Rocky Mountain National Park
and the Pawnee National Grasslands

  July 16-21, 2011

Trip Reports

Days 1-2: Juneau to the Rockies and 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

View near the Pawnee Buttes

Day 6: Pawnee Buttes

It wasn't the best night of sleep we had, and we got up earlier than we'd have liked in order to hike to the Pawnee Buttes and still catch our flight that afternoon.  It didn't help that an oil rig on the other side of the road made a consistent banging sound through the night.  But, the morning was glorious.  We walked to the top of the hill nearby to check out the next valley (all public land), which was beautiful, but didn't yield any wildlife.  The prairie all around us, though, was alive with larking birds.  "Larking" is a behavior I'd read about in relation to birds living in the alpine where there are no trees to offer height advantage to a displaying bird.  In order to draw attention to themselves, birds in the alpine (and, it turns out, on the prairie) fly into the air and then flutter back to the ground, singing along the way.  It seems that a variety of unrelated birds use this technique, so the prairie was populated not just with meadowlarks and horned larks but lark buntings and lark sparrows.  The lark buntings were dominant around our campsite and we awoke to their songs and watched them flutter all around us as we walked.  Back at the car my mother found another (smaller) horned lizard that was just behind one of the front tires!  Fearing for his safety, we transported him far from the car as well. 

View out the tent

Cactus around the campsite (typical grasslands)

Grasslands on the other side of the ridge

Lark buntings

Lark buntings

Camp from a distance

And then, as the heat began to build, we drove north for the buttes.  The land in that area was much more broken with rocky ridges and bluffs; we were surprised that we could drive in the direction of the buttes for so long without actually seeing them. At the trailhead we grabbed a few snacks, put on some bug dope (which turned out to be totally inadequate for me), and started our trek.  The trail descended for a few hundred yards before climbing onto a rocky bluff with sweeping views of the buttes in the distance.  The two buttes are surrounded by plains, though, so we had to descend from this eerie and cross the prairie, first to the base of the western butte.  The sandstone base allowed the wind to sweep around our legs and was a welcome relief from the ferocious mosquitoes of the lowlands.  From there we crossed another low area, also miserable with mosquitoes, and onto the larger eastern butte.  We rested for a bit on its lower slopes and had a snack, eating the last of my bison jerky in honor of the herds that once roamed the plains there.  Looking down over the sweep of lush grass, broken by arroyos and bluffs and little rocky knolls, but endlessly green, I could picture the great herds of buffalo there.  What a shame!  If it weren't for conflict with cattle grazing, I imagine bison would be an easy animal to welcome back onto the Pawnee National Grasslands and I wish they would.

After a rest we followed a narrow track at the edge of the sandstone maybe half way up the butte and passed beneath mud swallow nests (or we think that's what they were anyway) and ledges that appeared to have supported hawk nests earlier in the year (based on the guano left behind).  (The buttes are closed to hikers during the breeding season.)  We'd hoped to see a bunch of hawks gliding around, but they didn't manifest.  The trail on the back side of the butte diminished into almost nothing, but we made it around anyway, then descended into the deep, maze-like arroyos that fan out from the southern base of the butte.  These narrow, interconnecting channels were dramatic and full of wildflowers, and easy to walk through.  We imagined what a nice sanctuary they might be from the wind and weather (assuming it wasn't raining, I suppose).  On the walk back I enjoyed more of the wildflowers, the butterflies, and birds.  We saw a very vocal little bird that seemed to prefer the sandstone habitat at the bases of the buttes and on the bluffs nearby, but never got a solid ID.  Down on the prairie we identified lark sparrows sitting helpfully on several bushes.  Hot and thirsty, we arrived back at the car, still the only one there.  I really like how little used the grasslands appear to be (based on our short visit); until we reached the paved road that connected the two quadrants, we'd passed only about four vehicles all day--one at the very entrance while we were stopped to look at the burrowing owl, a huge, terrifying, tractor-like vehicle that politely let us pass shortly thereafter, and then two trucks at the eastern edge of the western quadrant.  Between these encounters we passed acres and acres of rolling green grassland alive with pronghorn, badgers, and coyotes, but no cars. 

We made few stops from there, as the day was getting on and we needed to drive to Denver to catch our flight home.  My mother really enjoyed the increased variety of landscape (the rocky protuberances) of the western quadrant, but I missed the rolling prairie of the eastern section.  We drove through the wind farm we'd been seeing in the distance since the day before, what seemed like endless acres of silent, white, preposterously large, tidy windmills.  It was all a little eerie!  In that area, though, we did finally spot the loggerhead shrike that my mother was hoping for.  We'd headed a little north of the buttes, then drove east across the quadrant, and then south out of the grasslands, trying to pass as much public land as possible, but not taking a lot of detours.  There was more private land in that area, and we passed a field of sunflowers that was simply stunning in the sunshine.  Nearby we stopped for a hawk which, unlike all of the others we'd seen flying, was kind enough to hover in our general area long enough for us to check him out.  We believe it was a Swainson's hawk, but can't be sure.  We also passed many more pronghorn--never in good places to stop--especially as we turned and followed the southern edge of the grasslands back west.  We were pushing my comfort level on time, but it happened that our route took us right past the road that led to the burrowing owl.  I'd been so excited about the owl that I'd entirely forgotten to take a photo of the black-tailed prairie dogs that provided its housing!  We took the risk, and spent an extra eight minutes or so roundtrip to hustle down to the pullout and snap a few hasty, distance photos of prairie dogs watching us and romping around.  And then we hastened back to Denver and home, looking through my photos on the flight to Juneau.  What an incredible trip!  It must be one of the most successful vacations I'm planned yet, and reinforces my desire to explore more of the U.S.

View from the trailhead (buttes and
wildmill farm in the distance)

Arroyo on the hike

View on the hike

A little mesa on the way to the buttes

Pawnee buttes

Western butte


Eastern butte

Mom on the eastern butte

Mud nests

The arroyos below the eastern butte


View of the western butte from the eastern butte


Flowers in the arroyo

Western butte on the way back

Lark sparrow


Black-eyed susan


Grasslands on the way out