Scenic Byway #3 – Exploring Colorado’s 25 Scenic and Historic Byways: A two-year tour by sport bike, auto and 4×4


Boy did I get lucky!

How’s that, you ask?

Well…a while ago, when I decided I was going to drive the Pioneer Trail in early May, I thought I’d see when the full moon was supposed to rise. I had no idea it was called the “Super Moon.” I just figured it would be cool to see the moon setting as the sun rose when I reached the Pawnee Buttes which are located along this byway. The only thing that I did not get to see was a brilliantly pink-orange sunrise. I did however; get to view the huge moon setting all the way to the horizon…gorgeous!
In order to see the moon setting though, I had to wake extremely early…around 2:30 am to drive about 115 miles out to the buttes and be there before the moon set and as the sun rose.

Ok, so now for the cool stuff…

My impressions

I’m a mountain girl at heart. I absolutely love exploring everything the mountains have to offer. So, when I realized that some of Colorado’s byways are out on the high plains, I immediately conjured up endless flat, brown scenery as far as the eye can see. Um, ok so I was wrong. Although I knew what most of the route looked like that I drove in the dark, I had no idea that the landscape out by the buttes would be so breathtaking. Rolling, grassy, wild-flower covered hills speckled with yucca and cactus as far as the eye could see and then just when you think the hills would go on forever, there in front of you, the land drops away and surges up to these two majestic buttes.

The beauty does not end at the buttes though, oh no…as you drive past the buttes and off of the dirt roads, you follow the road east, which passes through ranch after ranch and farm after farm. Once you come to the end of the Pawnee National Grassland, you’re not done with the Trail. The Trail (byway) continues in two different directions; one going south to Fort Morgan and the other continuing east to Sterling.

Other sights

While I had all intentions of seeing the Overland Trail Museum in Sterling, I did not find the time. But, I did find something that I enjoy doing…spending time in parks. The Pioneer Park of Sterling has a disk golf course hidden amongst its tall cottonwood trees. I imagined what it would be like to play in summer shaded and cooled by these majestic trees.

On the way to Fort Morgan, I started out on a very straight stretch of road that passed by a huge ranch. As I drove, I noticed a herd of cattle in the distance to my right. As I got closer to this ranch, I realized that I was looking at a mass of brown fur hanging over the barbed wire fence. My immediate first thought was ‘buffalo’, but then for some reason, I questioned myself. As I got closer, sure enough, there was this huge buffalo hanging his head over the fence trying to grab sweet morsels of grass from the other side of the fence. I had to stop. I just couldn’t believe how big this guy was…he was huge. My photo does not do him justice.

When I pulled over, I came up on a second buffalo amongst the cattle. This one looked sweet as he/she ate the grass amongst the prairie flowers, so I took a few photos. When I approached the big fella, he just kept eating and paid no attention to me whatsoever as I crouched close by, but on the other side of the fence and shot a few pix. As I walked away, I just kept smiling to myself about the luck of seeing buffalo on a cattle ranch.

At the end of the Pawnee Pioneer Trail in Fort Morgan, you cross a bridge which sits parallel to a very old bridge with many arches and crosses the South Platte River. This bridge is known as the Rainbow Arch Bridge and was built in the early 1900’s. At one end of the bridge is the entrance to a huge city park, equipped with a water park, baseball diamond, a small lake and walking trails throughout. And sitting up on a hill about a half mile from the park is a GW Sugar plant. As you will see in my next byways blog on the South Platte River Trail, sugar beets are the main crop in this part of the state.

Eats

The small towns all along this drive may or may not have a restaurant. In Sterling, there are plenty of fast food restaurants, but I did not stop at any. Each town also has a small grocery store (small relative to the size of the town) where you can always get fresh snacks for your drive, or bring your lunch and snacks from home. In my South Platte River Trail blog, I talk about the Platte Valley Inn where I stopped for lunch with my guest passenger.

Getting there

I decided to add some directions to the rest of my blogs. These directions are based on a Denver starting point:

  • From Denver, go north on I-25 to the hwy14 exit in Fort Collins and head East.
  • Stay on hwy14 to Briggsdale and then follow the Colorado Byways sign pointing north onto county road 77 (CR77).
  • Stay on CR77 to the Grover turn off (there’s a small Grover sign at this turn) and then head east on CR120 to Grover…oh, and there’s no byways sign at this turn so watch for the Grover sign.
  • Go east through Grover until you come to the next Byways sign pointing south onto CR390.
    • CR390 is the start of the dirt portion of this scenic and historic drive
    • Head south on CR390 until you see the byways sign pointing east again (about 5 miles south).
      • At this turn, the road numbers change a few times, but just follow the byways signs.
      • When you reach the Pawnee Buttes turn off, you’ll know you’re there because of the signage. The road number is #685 and is a single lane forest service road.
      • Follow #685 as it winds its way up and over a couple of hills.

When you reach the buttes, you are up on an overlook. Along this overlook, you can find a few pull-outs meant for camping, although I wouldn’t camp in a tent. What I saw were small pop-up trailers in two different spots and a lone car in another spot. My guess was that people were there to view the ‘Super Moon’ as well as to do some eagle watching. Check out the Pawnee Buttes website for more information about the nesting grounds around the buttes, as well as the hiking trails you can follow to view the buttes.

  • When you leave the buttes, if you are planning on continuing on the byways drive, just follow the byways signs to the south when you get to the end of road #685. Again, the road numbers change a lot, but if you pay attention to the byways signs, you will end up on hwy14. The road remains dirt all the way to hwy14 for about 60 miles. The road is wide in most areas and typically has hard packed dirt and the average speed is 55 mph.
  • From hwy14, you can head east to Sterling, or go west to the hwy52 junction and then head south to Fort Morgan.

From start to finish, which included the South Platte River Trail Byway, I drove a total of 481 miles. I started out at 2:30 a.m. and arrived home around 6:30 p.m. Of course, you don’t need to leave that early and can also do some camping along the way.

Final thoughts

Colorado continues to amaze me. I realized on this drive, that I don’t need to be in the mountains to find amazing scenery, nor do I need to be in the mountains to enjoy trails, parks and just being outdoors. The Pawnee Pioneer Trail Scenic and Historic Byway is full of history as well. With enough time, I would have looked for remnants of that trail which traverses the buttes area. In Sterling, you can learn about the Pony Express which crossed the northeastern corner of Colorado and where William F. Cody got his start at the ripe age of 14. With that said, take a look at any of the links I’ve provided throughout the blog to learn more, or come up with your own Pioneer Trail trip. I’ve included a few more links below:

Happy Trails…

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