A wedding in Denver & Pawnee Buttes National Grasslands

May 14-18
47313-ProspestRVAfter a painless drive to and through Denver, we arrived at Prospect Park RV in Wheat Ridge on the west side of the city. Another basic RV park, but this one at least was well off the road, so pretty quiet. It was pretty tight quarters as well. Our site was just across from a horse pasture, so we at least had an illusion of space. They were a number of vintage RV’s here and there that were kind of cool to see. We are here for the wedding of my niece Stephanie to her guy, Eric. I didn’t really photograph any of the gatherings. Instead, I’m going to refer to Mary’s Blog if you want to read about it. She did a far better write-up than I could, and she made the pictures. Have a look!

While in town, we had the chance to visit an old San Francisco friend, Rupert Jenkins. We showed work together in about 1985 and have kept in touch here and there since. He came to Denver to become Gallery Director of the Colorado Photographic Arts Center, and has been charting the gallery’s course for several years now. He has just opened a new show that covers aspects of the cultivation, production and sale of marijuana called, “Mixed Bag: Marijuana in the Highlands”. We had a nice tour of the gallery and later, a chat over coffee.

Pawnee Buttes National Grasslands
After Saturday nights wedding festivities, we woke Sunday and were soon back on the road headed for the Pawnee Buttes National Grasslands in eastern Colorado. The grasslands encompass an area about 60×90 miles in eastern Colorado, and is really out there in the plains. We discovered it through a couple of obscure references in books and magazine articles we’ve come across over the years. The only access is through a bewildering web of Country Roads. Confusing mostly because of the 3 forms of maps we had, none really agreed on how or where the roads ran. We were also under the impression the main roads were paved. They were not. It was mostly good gravel roads, but 15 miles of gravel with a bit of washboard gets real old – especially when towing. The biggest culprit was our Ultimate Campground Guide app. Several times now it has shown minor roads where none actually exist, and/or BLM campgrounds that are no longer (if ever) there.47345-PawneeButtesBut we did manage to find our way to a very nice dispersed campground overlooking the entire area at the buttes. There were several other potential sites, but this was the best view, though very exposed. The Relentless Prairie Wind was really living up to its reputation here. Howling and cold, it stayed with us all night long. We got set up, then took a short ride down to the trailhead to get the lay of the land. We only planned to stay here 2 nights at most, but looking at the weather reports, it seemed we would have nothing but clouds and rain for the next several days. We decided our best chance was to hike tonight as the buttes are best photographed in afternoon light and we did have a little by this time.47346-PawneeButtesWe had an early dinner and were out on the trail by 5:30 PM. Sunset is at 8:05 tonight and this will give us time to get out there for best light. The only problem was the looming thunderhead off in the distance. It seemed to be moving past us to the south, but we will have to keep an eye on it.

Our campsite as seen from the trail.

Our campsite as seen from the trail.

The trail is pretty easy to walk. It starts off across the plateau top for a mile or so before dropping down into a canyon. There is a shortcut across another plateau that would cut off about a mile, but it was closed due to nesting birds along the cliff. So our 4-5 mile hike became more like a 6 mile hike.47361-PawneeButtes 47365-PawneeButtes 47369-PawneeButtesIt was still a very nice trail. The landscape seems flat until you get into it. It would drop into and out of washes, then send us out and around the bluff rims. All pretty easy hiking. A big plus was that the wind was much lighter now that we were off the ridge top. Finally we came to the West Butte. The storm was still passing, but also still getting closer. It looked like we were just on the edge of it. We had our rain gear and couldn’t hear thunder or see lightning, so getting wet was the worst that could happen.47373-PawneeButtes 47376-PawneeButtesWe trekked on to the East Butte, but the clouds were getting heavier and closer, the light getting flatter and dimmer. We arrived, had a short rest before turning back. On the way back, we chatted with another couple on their way in – the only other people out here. They were going to wait to see if there would be a “last light” moment on the buttes. We’d determined it wasn’t going to happen, and didn’t want to be out here in the dark afterward. They had been here many times before and told us about the miles and miles of blooming primrose that were here last year in late June. Apparently the state has had like 400% of normal rainfall so far in May. The past 3 months have been below normal, but the new rain has been causing flooding in many areas – just nowhere for it to go in this relatively flat landscape. It should make for another banner wildflower bloom, but we won’t be around by then.47382-PawneeButtes 47388-PawneeButtes

Just before getting back, I took a spur trail to the official buttes overlook while Mary returned to the car. This is actually the best place to see both buttes in a wide landscape and a perfect spot for sunset views. But not tonight. I had hoped it would happen, but there were no breaks in the cloud cover at the horizon so no last sun rays. There were breaks in the east, but that didn’t help much. Also visible are all the windmills and gas flares from the various oil wells that dot the landscape here. Yes, this is oil country and large tanker trucks, while not overly heavy in number, were evident on the Country Roads.47390-PawneeButtesBack in camp, we rewarded ourselves with snort of 15 year old single malt. With the weather the way it was, we decided to break camp in the morning and move on to South Dakota and Custer State Park and the Badlands. It was a long way to go for this one hike, but as a first look, it served well. We may come back here another time, but our last couple of weeks on the road are making us pick and choose carefully as to what can be done in the time remaining.47392-PawneeButtesBy morning it had stopped raining but remained cloudy. On our way out, a few breaks in the cloud cover would light the landscape temporarily and make us second guess ourselves as to whether we should have stayed or not, but it was soon clear that we would see no significant sun today. We stopped a few times – this time driving separately – to photograph under the even lighting of the high clouds.47408-PawneeButtes 47411-PawneeButtes 47416-PawneeButtes47422-PawneeButtes

On to Custer.

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