Into the Great Wide Open

Walk in the Pawnee Buttes
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Pawnee Buttes Practicalities

Distance: 4.2 miles
Environment: Prairie
Location: Pawnee National Grasslands, Colorado
Directions: Head west out of Briggsdale on Colorado Highway 14 for 13 miles to Weld County Road 103. (This is the"Keota Turnoff.") Follow Weld County 103 north for 4.8 miles, following the signs for Pawnee Buttes. You'll be going north for 3 miles on Weld County 105 to a "T" intersection with Weld County 104. Head east on 104 for 3 miles, then go north on Weld County 111 for 4 miles to the Buttes Trailhead turnoff. Our trailhead is 1 mile from this last intersection.


It's little wonder that the director of the movie version of James Michener's epic Centennial chose this place to film wagons rolling into the wild frontier. This is still a remarkably uncluttered slice of Colorado prairie. The songs of early America seem fresh and crisp here, and they riffle through your hair and past your ears, carried in the strong arms of the Western wind.

Though they rise only 250 feet above the grassy valleys below, the Pawnee Buttes themselves surely must have seemed like giants to those who had jostled in their wagons across half a continent. To some they were warm portals of welcome; to others, troublesome reminders that not far beyond were the ramparts of the Rockies.

Our walk begins with a gentle descent to the east down a shallow ravine peppered with yucca, western wheatgrass, and cheatgrass. While the first two of these plants are natives, cheatgrass was introduced more than a century ago, and, with its remarkable ability to take over abused soils, it is absolutely flourishing on the prairies of the West. Unfortunately for the cattle industry, which has inadvertently brought about the rapid spread of cheatgrass, the plant has very little value as forage.

Down the trail 0.2 mile you'll come to a beautiful, flat plain rich with blue grama, an important sod builder and valuable forage plant on the prairies of the West, and now the state grass of Colorado. From this plateau the view is indeed a grand one, the Great Plains tumbling off to the east for mile after mile, finally becoming lost to vision in a melt of summer sky.

Shortly after passing through a fence at 0.5 mile, the trail begins a descent through a lovely huddle of miniature shale pillars, framed on either side by large, buff-colored sandstone buttes. Look for creepers here, sinking their roots deep into the dry ground. As wind and water carry away the surrounding soil, the patches protected by these plants are left standing as sandy pillars, looking from a distance like huddles of green stumps. (A larger feat of erosion, conducted by great rivers of glacial melt water that coursed through the area following the last ice age, is what left the Pawnee Buttes standing far above the surrounding landscape.) Watch along this stretch for little bluestem grass, the seeds of which provide an important source of food for wintering birds. Speaking of birds, the rock spires around you form an important nesting area for several raptors; turn your eyes skyward occasionally, and you may glimpse a soaring prairie falcon or golden eagle. It's important that you stay on the trail here, so as not to disturb nesting birds in any way.

The path continues into a ravine with squawbush and Rocky Mountain juniper, then climbs back up onto a flat dappled with needle and thread grass. After passing a large butte on the left at 1.5 miles you'll come out on a road with a view of a teapot-shaped butte ahead and slightly to your left. Follow the road to our turnaround point at the base of this massive monument. (You'll be crossing private land between the buttes; please stay on the trail, and keep the area free of both fire and litter.)

Sit for a few minutes with your back against these warm brown walls, letting the prairie winds blow this airy, silent scene into your consciousness—the ripple of grass, the wash of rock and sky. While I was here I had the distinct feeling that in some small measure this was still the West of old, a priceless launching pad for the spirits of yet another generation.

Sailing the Open Prairie: The Story of Windwagon Thomas

It was on the distant shore of this great sea of grass in 1853 that a bizarre event took place in Westport, Missouri, the jumping-off place for the Santa Fe Trail.

Living at the edge of the frontier provided the citizens of Westport with more than their share of excitement. No one was ready, though, for the stir that a former sea-faring captain named Zeb Thomas caused when he came rolling down Main Street that sunny spring morning on a wagon powered not by horses but by sails. His intention, as he revealed to a full house of curious residents at a local tavern, was to launch an entire fleet of these prairie clippers on the rolling grasslands between Westport and Santa Fe. With their great speed and lack of any need for fuel, explained Thomas, windwagons would make the road to riches one smooth sail. All he needed to get started were a few partners—a few partners with money, that is.

"Windwagon" Thomas didn't wait for the hoots and hollers of laughter to die down. He stormed out of the tavern, climbed aboard his prairie schooner, and announced that he was off to Council Grove, Kansas. When he returned from the 300-mile trip six days later, armed with a letter from a prominent resident of the city as proof of the trip, there was suddenly a shortage of laughter and an abundance of investors. Showered with all the money he could use, Thomas wasted no time in getting down to the business of building the first freight-hauling windwagon. And what a vessel it was, measuring 25 feet long and 7 feet wide, sporting wheels twice the height of a man. As the partners stood by, grinning at the thought of how much cargo a fleet of these clippers could carry, Admiral Thomas prepared the sleek craft for its maiden voyage.

Things started off well enough. But then the wind picked up a little. And then it picked up a little more. Soon Thomas and his rather inept crew of landlubbers began cruising at a much higher speed than they had ever intended. And then, as luck would have it, there was that blasted dip in the prairie. Unable to get the boom down in time, the windwagon drove hard into the side of the ravine, pivoting it into the air and smashing it on its side in a flurry of splinters, tossing the good Admiral Thomas onto his head in the process. With a blue streak of curses that only a New England sailor could muster, Thomas got up and stomped away. Later that evening he loaded a few belongings into his smaller, still intact windwagon, and sailed out of sight, never to be heard from again.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 25 May 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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