When people think of hiking Colorado’s Front Range, they usually think about doing it in the daytime. But nights are great for walking too, and you get to catch the amazing display of stars and planets to boot. The spectacle is especially wonderful from above timberline, where you don’t need a headlamp as long as there is a little bit of moon.
High nighttime wandering is of course less practical in the heart of winter, where we are now. But winter or summer, if you want to see some serious stars—and be alone while seeing them—head to the lonely prairie lands of Pawnee Buttes!
Getting to the trailhead at the Pawnee Buttes National Grassland is half the fun. Google Maps will send you off to get lost on myriad oil-and-wind-turbine service roads, through “towns” with names like Keota which don’t really exist. The best way to reach the Buttes is to go first to the old town of Grover. This way you won’t get lost, and you also get to experience the peculiar, secluded atmosphere of this pioneer era near-ghost town. Named by its first postmaster for his wife’s maiden name, Grover was platted in 1889 as a way stop on the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad to and from Cheyenne. The two story red wooden depot still stands, along with a few other buildings and a water tower. But that’s about it. There’s a charming combo of a grocery store-restaurant-laundromat which is pretty much the only business, where you can grab a snack and a cup of coffee, provided the last pot of the day still has some, before you head to the Buttes.
Grover, as of the 2010 census, was home to 137 souls. It may have slightly more or less now, but for certain it retains a place in literary history as the setting of Willa Cather’s 1900 short ghost story/murder mystery, “The Affair at Grover Station.” To read this interesting story, which puts you right back in the times, click here. In the second paragraph, it affirms this region is great for stargazing:
“…When the train pulled out of Grover Station, we were sitting smoking on the rear platform, watching the pale yellow disk of the moon that was just rising and that drenched the naked, gray plains in a soft lemon-colored light. The telegraph poles scored the sky like a musical staff as they flashed by, and the stars, seen between the wires, looked like the notes of some erratic symphony…”
From Grover it’s 25 minutes to the Buttes using the driving directions I give below. You’ll want to arrive before sunset in order to walk the mesmerizing 4.5 mile (round trip) trail to the Buttes while the slanting sunlight plays and ripens on them.
From the parking lot the two buttes look reachable within minutes: startling, boxlike, rising out of the prairie like two gigantic birthday presents. But distances can be deceiving here. After meandering and descending through an interesting crater-like valley of chalky cliffs dotted with junipers, you’ll rise back into grassland and the First Butte will look no closer than it did from the car.
This is not a bad thing, because the walk is delightful. This pristine shortgrass prairie is anchored by blue grama, which forms a tough sod that holds well against the wind. It took settlers several generations and a Dust Bowl to figure out this stuff should never be plowed. On closer examination, the diversity of the vegetation is impressive. Over 400 native plant species grow here, and in spring there are beaucoup wildflowers. As your feet scrape the trail you’ll also hear birdsong (this is a major flyway for almost 250 species of migratory birds, many of which nest here). You might see the long ears of a jackrabbit fleeing, and the Grassland is also home to pronghorns, foxes, coyotes, skunks, badgers, kangaroo rats, gophers, mice, voles, prairie dogs, ground squirrels, ferrets, and rattlesnakes.
Soon enough you arrive beneath domineering First Butte, rising 250 feet out of the prairie. Here your imagination can go wild. What is this, really? A bit of Mars? A hunk of comet? A corroding, crashed alien spaceship? Whatever it is, it looks otherworldly, especially in the slanting late afternoon sunlight. Ringed at the top by 50-foot whitish cliffs, there appears to be no way to stand on top of it (and this appearance is accurate; please don’t try).
The Buttes are very much of this world, of course. Remnants of ancient High Plains that didn’t erode into the South Platte River, they are protected by caps of sandstone and conglomerate that formed three to 20 million years ago. Beneath the hard caps is softer sediment called the Brule Formation, described geologically as “white to pale-pink blocky tuffaceous claystone and lenticular arkosic conglomerate” (read: “chalky”). It formed 25 to 40 million years ago.
The Buttes retain some literary notoriety as well. James Michener mentions them 68 times in his novel Centennial, although he calls them “Rattlesnake Buttes.”
From the base of First Butte, a trail invites you onward to equally enticing Second Butte. There you can make a circuit at the base of its cliffs on a trail of sorts. From its eastern (far) side, gorgeous rippled clay barrens melt into prairies that stretch off to infinity.
With no population anywhere nearby, you know you are in for quite a show as nighttime descends. But what is this? As it gets darker, red lights flash on the horizon all around from neighboring wind farms. Oh no! Even way out here in the middle of nowhere, humanity has insisted on creating light pollution.
But do not fear. As it gets darker, and the vast sky opens up above with its bazillion stars, mankind’s minuteness in everything is readily apparent. The blinking red lights on the horizon that annoyed you at first are now all but forgotten, an afterthought, nothing compared to the incomparable vastness lighting up above. Denver? Fort Collins? No traces of their glows can be detected from way out here. We don’t even need to talk about the metropolis of Grover interfering.
Pawnee Buttes’ night sky remains pretty much the same as Willa Cather saw it, circa 1900 from the rear platform of a freight car.
To get to Pawnee Buttes from Grover, turn right (south) onto CR 390 (Railroad Avenue), continue 5.8 miles, and turn left onto CR 112. Proceed 6.4 miles, turn right on CR 107/CR 112, drive 300 feet, then go left to stay on CR 112. In 2 miles turn left at the sign to Pawnee Buttes. The trailhead and its large parking lot are 2 miles farther on the left.