Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Pawnee Buttes Road Trip: Part 2 Lunch at the Buttes

Pawnee Buttes and the wide-open prairie

This is the second in a two-part series describing my Memorial Day road trip to the Pawnee Buttes. The first half describes my visit to the Cedar Fork Wind Farm.

It has been six years since I have visited the Pawnee Buttes and I can tell you there were no wind turbines when I last visited. Now they are everywhere. Gone are the ghosts of the early pioneers who lumbered across the plains to the sounds of the meadowlark. The wind still blows and the sky is still broad, but the distant turbines hum and the air is charged with modernity.

The eastern-most butte

The western most butte with wind turbines in distance

The Pawnee Buttes are part of the White River Badlands, which stretch from Colorado to South Dakota and rise 250 ft above the surrounding prairie. A two-hour drive ends in a large parking lot with a port-a-potty but the view here is disappointing. The buttes are partially obscured from this location by a ridge, so to be fully seen from this point one must hike the the 3 mile round trip Lipps Bluff Trail. An alternative is to back out from this area and take a dirt road heading down a ridge to the trailhead for the to 2.2 mile (round trip) Pawnee Buttes Trail. The Pawnee Buttes Trail is flat and goes to the base of the buttes. It is open all year while the Lipps Bluff trail is closed from 1 March to 30 June to protect nesting raptors.

The escarpment to the left is where the Lipps Trail goes. The pond was filled with the croaking of frogs but I never did find one. They stayed hidden in the grasses.

We chose to drive down the road past the Pawnee Buttes Trailhead because our goal this trip was to lounge and feed, not to walk. Our reasoning was two fold. The day before we had hiked the sodden Greyrock Mountain Trail out of Fort Collins and were loath to strain even the slightest muscle. A secondary consideration was that our friend on the trip had an injured leg and we were sparing him the pain of walking cross country.

Close up of the water tower where we picnicked. I had never been this close to one before even though I have seen many from the road. The pump went up and down and water poured in spurts from the tube visible in the upper portion of the photo. The pond in the previous photo was formed by run off from this tank.

We watched this thunderstorm travel south to north. The clouds near the ground is the roll cloud, which precedes these types of storms. The top of the ridge is the main parking area, and the parking area you can see with the vehicles is the Pawee Buttes Trailhead.

The weather was not particularly conducive to picnicking but we managed to park our car next to one of those old fashioned metal windmills a quarter of a mile from the second trailhead and angled the auto in such a way that it blocked the steady and nippy wind. We were fortunate that the thunderstorm we watched roll across the area was far enough away to only sprinkle on us. Our interlude was short however, and after eating we were driven back into the car as the rain began.

Example of the rolling dirt roads in this part of Colorado. This was taken on Rd 127 looking north.

Not satisfied with this brief glimpse of the buttes, we decided to circumnavigate them. This is easy to do since Colorado is crisscrossed with country roads. If you own a Colorado Gazetteer, it is easy to follow our route. From the windmill, which is actually marked on the map, we took 111 Rd south then 110/11050 Rd east. This dead ends into 127 Rd, which we took north. The view of the Buttes here is very different. From 127 Rd we turned west onto 118 Rd, which becomes 382 Rd. At this point, the rain really began and the dirt road we were on became a slippery swamp. There are actually some slight hills in this area and my sedan was having difficulty getting up them in the mud that was quickly forming. My car fishtailed up and down the hills straining everyone's nerves. It was not until we finally returned to pavement near Grover that we felt safe. Who knew the open prairie could be so hazardous. There are actually sandy gullies on either side of the road and sliding into either of these would have required a tow.

A very grainy image of a Lark Bunting Calamospiza melanocorys. These birds are more hyperactive than I am and did not sit still very long. This made them very hard to photograph with my limited 200m lens.

Throughout the entire area were Lark Buntings (Calamospiza melanocorys), Colorado's state bird. They are rather skittish and I had the devil of a time trying to photograph one. Sneaking up in the car did not work nor did getting out of the car and ungracefully plodding along the fence line. I do need a higher zoom lens. The Lark Bunting is a member of the sparrow family, and the males are dark black with a distinctive white wing patch. These birds eat insects, seeds and grains. They forage on the ground and actually avoid the shrubbery. They build their nests on the ground near the roots of a shrub. The Lark Bunting is migratory arriving in Colorado in April and leaving by September.

The buttes seen from the distant 127 Rd. From this vantage it is easier to see the extent of the wind turbines on the distant chalk cliffs.

A trip to the Pawnee Buttes is a great scenic drive. The prairie is an overlooked area of state, which is very unfortunate. The history, wildlife, sheer expansiveness of the area is worth experiencing. The return trip also provides a brief glimpse into the emotional state of the early explorers who saw the Rocky Mountains for the first time and viewed them as an insurmountable barrier instead of as a weekend playground. Within Colorado the prairie is highly varied. The northern portion has buttes while the southern portion is filled with canyons, of which Vogal Canyon and Picketwire Canyon are two of the better known ones.

A prairie sunset on the way home. The storms this spring have been prodigious.

1 comment:

Linda said...

This really brings home to me the vastness of the prairies that I've only ever read about.
I have mixed feelings about wind turbines. Yes, we need them, but your shot of the buttes with turbines in the background comes across as a violation. We have increasing numbers in Scotland, and in the most scenic areas. We have an area between the major conurbations of Edinburgh and Glasgow that is not at all pretty - think Macbeth's 'blasted heath' - but strangely there are no wind turbines there, near the majority of electricity users. It seems windy enough too.