Pawnee National Grassland

Park in Sterling

Get a glimpse of what the Great Plains may have looked like before the westward expansion in the 190,000-acre Pawnee National Grassland, just 35 miles east of Fort Collins. Surrounding this semiprotected area, you'll find a patchwork of country roads, used more by frickin' frackers today than by ranchers, along with abandoned homesteads, rickety windmills and views that go on for miles in every direction.

The highlight is a hike around the signature Pawnee Buttes. This really isn't a destination in and of itself, rather, a good stop on the backcountry road between Sterling and Fort Collins.

The towering blond sandstone buttes are the only bump in this singular landscape of grass and prairie. You can get around the buttes in about two hours on a 4.1-mile circuit. There is also plenty of wildlife to be spotted here, from Colorado's state bird, the lark bunting, to mountain plover, burrowing owls and a number of raptor species. You might also spot the occasional band of pronghorn and mule deer, along with predators like coyote and fox.

One of the best ways to see the grasslands is in your car. Start from Sterling, stopping along the way and taking whatever country road grabs your fancy as you head west. All roads lead to Fort Collins, where a tall microbrew awaits.

There are plenty of informal camping spots in the grasslands – don't camp near windmills or on private ground. Established sites at the campground cost from $10 to $14.

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