Rocky Mountain National Park
and the Pawnee National Grasslands
July 16-21, 2011
Days 1-2: Juneau - the Rockies; riding into Wild Basin (RMNP)
Day 3: Thunder Lake: hiking to the continental divide
Day 4: Exploring and riding out of Wild Basin; driving to the RMNP alpine
Day 5: Exploring and camping in the Pawnee National Grasslands
Day 6: Hiking to the Pawnee Buttes and home
Pawnee National Grasslands
Our second morning waking up at Allenspark Lodge,
gratified our hosts by having breakfast with them (which is apparently
important tradition). This turned out to be a rather bizarre
experience. The proprietress, who clearly prides herself in being
amazing host, broke the number one rule of hosting: everything was
her. We were told to sit down, told how to pass the dishes
which was in itself inappropriate) and were then held captive while we
ate her breakfast and listened to her espouse on what were clearly two
topics: how rental car agencies rip off their customers via toll road
(which might have been a new topic) and...horses. The former
entertained a few comments from the guests, but once the topic of
broached, it was her show. Not that she was talking about
was talking about horses, but there was no stopping her and she clearly
consider whether her audience was interested, or may actually know what
talking about already. There was no moment for the audience to
participate. Two people were able to escape with the excuse that
to catch a flight, but my mother and I and another mother and daughter
than us) grimly waited until we were excused. Our hostess, who
seemed to lose her bitterness towards my mother and I (we both felt it
when we didn't take her up on a soak in the hot tub when we arrived at
first night--exacerbated by our failure to show up at breakfast at 9:00
next morning (she packed us bag breakfasts instead)) never asked us
about ourselves and failed to encourage conversation around the table
in any way. Anyone who works in tourism knows how important it is
to establish who they are for context. After all, maybe my job is
round up mustangs for the BLM! Plus, I for one was curious what
mother and daughter pair were up to (the daughter appeared high school
but there was little opportunity to get a word in edgewise and I was
get on the road. I even wanted to ask the hostess a question
wild horses (whether any of them had stripes on their legs), but
gave up the battle to find an opening. Before we left I glanced
some of the entries in our room's journal and noticed several comments
the lines of "I learned so much about horses." Ha!
We left around 9:00, driving down out of the mountains. The craggy hillsides and rushing creek grown up with cottonwoods were still lovely, but had lost some of their stunning beauty in light of the amazing scenery we'd seen over the previous three days. We stopped by Walmart again for fresh food supplies and water, then headed toward Greely and the Pawnee Grasslands ranger station. The address was in a business complex, so it was tricky to track down, but mapquest served us well and we parked nearby, walking the rest of the way to.......the office of an accounting firm (or something of that sort). Apparently we weren't the first ones to be so misled from the bold inaccuracy of a web site (apparently not the official one). Thankfully, a friendly staff member came out to give us clear directions, which were written down in meticulous handwriting by the clerk. And so we were off again and shortly found the real ranger station. The ranger inside showed us a bunch of brochures, including the "Birding the Pawnee Grasslands" guide, but warned us that heavy rains had recently washed out most of the roads in it (which are only in a small corner of one of the two sections of grassland). Toward the end I cautiously asked her if we might see any pronghorn (my other wildlife goal of the trip) and she gave a definitive yes and showed us an area where we were most likely to see them. Anxious to get to the actual grasslands, we extricated ourselves and set out, noticing the land become increasing sparse with fewer fields and buildings as we passed along the southern edge of it. We saw many short sections of evergreens planted in rows of three or four paralleling the road on the north side, which turned out to be an experiment in growing natural snow barriers. At last we reached the Crow Valley Campground (having noted that it took 20 minutes to drive the entire southern edge of the western section of grasslands), changed into shorts and light tops (the heat was suddenly daunting), and ate Subway sandwiches under the shade of a dense grove of cottonwoods inhabited by a surprising number of picnic tables. Our plan was to start there (where the groves of cottonwoods and other trees along a streambed make for good birdwatching), located at the southeast corner of the western square of grasslands, then explore from there. While eating I watched some kind of stunning jays and was awed by their vivid, striking markings. It didn't take long for my mother to figure out that they were BLUE JAYS. The real thing. Who knew they were so darned exotic looking? From there we found the birding trail, which wound its way in the grass between pockets of dense shrubs and lone cottonwoods. It was hot and quiet except for the birds and quite pleasant right up until the myriad mosquitoes found us. Somehow I did not associate mosquitoes with the prairie, but this was near water and it had been raining. They were intense. We saw lots of robin-like birds with fancy markings on their faces like varied thrushes that we have yet to identify (regional variant of the American robin, perhaps?). We also soon began seeing (and hearing) a very flashy yellow-bellied bird with a dark stripe through the eye, some of which were nesting in the cottonwoods and evidently feeding their young. We later identified these guys as western kingbirds, a whole new kind of bird for us. Just about everything, in fact, was new. We also saw wrens, rabbits, common nighthawks (already feeding early in the afternoon), and other unidentified birds. My mother was rewarded for her perseverance with an oriole, but I had fled back to the car to escape the mosquitoes by then. We had insect repellant, but hadn't put any on!
