Pawnee National Grassland is one of the few places you can go to see Colorado’s natural prairie landscape. It’s located east of Fort Collins in the plains by Ault, CO.
The designated grassland preserves and promotes the natural prairie landscape, which is nearly farmland everywhere else. The land is mostly flat with some rolling hills, bluffs, and buttes. There’s not much water in the grassland, though there are a few seasonal creeks. Afternoon and evening lightning storms are common in the summer, and they can get very windy.
A lot of the land around the grasslands is open to the public; however, a lot of it is also private. The main attraction is probably the Pawnee Buttes, two small mesas that rise strikingly around the expansive flat plains. The Crow Creek area is a popular birding site, and a designated OHV area on Main Draw is another highlight.
Map of Pawnee National Grassland
Map of 11 national forests and 2 grasslands.
The Pawnee National Grassland is divided into two units. The Crow Valley Unit is the western chunk, located northeast of Greely and near Ault. The Pawnee Unit is the eastern chunk, located north of Fort Morgan and east of Sterling. Both units are also relatively easy to access from Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Biking is a great way to experience what Pawnee National Grassland is all about, especially in the Main Draw area. Though ATVs frequent the draw, mountain bikers can find plenty to launch off of. Horseback Riding is also allowed on most parts of the grassland; please check with the local ranger office for the latest rules and regulations.
The main hiking attraction of the grassland is the Pawnee Buttes, two iconic and stark topographic rises in an otherwise rolling landscape. A trail heads to an overlook near the base of the buttes (climbing them is forbidden because of raptor nesting) and takes in some of the geological oddities of the area.
Like Comanche National Grassland to the south, Pawnee has some exquisite birding. There are hundreds of species that call the grassland home, including Colorado’s state bird, the Lark Bunting. The Chalk Bluffs and Crow Valley have been singled out as some of the best spots to conduct a self-guided bird tour.
Some of the more interesting bird species include Golden Eagles, Nighthawks, Grouse, Horned Larks, Sparrows, Burrowing Owl, Red-headed Woodpeckers, Magpies, Lark Bunting, and Gray Catbirds. With over 300 individual species identified in the area, Pawnee is a birding mecca.
Dispersed camping is permitted on many of the roads within the park. The most concentrated section is around the Pawnee Buttes; you just need to look for existing fire rings. Make sure to look out for private property signs; there are quite a few private inholdings within the grassland.
Without much tree cover, be prepared for it to be rather windy at night. It’s also a great place to catch a lightning show in the distance.
Crow Valley is the one established campground within the grassland, located in the southern part of the grassland, close to Greeley. The campground has plenty of tall trees and a baseball diamond. You can also rent out the Stewart J. Adams Education Site for large groups.
Read about the camping near Greeley and Pawnee National Grassland.
There are several seasonal streams that run through the area though fishing is not a particularly popular activity in the grasslands. If you do find a fishable section of Pawnee or Crow Creek, the two most likely candidates, make sure to follow all forest service rules and regulations.
Main Draw is the only designated OHV site in the grasslands. Dirtbikes, ATVs, and off-road vehicles less than 50 inches wide (and equipped with a spark arrester) can utilize the area. The draw is a roughly two-mile-long gully with ample opportunity for motorized recreation. The OHV season runs from November 1 through April 9; after that, access is restricted.
A national scenic byway, Pawnee Pioneer Trails runs through part of the grasslands, including the Buttes. The byway was created to highlight the High Plains, a favorite hunting ground for various Native American tribes like the Pawnee, and ultimately, home to one of many wagon trains that took American families west in the 1800s.
US 85 and state roads 71 and 77 all traverse or border the grasslands. While many of the roads out here don’t lend themselves to astoundingly dramatic views, the chances of catching several of the hundreds of bird species along these remote stretches are quite high. As you drive through the area, keep your eyes peeled for birds and wildlife.
The Pawnee National Grassland has a surprising amount of diverse flora and fauna. Due to the sunny, warm, and lower elevations of the grassland, many varieties of snakes call the area home. Prairie dogs, coyotes, pronghorn, foxes, American badger, and rabbits are common.
When photographing or sighting wildlife, make sure you give animals a large amount of space, especially the resident predators like the prairie rattlesnake. Because of the open, expansive terrain, it’s easier to appreciate nature from afar without running into situations that may result in injury.
Pawnee National Grassland is expansive and largely treeless. There are riparian areas near Crow and Pawnee Creek that support trees, but short prairie grasses dominate the surround. When visiting, make sure you have an updated motor use vehicle map, plenty of gas, water, and sunscreen.
If you time and a hankering to visiting the southern Colorado plains, consider stopping by Comanche National Grassland near La Junta.
Address: 115 North 2nd Ave., Ault, CO 80610
Motor Vehicle Use Maps: