Days & Nights on the Pawnee National Grassland
Jun 15, 2020
Many of Colorado's National Parks and National Forest lands are well known, even to people who don't make their home here, but on Colorado's eastern plains between Fort Collins & Sterling lies the Pawnee National Grassland. It's an area I didn't know a thing about when I moved here 7 years ago. It was first mentioned to me by a friend at work who said it was a nice place to see wildflowers in the spring. The mountains grab the attention of a new resident however, so it was 4 years in before I paid this place a visit. But before I get into my experiences, I'll share a brief history of what is now the grasslands to provide some context for what it is today.
The history of the plains in the 19th century is well documented, so suffice it to say that before homesteaders arrived this area was prime grazing lands for the deer, antelope, elk, and buffalo that supported the natives of the area. Large scale farming was nonexistent. In 1861, a man named John Wesley Iliff started his first cow camp on Crow Creek in the area. As the buffalo became scarce, Iliff expanded his cow camps to provide beef for the railroad crews. In 1868, he started purchasing cattle from Charles Goodnight, who sent them up the trails from Texas, establishing the Goodnight-Loving Trail. After exploring the American West, John Wesley Powell wrote in his report, among other things, that without a dependable water supply it would be futile to plow the grasslands and that the lands should be left as grass. Later years would prove him right.
The Homestead Act of 1862 brought travelers from the east to the prairies looking for a new start with their own plots of land, and by the mid 1880's homesteaders had begun plowing the grasslands for farming. The 1890's brought a stretch of dry years that forced many to move on, but the rains returned in the years after the turn of the century and the prairie towns like Keota, Grover, & Briggsdale boomed again. By 1930 about 60% of the grassland in Weld County had been plowed. In the 1930's drought returned and along with it high winds. This was the time we know as the "Dust Bowl". Farms were literally blown away with the dry topsoil, and many were simply abandoned. The government began buying up the land, or in some cases making land swaps with the farmers for better farm locations. Government management returned the land to grazing, including building many of the windmills that we see on the Grassland now to pull water from the aquifer below for the cattle. Eventually the government owned land was turned over to the USFS and the National Grasslands were created. The Pawnee National Grassland is one of 19 across the plains. The Pawnee National Grassland has 2 sections, a western segment near Briggsdale, and an eastern segment that includes the Pawnee Buttes and the ghost town of Keota. When viewed on a map, they are shown as two large rectangles, but they are actually a hodge podge of government and privately owned land. A Forest Service Motor Vehicle Use Map will inform you whether you are on public or private land.
My first visits to the Pawnee National Grassland were to visit the Pawnee Buttes. First with a visit to finally go and see the spring wildflowers, and then night sky visits during a meteor shower and to see the Milky Way. While looking at a light pollution map could give you the idea that it would be a very dark place, oil & gas wells in the area give off light, and a modern wind farm to the north leaves a red glow on the horizon. Fortunately the light from these sources doesn't reach very far above the horizon, leaving this still a good place to see the night sky. I've photographed the Milky Way here successfully.
This year, in looking for new locations to photograph the night sky, I decided to start exploring the western section of the grassland near Briggsdale. I identified the locations of a few of the classic windmills from the satellite view on Google Maps, and went out on an early February night to check them out. While clouds blocked my view of the Milky Way the entire night, I was able to confirm a couple of locations to return to, and when given another opportunity at the end of March I finally captured my first successful Milky Way photo of 2020 at one of those spots. I shared that photo in my previous blog post. I returned again in May during another window of clear skies and captured more night sky photos here, including the one at the top of this post. Despite the proximity to Briggsdale in this section, the lack of oil & gas wells here makes this in practicality an even darker location than the Buttes, and in my experience very peaceful and quiet. I'll share one more photo below from my most recent visit, which was very enjoyable. These old windmills from the mid 20th century still operate to pull up water for the cattle who still graze here, and they make great subjects as part of a night sky image.
I've found most of my visits to the Grassland to be satisfying. While not terribly far from the cities of the Front Range, you can definitely get a feel of being far from anywhere, especially on the eastern segment. Nights spent in the parking lot at the Pawnee Buttes are both very quiet and peaceful and a bit unnerving at the same time, especially when a strange car pulls into the parking lot at a late hour. The grassland is known as a great birding location as well. Overall, I have found it to be a pleasant place to visit.
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