wildflowers grow along the sandy trail. You’re very likely to see and hear several varieties of larks and grasshoppers from your car on the way to the Buttes and along the trail. You may also encounter pronghorns (a type of antelope), lizards, and snakes.
The grass prairies were referred to by early settlers as a “sea of grass”. If you come in spring or summer, you may feel as if you’re indeed afloat on an endless green sea as the wind creates undulating waves in the grass and there are no obvious signs of civilization for miles from certain vantage points. It’s just you, the green waves, and the vast sky above. If you come on a weekday morning, you may be the only person around for miles. This is a different kind of wilderness than the kind in the mountains and foothills of Denver and Boulder.
To the west and not far away, you will see a wind turbine farm with its graceful and towering white blades rising over the hills and rotating soundlessly. The juxtaposition of the prairie and the wind turbines is the intersection of the timeless and the modern, the past and future together.
Unlike the claustrophobic feel of a thickly-forested mountain trail, where you imagine predators such as cougars and bears silently watching, here you experience the opposite: an aloneness and quiet that is broken only by the tootee-tooteleedee of a meadowlark and the long swishhhhh of the wind combing the grass.
The Buttes rise up mysteriously out of these soft swells of grass. They’re steep, chalky and rough. The rock is brittle like pressed sand, so you have to be careful where you step as you approach the formations. You imagine these buttes having been tall dunes at some point in the past, or something softer that has since weathered and hardened, and then eroded into a steeper formation from wind and rain.
The beauty of this place is in its unbroken, green landscape and sense of expansiveness. The sky here is as wide as the ground, and invites you to imagine a time when there were no houses, no power lines, no cows and no cars—only grass, bison and small clusters of tee-pees where Plains Indians went about their lives. You almost expect to look up at the horizon and see a group of Pawnees sitting on horses, dressed for the hunt, feathers and ribbons of leather rippling in the breeze. You wonder what it must have been like to feel the deep rumble of a herd of a hundred thousand bison migrating across the hills instead of the distant rumble of an airplane. The solitude and silence was once unbroken for hundreds of square miles. When you visit the Pawnee National Grasslands or the Buttes, It’s easy to contemplate a different kind of life and a different relationship with the land here, both now and so many years ago.
The Value and Sacredness of Land
Before white settlers populated the west, there were at least 700 million acres of prairie in the western United States. Large grazing animals such as bison, elk and antelope roamed the grasslands. Native grasses such as switchgrass, buffalo grass and blue gamma grass grew thick and lush because they were species that evolved to need very little water in areas that get as little as 15 inches of precipitation per year.
Currently, untouched prairie represents a tiny fraction of what once was a “sea of grass” that extended from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains. In the last 200 years, the prairie has been turned into ranchland, agriculture, and urban areas covered by roads and strip malls. This conversion from land that once was legally owned by no one, not even the Native American tribes that populated the riverbanks and hunted in its expanses, to land that was plowed, covered and sold for profit originated with the way the law was constructed by America’s Founding Fathers. The last phrase contained in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution states that, “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” This paradigm that land could be bought and sold and owned privately was a construct that shaped the landscape of America.
Native Americans saw the land in terms of ecosystems and areas where bison would migrate, where rivers would flow, where grasses and timber could be gathered to make shelter and where they could count on sustaining their livelihood year after year. The animals that lived there were seen as spirit guides. If a young man saw a certain animal during a vision quest, that animal would become his source of wisdom and inspiration his entire life. Bison were viewed as sacred because their flesh enabled entire villages to thrive, clothe themselves and survive long, harsh winters.
While Native Americans saw the land as sacred—a place that could sustain generations of families with everything they needed to live and thrive, both physically and spiritually—white settlers and homesteaders saw the land as an economic opportunity.
When pioneers and homesteaders arrived in the West, they dreamed of converting the land they acquired into a personal fortune. The government and industry laid down a map of the West and divided the prairie into even squares, measuring one mile by one mile, or 640 acres. Each square was then subdivided into smaller squares and sold or given away. No consideration was given to the migration of animals or the viability of certain areas for farming or grazing. The question of whether there was enough rain each year to grow anything other than native grasses was dismissed, and acre after acre was plowed, wells and irrigation canals excavated, and non-native livestock brought in to graze. The value of the land was measured in how much profit it could generate and what could be extracted from it. It certainly didn’t hold the same value to pioneers and American industry that it held to Natives.
Native Americans saw this mathematical dissection of land as white people’s insanity. They didn’t understand how a person or a community could survive by limiting themselves to just a few acres, without the ability to track game or move to different regions in summer and winter. They didn’t understand how a person could claim to own a piece of land, to the exclusion of everyone else. While it’s true that they themselves fought over the best hunting and farming grounds, there were no such things as “For Sale” signs, realtors or title companies in Native American culture. The land belonged to all people, and the people belonged to the land.
This view of land as having economic, versus intrinsic or ecological value, is a notion that is ingrained in our Western culture. It is ingrained in our thinking whether we agree with it or not. We view colorful, lush lands with scenic vistas as having more value than arid lands with less-than-enchanting landscapes. We view cities with complex architecture as having more value than an empty lot covered in weeds. In fact, the mere notion that driving out to the Pawnee National Grasslands and thinking, “There’s nothing out here” is a symptom of our Western paradigm. What is the “something” that would make this area more valuable in our mind? Bustling industry? Large homes on manicured lawns? Stores and streets? Pump jacks?
A Native American of 300 years ago would look at this prairie and say that everything is here. Everything that he needs to survive and live happily is contained in this sea of grass. The value of land is not some arbitrary number a developer or government places on it, but its value to the animals, to the tribe, to the nation. It is the value of beauty and abundance and ecological balance. It is the value of all life that is sustained there. It is priceless.
The first thing to do as you begin your hike is to ask yourself what kinds of thoughts were running through your head as you drove out to this area of Colorado. Did you find yourself placing value on the land in the sense of the Western paradigm or the indigenous paradigm? Or a little of both?
Consider the adjectives you would use to describe the area around the Pawnee Buttes. (Is it lush, vast, empty, quiet, economically depressed, abandoned, thriving?)
As you begin hiking down the canyon and toward the Buttes, imagine a time several hundred years ago when this wasn’t an established trail or land owned by the U.S. government. Imagine spending several days or weeks here by yourself, living in a leather tent with a generous ration of food and water. What relationship would you have to the land in that situation—meaning, how would you feel about your time here and what would you do?
Now imagine living here for the same period of time without a ration of supplies. How would your relationship to the land change?
Considering these differences, why do you think it’s so easy for most Americans to buy and sell property or move from place to place?
Can you see why the way we place value on land may have something to do with how we treat land and the animals that live there?