The campground was pleasant enough, but was vastly overshadowed by the beauty of the prairie that surrounded it. We turned north on highway 77 to check out one section of the birding road, first stopping for an American kestrel on a telephone wire and nearly getting run over by a semi truck for our efforts (which were quite common on the paved roads that border the grasslands). As soon as we turned onto the grasslands road, however, everything changed. Suddenly to either side of us was nothing but rolling shortgrass prairie and blue sky, the roadsides lined with bright sunflowers. There were no other cars. That road, like all other roads in the grasslands, was a little wider than one lane, and made of solid, well-graded dirt. Except where they were washed out! The ranger had told us that the road we were on was intact, but at the first birding stop in the guide (indicated by a kiosk and a numbered sign) the road had washed out and dropped over a foot into the bottom of the wash. Pools of standing water alongside were supposed to attract curlews, so we scoured the area to no avail. We did, however, see a number of killdeer, a flock of sandpiper-like shorebirds, and lots of stout black songbirds with white wing patches which turned out to lark buntings (abundant all over the grasslands). There was also a herd of cattle! Even the public portions of the grassland are managed for multiple uses, including grazing cattle. We got our fill of this spot and drove back to highway 77 to find another way into the grasslands, this time spotting a northern harrier hawk on the power lines. We decided that it was just as well that the roads on the birding guide were closed from flooding, as following the guide only led to expectations that were likely to be dashed. We agreed that we'd rather explore and discover what there was to see rather than seek out anything particular. Of course, we both had hopefuls, but no real expectations.
The next best road to enter the grasslands was back west a little and happened to be another leg of the birder's route; we drove along it and decided to pull out to read an interpretive sign (we're both suckers for interpretive signage). The sign was about curlews, and it turned out to be another stop on the birding route; our brochure said we should also look for burrowing owls, so we glassed the area. Sure enough there was a prairie dog town and we saw black-tailed prairie dogs peering at us from the tops of their burrows. And then I saw a small bird fly up from the ground and onto a fence post. Serious scrutiny revealed it to be a burrowing owl (long legs, short wings, small body, round face). We watched him for some time as he repeatedly flew short distances to the ground nearby and then back onto the fencepost. We could hardly be disappointed with the birding after that!
And so we drove farther into the grasslands. Perhaps at this point a description of the area would be useful! Long story short, the U.S. government bought private chunks of land in this area of Colorado (northeast, near the South Platte River) during the Great Depression, as the already-arid land was not panning out for folks. Of course, not everyone sold, so public land remained interspersed with private land throughout the area. Eventually the public land was turned over to the Forest Service and the Pawnee National Grasslands was created, one of a few dozen grasslands managed by the Forest Service. There are two more or less square chunks of grassland separated by several miles of private land. The western chunk, where we started, is about half public and half private; the eastern chunk is closer to 25% public, but it does include the striking Pawnee Buttes, two towers in the rolling landscape. The Forest Service visitors map we were using showed the grasslands as intersected by very regular roads on a block-like system (big blocks, though) with sensibly progressing even and odd numbers (one system for east-west roads and the other for north-south roads). Few roads went in any other direction. The route we'd plotted for the day started with a diagonal course from the southeast corner toward the northwest corner of the western quadrant, from which we'd head east and then southeast out of the western section and into the middle of the western edge of the eastern section. From there we'd head east to see the Pawnee Buttes and then south again to camp in the area where pronghorn were supposed to be abundant. Navigating was, for the most part, very easy; each intersection was marked with small, clear green signs. Of course, the roads were built as needed, and there was no discernable reason to where there might be a road or where you might find pristine grassland instead. Many roads simply ended at an intersection; some made 90 degree turns and became different roads with little warning. All roads were packed dirt, uniformly graded and tidy. We encountered no potholes and commented repeatedly about how nice the roads were. My mother tracked our course on our map, wrote down where we saw interesting critters, and kept me informed of what areas were public and what were private.
