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Pawnee National Grassland

by Rick Dunn

I'll photograph just about any landscape, but when my wife came back from a visit to Pawnee National Grassland and told me that I 'had' to go out there, I can't say that I was inspired by visions of flat, dry prairie.  And now, when I tell others about the area, I often get a similar response.  "Grass, huh?  Mmm-kay....". 

Compared to stereotypical Colorado scenery, the Grasslands require a different way of seeing.  The Grassland's aesthetic appeal is not as immediately obvious as say the San Juans', and its ecological diversity is masked by the apparent simplicity of its geology.  And while it's been my experience that looking closely at any landscape reveals supplemental treasures and opportunities for more intimate nature photography, about the only way to really see Pawnee is to get your boots dirty and pass through the grass.

The Grassland is located about one hour east of Fort Collins, and occupies a little under 200,000 acres.  It hosts hundreds of species of plants, among them dozens of species of wildflowers that typically peak in late May to early June, and, of course, a great diversity of grasses (watch out for the stinkgrass, scratchgrass and ticklegrass; but a little patch of sleepygrass will do you fine as long as you don't mistake it for the rather inconsiderate go-back grass).   There are hundreds of bird species - the Grassland is well-known as a hot-spot for birders - including hawks and falcons that nest in and on some of the bluffs.  The Forest Service site for Pawnee National Grassland provides excellent lists of all documented animal and plant species.

The main trail is about 1.5 miles, give or take, and leads you out just past West Butte, traveling along an arroyo and between two bluffs for much of the way.  The trail ends just beyond West Butte at private property and East Butte lies just a little further east. Except between March 1 and June 30, you can explore Lips Bluff via a short side trail spurring off from the Pawnee Butte Trail. The bluff is closed in the spring to protect nesting falcons, but, sadly, I've seen many people ignore the signs.

Since I photograph neither birds nor flowers, the Grassland's appeal to me is its relative simplicity with respect to compositions. It's a great place to work on compositional skills because there can be precious little to work with at times.  The main 'attractions', aside from the birds, are the buttes and bluffs that can explored from the Pawnee Buttes Trail.  But, with the exception of these formations, there is very little else in the way of significant structures or forms extending up from the prairie.  This creates a rather simple canvas, leaving a photographer to work with color, line and texture in the form of wildflowers, bluffs, yucca and grasses of all colors and textures to create unique and compelling compositions.

I can usually count on good light, I keep my fingers crossed for some interesting clouds and - when I've been really lucky - a good afternoon thunderstorm has really helped the cause.  And, because it's ruined more shots than it's made, I took great pleasure in finally conquering a cantankerous windmill!

But more often than not, the most reliable participant in my efforts out at Pawnee has been a spectacular - and predictable - full moon rising above the grasslands at sunset.

What I find so interesting about Pawnee is that, of all of these elements, they tend to be very discreet, meagerly represented and don't interfere with one another.  In the mountains, I often find myself working hard to eliminate distracting elements from a 'dense' composition to yield a more compelling image; at Pawnee, for me, the process is more about trying to assimilate or juxtapose sparse elements onto a seemingly stark landscape in order to yield a more impactful image, and I enjoy that contrast in the creative process. I also like that, due to the relative scarcity of compositional elements, each element takes on greater importance, and its proper placement in a scene seems to require more careful consideration in order to be successful.  It requires slowing down and becoming a more deliberate photographer.  I think of it as large-format thinking for the trigger-happy 35mm photographer.

So, if you're looking for something different to photograph, head up I-25 and aim yourself east.  Just watch out for the ticklegrass....

All images and text copyright Rick Dunn