A Night at Pawnee Buttes

Two Fridays ago I decided to camp at Pawnee Buttes by myself. Although it’s just an hour and a half drive from Fort Collins, I’ve only met one person who’s been there. This spectacular grassland had been calling me since I first explored it last May during harsh midday light. My idea was to photograph the majestic buttes and shockingly healthy prairie at sunset, dusk, dawn, and sunlight. I arrived just in time to catch the buttes glowing pink as the sun set.

Although from a distance the prairie may seem like an unchanging sea of grass, there’s actually quite a bit of variation in the plant communities. At Pawnee Buttes, the clay barren was a new vegetation zone for me. Where the underlying Brule Formation is exposed, only a scattering of a few hardy plants grow. These Hooker’s Sandworts (Argemone polyanthemos) provided a funky foreground as I photographed the prairie in the fading light. Their clumped growth form is an adaptation to their windy and cold environment. This night, however, was calm and warm.

Hooker's Sandworts (Arenaria hookeri) growing at Pawnee National Grassland.

Unfortunately, a large wind farm interrupts the horizon west of the buttes. I like renewable energy and know it has to be generated somewhere, but I wish Pawnee Buttes had been spared. This place has a deep and important history. I was so excited to come here for the first time and ponder the species, cultures, people, and events that have passed before these buttes over thousands of years. I imagined the Buttes as a place where you could see the landscape as it was before European colonization. Unfortunately, I was wrong.

Wind turbines on the horizon at Pawnee National Grassland.

After the sunset light faded I rested for a few minutes, listened to the fading chorus of Horned Larks and Western Meadowlarks, and tried to ignore the dull roar of the natural gas compressor to the east. When it grew dark enough, I walked to the base of West Butte to do some star photography.

Sitting below this butte at night was nearly a spiritual experience. In the stillness of a summer prairie night, alone in the sea of grass, I thought about the people who used to live where I was sitting. The Pawnee Buttes undoubtedly were important to indigenous Americans for millenia, but I can find almost no information about it online. If you have any information regarding native people’s relationship to the buttes, please let me know.

The Milky Way above West Pawnee Butte.

Before I knew it, it was 10:30 and I was exhausted. I camped without a tent that night, right there in the native grasses. I’ll admit it wasn’t a good night of sleep, but I do recommend it. I slept how I imagine animals sleep, in a state of half slumber half vigilance. The prairie wind finally made an appearance in the middle of the night. Horned Larks, Western Meadowlarks, and Lark Sparrows woke me at dawn.

Cowboy camping in the prairie at Pawnee National Grassland.

As the prairie and buttes changed from purple to pink to gold, I explored the prairie at the base of West Butte.  A diversity of flowers, grasses, and wildlife thrive, while invasive species are almost nonexistent. Uncountable numbers of Needle and Thread (Heterostipa comata) swayed below Pawnee Buttes while flocks of Cliff Swallows nesting on the buttes’ soft walls and cruised above the prairie.

Halactid bees drink nectar from a Crested Prickly Poppy (Argemone polyanthemos) flower.
Halactid bees drink nectar from a Crested Prickly Poppy (Argemone polyanthemos) flower.

This was my first time camping in a prairie, and I’m so glad I did. Doing so allowed me to experience a truly special place in stillness and in solitude, in dark and in light, and in purple and in gold. It was a good time to be in a great place. If you haven’t visited this special place yet, you should. Explore, respect, and protect our prairie.

West Pawnee Butte rises above Pawnee National Grassland at sunrise.
West Pawnee Butte rises above Pawnee National Grassland at sunrise.

6 thoughts on “A Night at Pawnee Buttes

  1. Enjoyed your story. I’ve only been there once and it was more of “could I find it?” than a photographic trip. As to history, your easiest resource might be James Michener’s novel of that area, “Centennial”. Pawnee Buttes are referred to as “Rattlesnake Buttes” in his book (something that would concern me sleeping out on the buffalo grass as you did). Though a novel, Michener was an historian who told histories in novelized form. I’m somewhat saddened by the wind farm nearby, primarily from an artistic perspective.

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    1. Thanks Jeff. I read Centennial and loved it, but I’m looking for nonfiction sources on the buttes. And no need to worry, rattlesnakes don’t hunt sleeping humans.

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  2. Barbara Ruth MacKinnon de Montes July 11, 2019 — 8:30 pm

    You’ve developed into a true naturalist, Evan, with all the tools (photography, writing skill, knowledge), to inspire others. Seek more of these moments in nature because it won’t be long before these locations are overrun with human structures.

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    1. Thank you for the kind words, Barbara.

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  3. Evan,
    I thoroughly enjoyed this! Beautiful photography and words! Thanks for capturing this environment with your heart and mind!

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    1. Thank you very much. Glad you liked the post.

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