Tips for Visiting Pawnee National Grassland

With spring around the corner, it will soon be peak season for visiting Pawnee National Grassland.  The Pawnee is one of Colorado’s best destinations for wildlife and nature photography. The vast tracts of seemingly endless shortgrass prairie are a glimpse of days past, before much of the Great Plains was converted to agriculture and center pivot irrigation.

Pawnee Buttes

Spring is a great time to hike the trail to the iconic Pawnee Buttes.

Pawnee may be best known as a bird watching destination, and if it is your first visit, the self-guided birding tour is a great place to start.  Driving the 21 mile loop, you will have a chance to get oriented while passing through some prime habitat.  The Colorado State Bird, the lark bunting, is commonly seen here, as are horned larks, burrowing owls, and Swainson’s hawks.  The complete checklist tops 300 species, and includes the mountain plover, ferruginous hawk, golden eagle, and many more.

The prairie also supports many species of mammals, including the swift fox, American badger, coyote, black-tailed prairie dog, black-tailed jackrabbit, thirteen-lined ground squirrel, mule deer, and pronghorn.  Most grassland species depend on underground burrows for shelter.  You will need a bit of patience and some luck to spot them above ground, but with persistence they can all be seen on the Pawnee.

American Badger

Photographing a badger at Pawnee took me many days of effort, but I was finally rewarded.

I highly recommend a visit to Pawnee National Grassland.  It can seem a little overwhelming at first, but just as likely as not, you will find yourself returning year after year.  Here are some tips to make your visit a little smoother.

Get the Map

A good map is essential for navigating the hundreds of miles of dirt roads on the grassland, as well as for steering clear of private property.  Cellular reception is spotty, so don’t count on using your phone.  The DeLorme Colorado Atlas is a good start.  Additional maps are available from the United States Forest Service website, or visit the Pawnee National Grassland office in Greeley.

Use a Beanbag

Driving the grid roads is a great way to cover a lot of ground, but it means you’ll be shooting from your vehicle much of the time.  Pronghorns, jackrabbits, raptors, and many other animals will bolt the instant you step out of the car, so keep your camera ready and use a beanbag over the door for stabilization.  My favorite is the NatureScapes SkimmerSack.  You can fill these with birdseed, rice, buckwheat hulls, or whatever else you’ve got.

Take a Siesta at Crow Valley

The best times to view wildlife at Pawnee are at dawn and dusk.  Escape the heat of the day and save your gas by taking a siesta at the Crow Valley Park.  This little oasis features a nice picnic area to escape the sun and the only bathrooms for miles.  If it’s especially hot, run up to the AgLand Gas Station in Briggsdale for a cold drink.

A short, shady birding trail follows the river behind the picnic shelter.  This riparian zone in the middle of the prairie attracts some of the more sought after bird species.  I’ve seen white-tailed fawns nestled in the grass here, and it is also a good spot for cottontails.

Eastern Cottontail

A cottontail finds refuge at Crow Valley Park.

Mind the Gates

There are a number of public access roads on the Pawnee where ranchers lease adjacent land to graze their cows.  You may encounter closed gates, and in cattle country, the rule is if you open a gate, close it behind you.

Give the Pronghorn Room

The pronghorn is the fastest mammal in North America, and one of the fastest animals in the world.  Even though their speed can rival the cheetah, they have no jumping ability.  On a western landscape partitioned by miles of four strand barbwire fence, this is a significant impediment.  With no “hops”, the pronghorn are forced to crawl under the lowest strand of barbed wire, often incurring injury.  You can help by driving slowly when you approach pronghorn near the road and allow them to find a comfortable place to duck under the fence.

Pronghorn Crawling Under Barbed Wire

Pronghorn lack jumping ability and can only navigate barbed wire fence by crawling under the bottom strand.

Watch your Step

Last year while hiking near the Buttes, I nearly stepped on a rattlesnake crossing the trail.  Luckily, the prairie rattlesnakes found at Pawnee are not particularly aggressive, but it is either a very long drive or an expensive helicopter ride to the nearest hospital, so take care where you place your hands and feet.

While you are unlikely to encounter a rattler, the instant you step off the trail at Pawnee you will realize your true foe: the prickly pear cactus.  Pawnee is carpeted with them, and their spines will go right through street shoes and leave you hobbling for days.

