Travel: Pawnee National Grassland near Ft. Collins |

Travel: Pawnee National Grassland near Ft. Collins

Special to the Daily/Sarah Mausolf

PAWNEE NATIONAL GRASSLAND, Colorado ” Colorado is one of the few states where you can go from peaks to prairie within a few hours’ drive.

My boyfriend and I took a break from the mountains this week to do some coyote hunting on the Pawnee National Grassland in northeastern Colorado.

Unless you want to camp on this vast, flat expanse, visitors must stay in one of the outlying towns.

We drove about three hours northeast of Vail to Fort Collins, 35 miles west of the grassland.

A strip of cheap hotels greeted us off Highway 14 and we hunkered down in a $60 room at the Sleep Inn.

My boyfriend, Jared Lapp, told me he read that cattle fences line the grasslands because ranchers rent patches of land. I pictured us muscling our way through throngs of cows.

Driving to the grasslands at dawn was a magnificent sight. The sun rose in a splash of salmon pink and gray clouds, shedding light on the endless prairie.

We drove through the small town of Ault, which has a drive-thru liquor store and little else, past some farms and oil wells, into the grasslands itself.

A map of Pawnee looks a bit like that digital camo soldiers wear in Iraq. Checkers of private property interrupt the grasslands, which sprawl across more than 193,000 acres in the northwest corner of Colorado.

This place is a world-renowned bird-watching destination but we quickly discovered that the birds are not the only wildlife here.

“Wow, look at all of them,” Jared said, slowing down his truck to admire 25 pronghorn antelope bounding into the horizon.

We followed one of the many gravel roads that crisscross the grasslands, stopping to open a barbed wire fence. The road dwindled to two dirt tracks, and at one point we drove through a herd of cattle in the road.

For our first hunting spot, we selected an area pocked with prairie dog holes.

A distant moo was the only sound in the grasslands but we quickly realized that quiet was deceptive. When our electronic caller sent a simulated coyote howl echoing into the prairie, a real coyote answered almost immediately in the distance. Then another. And another, and before we knew it, those haunting howls were emanating from six to eight coyotes hidden in the subtle hills beyond. We tried several times to entice the coyotes closer, but they remained elusive.

After a nap at the hotel, we returned to Ault in search of a bite to eat. I found the Bison Breath Saloon irresistible. Located next door to a VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S.) organization and across the street from a sign ecstatically advertising “Krautburgers!” the bar enticed customers with a picture of a snorting bison.

The saloon was a windowless, wood paneled affair that reminded me of the V.F.W.’s back east. I passed up the Rocky Mountain Oysters ($7.55) in favor of a fried beef appetizer. It was a fitting place to fuel up for another round of hunting.

Sunset on the grasslands is like a wildlife safari. Huge rabbits that looked like they could wrestle a dog hopped along the side of the road. Clusters of pronghorn bounded in the distance and prairie dogs poked their heads out of their massive villages.

We parked the truck beside a herd of cattle that clustered along a fence to stare at us.

“I think we’re the center of attention,” Jared noted.

After disguising ourselves in camouflage, we hiked out toward the rolling hills on the horizon. Jared spotted two coyotes that were too far away to shoot, and at another spot, a small gray fox pranced right up to us.

Night started to close in as we drove deeper into the grasslands. We parked and tried one last time to entice the coyotes from our hideout in a spiky bush ringed with the cactus that is almost omnipresent there. Once again, our simulated coyote call inspired answers from the hillsides. One coyote started to howl, then another, and then a few more joined the chorus. It was a comforting sound ” proof that even though builders have paved over much of the United States, a few wild places remain.

We had spent the day communing with nature, getting to know the grasslands on intimate terms. There was just one favor I had to ask Jared before we headed back to the mountains.

“Could you help me get the cactus spines out of by butt?”

High Life Writer Sarah Mausolf can be reached at 970-748-2938 or

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