Pawnee Pioneer Trails Scenic & Historic Byway
One of the Last Remaining Short Grass Prairies in the U.S.
|Mileage||128 miles (206 km)|
|DurationThe duration is an estimate of a one-way drive and does not include any stops or side-trips.||4 hours, 29 minutes|
|SeasonsThe seasons listed are the best seasons for this scenic drive. If Winter is not mentioned, the road may be closed during the winter.||Spring, Summer, and Fall|
|Roadways||Colorado Highway 14, Country Road 101, Country Road 107, Country Road 110, Country Road 111, Country Road 112, Country Road 115, Country Road 127, Country Road 239, Country Road 77, Country Road 79, and Railroad Avenue|
|ServicesThe cities or towns listed have either Food or Services such as gas, pharmacies, etc.||Sterling, CO▼, and Galeton, CO▼|
4.5 average from 2 votes
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Colorado is known for its 14-ers, boasting 54 mountains taller than 14,000 feet, which is why this byway is so unique. Explore a strikingly different landscape, one of the last remaining short grass prairies in the U.S. At first glance, the vast expanses seem barren, but it is actually teeming with wildlife such as coyote, mule deer, prairie dogs, and raptors. Over 400 species of plants including cottonwood trees, prickly-pear cactus, soaptree yuccas and wildflowers create a myriad of textures. Rich in history, this region was home to American Indians, as well as the homesteaders, ranchers, and frontiersman who followed, enduring hardships due to weather, the dust bowl, and isolation.
The drive begins in the town of Ault just 30 minutes northeast of Denver, and travels through Briggsdale, Grover, Raymer, Fort Morgan, and Sterling. Be sure to have a full tank of gas, drinking water, and snacks on hand as services are spread out. Note some sections of the road are gravel, and after heavy rains or snow, may not be passable. Call the Pawnee District office at 970-346-5000 for current conditions.
If you’re coming from Denver, consider a stop at Fort Vasquez (A4). The adobe fort was built in 1835 for fur trading and was the first permanent structure built along the South Platte River. The fort has since been reconstructed. Learn about the Plains Indians and the fur trade. There is a small entrance fee.
Ault, an acronym for “A Unique Little Town” is the largest of the prairie towns with a population of less than 2,000. It has also become a popular antiquing destination. Search for antique treasures, vintage items, knick-knacks, or collectibles, then grab a bite in town, or relax with a picnic in Liberty Park. In August, join the celebration at the Ault Fall Festival featuring a parade, car show, and beer garden, or in September, the Ault International Food Festival.
At the Crow Valley Recreation Area in Briggsdale, enjoy hiking, wildlife-watching, and bird-watching. Birders will love the Pawnee National Grassland Self-Guided Bird Tour which explores a variety of habitats along a 21-mile route. Bring binoculars, your cameras, and allow time to observe the many species including red-tailed hawks, chestnut-collared longspurs, and long-billed curlews. The tour follows mostly unpaved and gravel roads. Stay overnight at the Crow Valley Campground. Its remote location makes for dazzling stargazing. Onsite is the Lee and Dorothy Rhoads Farm Implement Museum which displays tools once used by homesteaders.
In Grover, visit the Grover Depot Museum (M2). Originally built by the Burlington and Quincy Railroad Company in 1887, the two-story depot offers a glimpse into the past. Explore artifacts and the upstairs living quarters. Open Sunday from 1:00-4:00 pm and occasionally during the week. Call 970-895-2344 to confirm.
The focal point of the 193,000-acre Pawnee National Grassland (H1) are the iconic Pawnee Buttes, two outcrops that rise 300-feet from the flat grassland. Take the Pawnee Buttes Trail to explore East Pawnee Butte, and West Pawnee Butte, a 4-mile round-trip. Though they have stood strong and tall battling time, wind, and water, they are made of a fine clay-rich sedimentary rock and can crumble easily. Climbing harms them and can also disturb wildlife. Rattlesnakes live in the grass, so please stick to designated trails. Note, from March 1-June 30, the north overlook and cliffs near the Pawnee Buttes are closed to the public for raptor nesting protection.
Farms, barns, cows, and horses dot the landscape. In Raymer, head south on CO-52 to the town of Fort Morgan. Rainbow Arch Bridge is on the National Register of Historic Places due to its exceptional design. Eleven arches span 1,100 feet across the South Platte River. Adjacent the library, the Fort Morgan Museum (M3) tells the local history of Fort Morgan through fossils, arrowheads, and exhibits on the railroad history, the sugar beet industry, and Glenn Miller. Though Glenn Miller was born in Iowa, he graduated from Fort Morgan High School. The museum is free, donations appreciated. If you’re here in July, don’t miss the Glenn Miller Swing Fest. Is golf your game? The Quail Dunes Golf Course at Fort Morgan (A2) offers a challenging experience for all levels.
While driving through Fort Morgan you will notice quilt block patterns painted on barns. Approximately 100 barns are part of the Morgan County Barn Quilt Tour. View and photograph from the roadside, unless indicated, as all sites are on private property. A map is available online.
Renowned science fiction writer, Philip K. Dick is buried in the Riverside Cemetery (A3). If you don’t recognize his name, nine of his books became movies including “Blade Runner”, “Total Recall”, and the series “The Man in the High Castle”. He lies alongside his twin sister who died in early childhood.
From Fort Morgan backtrack on CO-52 and then turn right on CO-14 towards Sterling. Alternatively, you can visit Fort Morgan after Sterling.
North Sterling State Park (H4) is a haven for recreation, especially for swimming, boating, water-skiing, jet-skiing, and fishing for wiper, walleye, crappie on the North Sterling Reservoir. Numerous coves, and arms are inviting for kayaking, canoeing, and stand up paddle boarding. Take a break from water fun on 7-miles of trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding. Enjoy wildlife watching, geocaching or just sit back and admire the view. Elks Campground is open year-round and winter activities include ice fishing, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Just east of Balanced Rock is an Archery Range with site-in targets that are ADA accessible and 11 stations with 18 targets. Note there is hunting in designated areas of the park in the fall. All Colorado State Parks have a daily fee, or consider an annual pass.
Designed to resemble a fort, the Overland Trail Park and Museum (M1) features an incredible range of artifacts from the first settlers. Discover period clothing, farm equipment, carriages, handmade toys, photos, and a two-headed calf. Walk through the village, a collection of 13 buildings including the Stoney Buttes one-room schoolhouse, Dailey Country General Store, a chapel, a train depot, and blacksmith shop and more. Some buildings are original, some replicas. Knowledgeable docents add to the experience. There is a small entrance fee. Celebrate the Heritage Festival on July 4.
Sterling is known as the City of Living Trees for its collection of 17 sculpted cottonwood trees by artist Bradford Rhea. Take a self-guided tour, maps are available at the Sterling Rest Area.
At the corner of 3rd and Main, visit the bronze statue of The Popcorn Man, honoring beloved Clarence Mentgen, who sold popcorn at this corner for 40 years.
The end of July, or early August, is host to the Logan County Fair, a true hometown fair with animals, parade, rides, mutton bustin’, extreme bull riding, demotion derby, music and food. In September, enjoy Sugar Beet Days Arts and Crafts Festival featuring artists from Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, and Wyoming.
The drive ends here in Sterling. Interested in more local history? Consider heading east on US-6 to the Fleming Museum. Housed in a two-story train depot, discover artifacts that have been donated by local residents. Explore the upstairs which is set up to replicate the original living quarters. Open Memorial Day and Labor Day, or by appointment.