Camping at Pawnee National Grasslands

Took our first trip the Pawnee National Grasslands in Colorado. I don’t want to sound like such a downer, but I guess I was expecting a lot more isolation and solitude. And I don’t mean from a sense of too many people, but rather there is a lot of oil and gas operations scattered all about the grasslands.

Maybe I just picked a bad spot. I did not stay in the Crow Valley Campground, so maybe there is a better area. I camped in the dispersed camping area, which by itself was fantastic for those looking to rough it. It’s also very close to the Buttes. The GPS coordinates to the site I stayed in are 40.812312, -103.999513.

I don’t know, though. Maybe I’m being too critical. Read below on what I saw and experienced while camping at the grasslands.

Camper


I have a 22 foot Coachman Freedom Express 192 RBS, which made the trip up and along the dirt roads without issue. There was only one 50 yard stretch where the dirt road was very trenched and clearance could have been an issue. I just took a little more caution and hugged the side of the road. However, taking a longer camper could prove more challenging, and I’d say anything over 30′ would be highly ill-advised. There are a couple really steep dirt hills with sharp and narrow turns. I could see a large camper getting wedged.

Most people had tents or camper conversion tents, which is nice because you don’t have any loud generators (I don’t use one as I have solar).

Dispersed Camping Sites


There are about 10 sites, and all are quite nice. Almost all of them are positioned with excellent overlooks of the Grassland and Buttes. It’s pretty easy identifying the spots while driving along the dirt road.

They are all quite roomy, too. My F150 and trailer had plenty of space, and another trailer of the same size could have easily fit. With a little maneuvering, it’s not too difficult to level out the trailer.

They are fist-come-first-served, so get there early. I arrived early June on a Friday at noon, but by about 4:00 pm, all the sites were occupied. There were many unfortunate campers that didn’t get there in time and had to go elsewhere.

None of the sites have trees so an awning or canopy will be highly desired, especially in the summer. I’ve read it can also be a bit windy, so don’t leave the awnings out if you deiced to take a hike.

Amenities


Right at the Pawnee Butte Trailhead are really nice covered picnic tables. Quite large too. You could easily fit 15 to 20 people at each table. There is a bathroom, but I didn’t venture inside. I have a feeling it’s a pit toilet without a sink. There definitely isn’t a shower. The parking lot is large so if you are traveling in an RV or trailer, there is plenty of space to pull in park on the side. Other than this, there is nothing out there. There are no stores, no bathrooms with sinks, no showers, no trashcans, and no hookups of any kind anywhere.

I did have 2 bars of LTE cell Verizon service at my campsite. It was enough to stream the NHL playoff game between the Montreal Canadians and Winnipeg Jets in 1080p on my iPhone without stuttering! However, when I drove a mile down the dirt road to the trail head, it dropped to only a couple bars of 3G. I don’t know what TV reception was like because I never turned it on.

Trails and Hiking


There isn’t a whole lot of hiking. There is basically one trail that can be hiked and the first part of it isn’t difficult. From the trailhead, it’s about a 1/2 mile hike through the meadow which takes you to the first butte.

It’s well-maintained hard-packed pea-sized gravel and someone in a motorized cart or wheelchair could make the initial part of the journey. The trail is flat with a gentle up-slope, but as you get closer to the buttes, it narrows and from that point forward, would not be accessible via wheelchair. The trail forks off into two different directions, one that goes down into a ravine which has steps, and the other goes up into the butte.

There is no hiking any further than where the trail forks from March 1st to June 30th. During this time, the two trails are closed to preserve wildlife. I’m totally cool with this and have no issues with protecting the area. That’s part of what makes the area so beautiful. But it’s a pretty big bummer to not have any knowledge of this before hand. None of the websites I read leading up to my trip mentioned anything about this. Had I known, I probably would have delayed my trip by a couple weeks and went after June 30th. This was one of the first letdowns I encountered.

Cows, and Lots of Them


I’m not sure if ranchers are allowed to let the cattle roam the area or if it was spillover from private cattle property, but there were a lot of cows on both sides of the fence. They got extremely close too, walking right up the hill through the campsites. Sitting in my chair, a few came with about 20 feet of my camper. It’s a little intimating for those that haven’t been around them before, but they were gentle and never seemed like a threat. Not even the mom’s with their calves posed a danger.

They do make a lot of mooing noises, even during the night. Poop is everywhere, so watch were your step. Fortunately, it didn’t smell too bad. They’d also block the road, but moved out of the way as you approached. Kind of funny seeing them roam around without any fear.

… and now the disappointments.


The Buttes and Grassland were beautiful, especially when I went in early June because everything was really lush and green. There were also a fair amount of wild flowers growing in the meadows. There were a lot of birds too. I saw what I think was a hawk circling overhead, Meadow Larks, and many other types of birds I’m not familiar with. It was nice listening to all the wildlife without the sounds of cars and airplanes.

However, there is a tremendous amount of oil and gas projects in the area. Like, a lot. Some are right smack in view of the Buttes and there is no missing them. They are large too. There are oil pumps, fracking operations, large storage tanks, trucks, and big flattened scar areas. They are really unsightly. Also, there are also a ton of giant white windmills all along the northern horizon. It’s not possible to look at the grasslands and Buttes without seeing some massive man-made object.

At night, the oil and gas projects produce a lot of light. I thought by being out in the middle of nowhere in a National Grassland it would have been darker. I’m an avid photographer and was really excited at the opportunity to photography the Milky Way with the Buttes as a backdrop, but to my dismay, there was way too much light. I was expecting something like these photos.

There was also the low rumble noise from all the oil and gas operations. Not enough to be loud, but noticeable if one listens for it. Each light in the picture to the left is one of those oil and gas operations. As you can see, there are many. The red lights are the windmills.

Perhaps 20 years ago, this area would have been utterly fantastic. Without all the oil, gas and windmill operations, it would have been drop dead gorgeous and well worth the visit. It really is a beautiful area if you can train your brain to ignore all the other stuff. And again, maybe I’m being too nit-picky. We do live in a modern world and maybe this is just the new normal.

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