Any way you look at it, a good pair of boots are a must at Pawnee.

Stay Out of the Crossfire

Unfortunately, irresponsible gun use is far too common at Pawnee.  The newly built range on County Road 96 gives responsible shooters a safe venue, but be wary of those shooting at the many roadside pullouts littered with “trigger trash”.  Once, while photographing a swift fox den, I heard the distinct buzz of a ricochet bullet zipping past me.  While I was preoccupied with photographing the foxes, some knucklehead had arrived and was firing a rifle at a buried steel pipe from point blank range.  Watch your back and don’t assume that others have bothered to check what is behind their target.

Trigger Trash

Trigger trash, shell casings and other debris left behind by irresponsible shooters, blankets many of the pullouts at Pawnee.

Keep an Eye on the Sky

Pawnee National Grassland lies in Weld County, Colorado, which claims the title “Tornado Capital of the World”.  From 1950-2011, Weld County has recorded 252 tornados, more than any other single county.  Severe thunderstorms with lightning and damaging hail are common throughout spring and summer.

There is virtually no shelter on the prairie, so it is best to monitor incoming weather before it arrives.  One of my favorite tools is an iPhone app called RadarScope, but again cell phone reception is poor out there.

Lightning at Pawnee National Grassland

Lightning strikes the prairie at Pawnee National Grassland. I photographed this from a safe distance!

Bring a Spare Tire

The Pawnee is to blame for a disproportionate number of the flat tires I have had in my lifetime.  I swear, those prickly pear spines can go right through a sidewall. Even off road tires are not immune to the sharp rocks and metal debris that you will inevitably drive over.  Be prepared, help may be a long way away.

Enjoy and Respect

Every year I see bad behavior ranging from swarming (i.e. spotting someone photographing an animal and joining them uninvited; often this is a chain reaction involving multiple parties), trespassing on private land, feeding wildlife, and stressing nesting birds or nursing mammals.  Enjoy the Pawnee and protect it.  Enough said!

Swift Foxes at Pawnee National Grassland

Swift foxes are one of my favorite species to photograph at Pawnee and I look forward to seeing them year after year.

12 Comments on “Tips for Visiting Pawnee National Grassland

  1. This is a fantastic write-up. (The pics ain’t half bad either 🙂 Seriously, it should be must-read material for anyone headed that way.

    Wish I’d read it BEFORE my visit this weekend, though. Still, it was a big help. I was 95% sure I’d seen a badger…but had no idea if they lived out that way. Thanks.

    I went up for the bird’s (I’m just getting into the hobby) and saw my first burrowing owls, avocet and nighthawk. Also a swainson’s hawk nest!
    But the ‘critters’ were a delight, too. The badger, a number of pronghorn (didn’t know about their lack of jumping ability), a couple cottontails, two jackrabbits and a coyote.

  2. I love the photos and your website. I’m planning to visit Pawnee Buttes later this month, and this information will come in handy. I appreciate your tips on how to respect wildlife and the area. Do you have any tips for how to sight burrowing owls? I’m particularly interested in catching a glimpse of one on my trip. Thanks!

    • They can be seen reliably in the active prairie dog towns along the birding loop. Bring binoculars and look carefully to see them perched on the mounds or nearby fence posts.

  3. Thanks so much for the quick response! I’ll let you know if I spot any in a couple weekends!

  4. Thanks for the tips, especially the one about cacti and boots! Do you think a Prius would be able to handle the birding route? I’m heading out at the end of May and am especially hoping to see burrowing owls and pronghorns. I’ve had trouble finding information on trails—I know we can camp near the roads noted on the USFS maps, but are we allowed to wander around freely through the federally-owned lands? Thanks again for your post (with lovely photos) and any more info you can provide 🙂

    • A Prius should be fine for the birding loop and any of the county roads. The are some trails, and other areas where you can explore on foot, but sometimes it is hard to tell what is public versus private property. I’d call or visit the Pawnee Grassland office in Greeley for more info and a map. Good luck – watch for the burrowing owls around the big prairie dog towns.

      • Thank you!! I will definitely stop by the Greeley office.

        Best wishes for your summer adventures!

  5. Thanks for the information, James. Love the photos. We’re going there soon. Where did you find the foxes along the birding route? Being as specific as you can would be helpful.

  6. can you find water bodies in the grasslands that might have frogs or salamanders to photograph?

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