An overworked city boy hits the High Plains

For most people, Colorado is a state that conjures up majestic mountain vistas, forested hills dotted with golden aspen trees and streams teeming with cutthroat trout. Few notice “the other Colorado.” Leave it to an overworked office slave, yours truly, to discover solitude and universal Zen meaning.

[One of the Pawnee Buttes.] The eastern plains of Colorado are harsh steppes of cactus, short grass and stream-cut badlands of yellow crumbly clay. Here, time is measured in terms of ancient geologic periods. A wristwatch seems an absurd artifice in this land. Out near the ghost town of Keota, about an hour east of Fort Collins in the middle of the northern Colorado badlands are the timeless guardians of this austere land – the Pawnee Buttes.

The buttes are eroded columns of sandstone some 300-feet tall and a quarter-mile apart that stand on this silent land like the decaying feet of some forgotten 10,000-foot-tall Native American Colossus of Rhodes. Thrust up from this landscape, the buttes resemble big stone mushroom clouds without the cap – atom bombs frozen a few seconds after detonation under a big sky full of immense tumorous thunder clouds.

Light years away from the fluorescent-lit madness, the Pawnee Buttes sit in country so still and so devoid of civilization one can easily imagine this is the edge of time. According to the U.S. Forest Service, the site of the Pawnee Buttes was a vast sea between 90 and 70 million years ago. Eventually, as the earth’s surface began to move, the sea drained, and streams crossing the area deposited sediments which hardened into sandstones and siltstones. About 5 million years ago, the entire region was uplifted thousands of feet and powerful streams caused tremendous erosion. The tops of the buttes represent the pre-erosion ground surface.

There are few signs of man here – strands of barbed wire and classic western windmills pumping cool water into tin tanks. But not much else. No sound, beside your own, and few people. It’s so quiet you feel like you’re in a movie theatre and you shouldn’t talk or you’ll be shushed by one of the tiny horny toads camouflaged on the ground below.

Perhaps ancestors of these toads ran across other ancient denizens of the area. The Pawnee Buttes are considered one of the finest sites for vertebrate fossils in the world. Over 100 species have been recovered. In 1870, O.C. Marsh of Yale’s Peabody Museum led the first scientific expedition to the buttes to collect fossils. Several other expeditions followed. Finds included several species of horse (including three-toed and dwarf versions), rhinoceros, ancient swine and camel, a hippopotamus-like animal, turtle, large vulture and cormorant. (Artifacts over 50 years old are protected by law and must stay put.)

The Pawnee Buttes are ringed on the west by cliffs inhabited by free raptors, eagles and falcons. A sign at the parking area warns you to stay away during nesting season, which is from March 1 to June 30. Disturb these birds and you’ll no longer need those contact lenses with the radium-green tint that makes you look like one of the Children of the Corn.

Antelope and dung beetles join the raptors in inhabiting this land. Two dung beetles rolling a ball of dung (what else?) down the middle of the footpath attest to the unspectacular raw natural ecosystem that has existed undisturbed here for eons. In some absurd way, I thought of shuffling useless paperwork at the office.

Climbing the northside of the western-most butte, handholds in the cool, chalky wall lead to the “mezzanine level.” The view to the east from the trail revealed the spooky sun-baked but green, tawny plains extending forever toward Nebraska. In the immense silence I thought how noisy my life was. What would we be like if we lived in this slow quiet, even for a moment?

My primary reason for visiting Pawnee National Grassland, this outpost on the High Plains, this Roger Dean existential landscape, was to relish the quiet. No Van Hagar, no car engines, Nintendo or drunk neighbors yelling at each other. Even the wind was truant on by visit. My ears hummed with the welcome thunder of quiet.

If you visit, do me a favor. Leave the boom box, pager and cellular phone at home, as I’m probably camped out in the shadow of the buttes.
Story and photo by Joe Falco


  1. Charles C says

    No point in going out there anymore…from the moment you leave New Raymer and make your way along the Pioneer Scenic Byway all you are going to see are gas wells and huge Multi-pad wells (on National Land!) and an unbelievable amount of truck traffic going in and out of the wells so the roads have been made way worse than I have ever seen.

    For the first almost 75 miles of our drive up to and past the Buttes there is hardly a space to stop without looking at wells and traffic. If you (like me) used to take the little side roads and follow the washes…forget it! They are all gas access roads now. I could not find a single place to drive in as we passed through the whole of eastern section going west.

    100 miles of driving and we saw two antelope and zero birds of prey.

    They should start taking down the scenic byway signs soon…it’s just a cruel sad joke that these companies have been allowed to do this to hundreds of square miles of what was pristine prairie, it’s obvious that they (Gas & Oil) are working 24/7 putting these rigs in place before the Environmental impact study can come out (due in 2014).

    It’s is an absolute disgrace that this has been allowed to happen, this land can never be returned to the condition it was in…it has been for all intent and purpose been defiled and destroyed.

    • Paul Charles says

      But you drove your gasoline powered vehicle (with petrochemical paints, plastics and tires on asphalt roads) there didn’t you?

  2. John says

    I visit the Pawnee grasslands a few times every month and have been for years. I’m appalled at the oil wells on Rd 65, to the South, and even more at the trashy shooters, feeling so entitled to leave their casings and target junk everywhere. Gives shooters a bad name. My son and I spend many a day with trash bags picking up after the slobs. New shooting range won’t deter the stupid and determined from putting holes in the signs, doing their immature vandalism. Always the few. Still, I know where to go, far from the common areas. Most too lazy to make the trip or get out on foot. Unspeakable beauty, plants, birds, animals, vistas, wind, storms, silence at its most deafening. So few know or care about places like this. I’d be happy if everyone else just drives on by.

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