And the grasslands themselves? Amazing. We were lost in a land of rolling, short green prairie, the Rockies providing a hazy backdrop to the west. It was sunny and warm, the distant rain showers and thunderheads adding drama to the scene. I was totally delighted. We soaked in the scenery, stopping at "playas" (the pools that develop during the monsoons) to look for birds and on hilltops to take photos. Lark buntings burst from the roadsides everywhere and we saw more sandpipers, horned larks, meadowlarks, kingbirds, and hawks. About half way up the western side we passed a picturesque little knoll off to the right. My mom liked the looks of it and suggested we alter course a little to do a loop back east in that direction. So we turned east and then north, following an unusually curvy road that was clearly built to provide access to a little ranch we passed at the base of some hills. As soon as we passed the ranch, the road turned back southeast and then east again (a rare exception to the regular east-west, north-south structure). We'd decided to try following a road marked differently on our map (with parallel lines), which indicated that it was open to "road certified vehicles" or something of that sort according to the map key. We figured that included us, so we looked for the turnoff. Unlike the regular roads, which were all two digits, part of this road had three digits, which seemed interesting. We missed it entirely on our first try, as the junction was subtle, and followed the road we were on (now really a driveway) down a hill and to its terminus at a farm house. We turned around and saw an animal scurry across the road in front of us, then turn toward the top of the hill. My first thought was groundhog, but a second glance revealed it to be a badger! He climbed to the top of the hill and was periodically lost to view in the grass. Thankfully, he peered at us now and again and may have been digging (we think we saw the hump of his back rise up a few times). After a minute or two he disappeared, we suspect in a hole he had dug. We stopped at the top of the hill on the way out and looked around, but didn't find him. A badger! I really like weasels, but it never occurred to me that seeing the elusive badger was possible. What a trip!
Nearby we found the mysterious road we'd been searching for. It was marked with a narrow brown sign that indicated that horses, cars, bicycles, and hikers could use it and was blocked by a gate in the fence secured by a loop of wire. Beyond was a track that led off into the grasslands! My mother got out and opened the gate for me and I crept through, then waited as she secured the gate again. The photos are really the best way to describe the ensuing scene. It was delightful! The track (just two dirt lines in the prairie) was dry and hard packed and perfectly comfortable to drive. It headed off into the distance over the rolling hills. What fun! We headed out and quickly startled a ground squirrel that scurried down the track in front of us before veering off into a burrow. Its many narrow lines down its back identified it as a thirteen-lined ground squirrel! Around another hill we drove into a herd of cattle. They were all along the track in front of us where it curved around a watering pond and I was terrified. Would they charge us? Damage the vehicle? My mom assured me that they wouldn't but I had my doubts. We crept by, only to be challenged by a calf straddling the road and looking at us defiantly. We had to approach quite close before he'd budge! All the cows were black and had calves except for one black and white pair. One calf was actively suckling right by the road, which was pretty interesting to watch. All that milk!
A hill or two beyond the cattle I saw two pronghorn! And so my other wildlife goal was fulfilled. These guys were pretty skittish and bounded up the hillside and out of site. The road climbed that same hill and turned west across the top of it. At that point, the track became a three digit number and the brown USFS sign for authorized modes of transportation did not include cars! But, our map suggested it was okay, and we were already there, so we went ahead anyway (the track was obviously made by four-wheeled vehicles). One of the pronghorn was in the middle of the road and kept running straight away from us, only to have us follow it. He eventually followed his buddy out of sight. We descended on the other side of the hill and turned southwest where we eventually met up with a regular road again. That detour turned out to be the highlight of the grasslands for me!
The day was getting on by this point, so we amended our plans and decided to bypass the Pawnee Buttes until morning (but follow the rest of our route). To the north we saw bluffs that broke up the rolling terrain, but turned east at the top of the western quadrant without reaching them. Close to the side of the road we came across an impressive buck pronghorn--what a beautiful creature! The pronghorn on the sides of the road (we saw a number of others) weren't very skittish as long as we kept driving, but got nervous as soon as we stopped. We suspect they're hunted, but aren't sure. This one, however, was kind enough to let me take a few photos before elegantly trotting away. The light was diminishing and the sky around us was darkening as we continued on. A big thunderstorm lurked behind us, and the sky ahead of us was dark. Just before we left the western quadrant we saw another animal hurrying away from us on the side of the road. The ringed tail gave him away immediately as a raccoon, a very reddish individual. He peered at us from in the grass on the other side of the fence a few times, but was clearly very scared and we didn't pursue him. Shortly thereafter we intersected a road that ran southeast toward the eastern quadrant of the grasslands that was paved. We drove through Grover, a tiny little town, and then back into the grasslands and onto another dirt road. The area we'd been driving through has some oil development and we passed a number of oil rigs, some with natural gas flames burning.
