Pawnee Pioneer Trails - Scenic and Historic Byway

The Pawnee Pioneer Trails Scenic and Historic Byway consists of 128 miles of roadways crossing the Colorado Piedmont in the northeastern portion of the state. One hundred of those miles are east-west from Sterling to Ault on US route 85, by way of Raymer, Grover and Briggdale. The remaining miles are a spur, south from Raymer to Fort Morgan on Interstate 76. It crosses the South Platte River at Sterling and Fort Morgan. Estimated driving time is three hours.

The region is short-grass prairie, and the Pawnee Buttes within the Pawnee National Grassland are the prominent features. These buttes are layered remnants of the high prairie, which escaped erosion. Oriented at the east and west ends of the grassland, these features have served as landmarks for travelers from Native Americans to pioneers who crossed the area on the Overland Trail. The Overland Trail is a spur of the Oregon Trail and leads to Sterling, the largest town in the area.

The Pawnee Buttes rise 250 feet from the prairie grasslands. These mesas are primarily sandstone, with bases of Brule formation clay and topped with the Arikaree formation, a conglomerate. The harder topping helps protect the towers. For those who wish to see these geologic wonders more closely, hiking and horse trails lead from the roadways to both the east and west Pawnee Buttes. Over 100 species of vertebrate fossils have been found near the buttes.

One can see pronghorn, coyotes, and prairie dogs. The area is popular with birdwatchers. Hawks, eagles, falcons, swallows, meadowlarks, and more are often seen. To protect nesting birds, the areas nearest the buttes are closed from March 1 to June 30.

Wagon ruts can still be seen paralleling the roadway. Lines of juniper now grow in the grooves where the wheels of westwarding pioneers once created the depressions.

Most of the region is presently in agricultural use, except for the land surrounding the buttes, which is the Pawnee National Grassland. The Rocky Mountains are visible in the distance.

The small towns along the route will remind the traveler of the frontier history of the region. Railroad boomtowns have gone bust, but homesteading farmers have clung tenaciously to the land.

Touring the Pawnee Pioneer Trails Scenic and Historic Byway by recreational vehicle is a particularly pleasant way to experience the region.