Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Pawnee National Grasslands

Experiencing the Grasslands for the first time, although vast and beautiful in its own way, lacked the life and color that I knew could be present in this place......

That was in October of last year. I promised myself that I would return in the spring.

Well, here we are. Once dominated by large populations of deer, antelope, elk and buffalo, and scarcely populated with Indians and fur trappers, these lands have been through quite a transformation over the years. With the railroads push west, homesteaders trying to make a home to ranch and farm, as well as the droughts that have periodically hit, the area has forever been changed, impacted my man.

With my last visit almost being an accident, I was not completely prepared for the trip. Being both short on daylight and on fuel my time was cut short. I knew that the next time I visited this place that I would be prepared with more information as well as a full gas tank.

It was Friday May 29th when I contacted the National Forest Service/ Pawnee National Grassland office in Greeley. The nice woman who answered the phone, Melissa, was full of information and was kind enough to offer to leave me information on the Grasslands for me to pick-up on Saturday even though their office was closed. Thank you Melissa!

After getting an early start and picking up my information in Greeley, the expedition was on.

The drive east on Highway 14 out of Ault was at first was nothing remarkable, but then primrose with their white blooms began to highlight the green grasses and fields along the way. I knew that I had arrived. Colorado Hwy 14 provides access to most all areas of the National Grasslands. Just keep in mind that the Grasslands are intermixed with areas of private property. Make sure to get a map of the area.

Even though I had driven by the Crow Valley Campground on my last trip, I knew that I wanted to stop this time from reading some the information that I had received from the Greeley office. The campground was supposed to be a great area for bird watchers. As I pulled into the parking area, I heard bird song from trees lining the road and my eyes were drawn to a hawk flying overhead.

Although I am not a bird watcher, and I am lucky to be able to identify just a few well know species, my interest was spurred by a group of several people near the trees with binoculars. I always carry a pair of binoculars in my truck, so I grabbed them and my camera and went to see what was attracting their interest. Upon reaching the group, with a Colorado State Park Ranger in attendance, they pointed out several Robins and a Rose-breasted Grosbeak jumping from limb to limb and tree to tree feasting on small nodules on the underside of the leaves. My binoculars provided a nice view, unfortunately however my camera was not outfitted for the task of grabbing close-ups. The Grasslands are home to home to 301 bird species.

I was able to break out the camera and photograph a nice yellow wildflower, and Prickly Pear Cactus. The morning light provided a wonderful glow to both of my shots.

The campground was also home to an outdoor farm implement museum named after Lee and Dorothy Rhoads. This also provided several photo opportunities of some the equipment that was once used on their farm. Although I was not completely happy with all of my shots, there were a few that I decided to keep and use.

With some of my Flickr friends using HDR on a regular basis, I decided that it would be a great opportunity to break out the tripod and take advantage of the scenery and try some more of them myself.

The grasslands, buttes and deep blue skies with building afternoon scattered thunderstorms proved to be an excellent time to use that technique, as well as just single shot photography. They both provided excellent landscape shots.

On my last visit, I had noticed all of the wind turbines up on a butte in the distance, (as seen above) and I made a note that I was going to get a closer look the next time I was there. At the time I did not realize the size and the scope of the Cedar Creek Wind Farm. With having more time and obviously more beautiful photography conditions, I was able to get an up close look at the many wind turbines that are part of this expansive wind farm. What an incredible sight!! With the fertile land actively being farmed and also serving as pasture land, it made for quite a picturesque view. It is definitely worth the visit; however stay on the county roads, all of the wind farm lies on private property.

Going farther east you will discover the Pawnee Buttes area of the Grasslands. Here you will find access roads and some trails that are open for hiking and horseback. The scenery here takes on a slightly more desert look with the sedimentary butte rock formations, cactus, lizards, and snakes in plentiful supply. Ahhh, another opportunity for some HDR shots!

The trip to the Pawnee National Grasslands has been rewarding. Spring provides lots of color and beautiful skies, and although at first glance animal life appears to be sparse, the Grasslands are full of life. Take a look. I know that I will return.

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