It was around 6:30 when we found the entrance to the track where we hoped to camp for the night. After our wonderful experience with the other track, we thought it would be an ideal place to camp, somewhere secluded and well away from the road (grasslands all around it). In sharp contrast to the restrictions in national parks, camping is usually pretty open in national forests. In the Pawnee National Grasslands, the public is allowed to drive as far as 300 feet off the side of the road to camp! Unfortunately, this track was quite a bit wetter than the other, and the tracks were deeper. After leaving the road, it immediately climbed a little rise and then leveled out at the base of a long hill. Although it dried up at the top, the ruts were quite deep, and I was terrified of high-centering the car; as much as I wanted to continue, the idea of getting stuck up there held me back. We stopped and looked around; given the state of the track and the darkening sky, we thought we'd go ahead and camp there for the night, though we weren't as far in as we wanted. Nearby was a flat area just off the side of the track with a cactus-free spot large enough for the tent. While studying the ground, my eyes focused on a crazy looking creature and I excitedly ordered my mother to grab my camera. The round lizard I'd spotted with its tiny short tail, ridge of raised scales along its sides, and dragon-like face turned out to be a horny toad, or, more precisely, a short horned lizard. We ogled over it for a bit, then moved it a safer distance from camp.
By this time the storm had nearly caught up with us and the winds were ferocious. We parked the car to act as a windbreak, but it was still so strong that we quickly gave up on setting up the tent, which I could hardly hang onto. Instead we climbed back into the car as the rain began to fall. The intensity of the storm was impressive--endless driving rain that blotted out the world around us. We opened our wine for the night and I read about the animals we'd seen that day and then a brochure about the history of the grasslands. We were in the car for 45 minutes before the storm passed and we emerged, hungry and worn out. We set up the tent, hastily put our gear inside to hold it down in the (now much gentler) breeze. The torrential rain had passed. The sky to the east was dark with the dense storm that had just passed and the sky to the west clearing. The setting sun turned the lingering clouds a vibrant orange-red and gave the black rain clouds in the opposite direction a warm glow. To the south a double rainbow appeared, the opposite end of it east hazy in the orange glow. Lightning flashed in the storm. The photos describe it better; it was stunning.
As the light fell, coyotes started calling, possibly from some rocky draws nearby to the north. And a little later, from over the hill nearby, came a small band of pronghorn--two females, a calf, and a male bringing up the rear. We'd just read that males form harems and, when threatened by predators, will often linger at the rear of the retreating group to fight off the predator (not that this one appeared to be doing that). Pronghorn can see eight times as well as humans (that's in the range of a hawk or an eagle) and are the fastest animals on the prairie. While we were setting up camp and getting dinner ready, we watched the herd from a distance (unfortunately, it was too dark for photos). At some point I heard a coughing sound--the alarm call of the pronghorn. Figuring that they'd finally wandered close enough to us to be alarmed, I glanced up to see that all the pronghorn were facing north. I swung my binoculars in that direction and saw a flash of movement disappear behind a ridge of rocks--coyote? Whatever it was I never saw it again, but the pronghorn beat a hasty, elegant retreat over the hill. Pronghorn are the only extant ungulate to evolve in North America and have no close living relatives, which is one of the main reasons I was so excited to see them.
In the wake of the storm, the mosquitoes had emerged hungry, and I was forced to wear bug spray while we ate our freeze dried macaroni and cheese dinner and finished the box of donut holes we'd purchased earlier in the day. We didn't linger outside long after dinner, retreating into our tent where the mosquitoes hummed noisily in droves outside.
The end of a grasslands road
Roads and road signs
Cloudshadow over the grasslands
The sign to the start of road 55 (photo my Mom)
Mom opening the gate to road 55
Road 55 through the grasslands
Cows near the road
A defiant calf blocks our route
My first pronghorn!
Our accomodating pronghorn trotting away
The storm builds in front of us
Mom opening the gate to find a camping spot
Double rainbow (photo by Mom)
Lightning strikes to the east!
Same scene without lightning
Sunset to the west