The last day of backpacking the Pawnee -Buchanan Loop trail may be a relatively short distance but it is a daunting way to finish our 36.5-mile trek through the woods. The climb up to Pawnee Pass is along a loose and rocky trail, but the views found in the Four Lakes Zone of the Indian Peaks Wilderness make this day much more than the final day on the trail.
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Day 5 – Pawnee Pass to Brainard Lake (6.5-miles)
We awoke early as the sun rose and packed up our camp. We wanted to make sure we were over the pass before mid-day to ensure we didn’t get caught above treeline in a storm. The weather report when we had left 5 days earlier had afternoon showers for this day. In Colorado, it is always a good idea to be over a pass and back to treeline before 1 PM at the latest. Surprise lightning kills a lot of people in these elevations. That is yet another reason why I think people who do this loop as a single-day run are insane. To each their own I guess.
Crawling up Pawnee Pass
Leaving the lake, the trail starts off steep and as it ventures away from the treeline gets even steeper. The climb up to the pass is grueling, full of short switchbacks and loose terrain. The trail also becomes difficult to find as it is hidden amongst the boulders. If you take your time (we didn’t have a choice, we were sucking air as if we had never been at altitude before) and keep an eye on the path ahead it is easy to keep the trail underfoot, but I could see if you weren’t experienced at trail finding in rocky terrain this could be a difficult section. Luckily this entire section of the loop was clear of snow which I had been concerned about since the north side of Mount Audubon on the first day.
Another nice result of starting early is that we were able to ascend this extremely difficult section in the shade. Had we waited until later it would have been exposed to the sun and a hot ascent.
The Guardian of Pawnee Pass
As the trail nears the top of Pawnee Pass we found a large rock formation resembling a human face. It is a unique formation watching over hikers who summit these steep walls. The guardian of Pawnee Pass. Once you reach this position the top of the pass is in sight and the trail’s steepness begins to taper away.
At 22-miles on the loop trail, we finally reached the top of the 12,550′ Pawnee Pass. The views towards the west are best on the ascent up the pass. The views from the top towards the west are blocked by the surrounding landscape. However, the views to the east are expansive and breathtaking. The pass itself is shocking. It is a large flat alpine field. Surprisingly it resembles a rolling hill rather than the jagged rocky peak that we had just climbed up.
Pawnee Peak Spur (1-mile round trip)
There is an intersection on top of the pass that leads to the top of Pawnee Peak (1-mile round trip from here). We chose not to do this trail, but it does look like a relatively easy ascent and would be a good option for those who still have some energy left in the tank.
Descending Pawnee Pass
After enjoying a snack on the top of the pass we proceeded to head back towards Brainard Lake. This part of the trail is now considered the Pawnee Pass Trail. I’m not entirely sure where the name change happens. I think perhaps it is at the pass. Either way, the descent starts gradually as it roles over the top of the pass and then steepens quickly as the trail descends through several large switchbacks. Unfortunately, large portions of the trail in this area were covered in snow and a lot of route finding was needed to bypass these sections safely.
Around 23.5 miles on the loop, the trail flattens out as it lands on an alpine bench. The bench has nice overlooks of Lake Isabelle below as well as the mountainous peaks that surround it. We enjoyed the reprieve briefly. Before long we found ourselves once again in a steep descent headed towards the valley floor far below. This descent while still rather steep was more moderate than the angle prior to the bench.
Coming off the bench the Pawnee Pass trail drops steeply into a gully. The path here is exposed with the tightest section of switchbacks found when backpacking the Pawnee – Buchanan Loop.
This next section of the trail finds the treeline and then continues to descend through a very fertile forest. The trail crosses over several cascading tributaries on its way toward Lake Isabelle. I found this area to be some of the prettiest on what was already a very gorgeous experience of backpacking the Pawnee- Buchanan Loop.
Lake Isabelle and the End of Solitude
At roughly 24.5-miles on the loop, the trail levels out on the eastern shore of Lake Isabelle (10,505′). After finding many gorgeous lakes on this loop trail we had found yet another. The lake was a stunning surprise as I had thought we had passed all the premium high country lakes. The northern shore of Lake Isabelle was still covered in snow and the huge cascading waterfall on the eastern side of the lake makes this a special one in my memory. Unfortunately, the lake was not a surprise to the hordes of day hikers whose destination was the lake itself. The solitude of backpacking the Pawnee – Buchanan loop had come to an end.
Pawnee Pass and Isabelle Glacier Trail Intersection
There is an intersection as the trail approaches the lake. This is where the Pawnee Pass Trail intersects with the Isabelle Glacier Trail. If you take a right here it will lead you to the glacier. Another great option for a spur hike. We took a left which continued towards Brainard Lake.
For the next mile of backpacking the Pawnee – Buchanan Loop, the trail continued to descend at a more moderate pace until coming to the southern shore of Long Lake at 25.5-miles along the loop. As the trail approaches the lake it reaches yet another intersection, the Jean Lunning Loop trail. A hard right turn would add on only a little distance to the trek as it circles around to the southeast side of Long Lake rather than the northwest.
Intersections on the Northeastern Shore of Long Lake
We stayed straight paralleling the northwestern shore as the trail undulated through the pine forest. After about a mile of glancing at the lake through the trees, the trail leads to yet another intersection. We took the path to the right across a bridge that crosses over the creek running from Long Lake.
The Cutoff Trail
Once on the other side, we reached yet another intersection. To the right is the other half of the Jean Lunning Loop. We headed to the left towards Brainard Lake on the cutoff trail (#907.2). This short half-mile trail leads downhill on some switchbacks through the woods to a road with a small parking area on the southwestern side of Brainard Lake.
Back at Brainard Lake
We crossed the road and found a trail leading us along the shore of Brainard Lake and back to the parking area from whence our grand adventure had started 5-days and 36.5-miles earlier (27 miles on the loop without spurs). To say we were tired would be a vast understatement, but we were also elated to have experienced some of the most picturesque landscapes in the world.
Conclusion of a 5-day Adventure Backpacking the Pawnee – Buchanan Loop
An adventure backpacking the Pawnee – Buchanan Loop in the Indian Peaks Wilderness isn’t for everyone. It is a tough long-distance hike with over 6,625′ of elevation gain and loss. It is rough on the knees, back, hands, eyelids, and any and every other part of the body. However, if remote wilderness, wild animals, gorgeous waterfalls, jagged peaks, and stunning lakes are what you seek, then the Pawnee – Buchanan Pass is an amazing backpacking adventure. It is a tough 27-mile loop across rough terrain but anyone who comes here prepared and stays diligent should have a grand time. I know we did!
Tips for backpacking the Pawnee – Buchanan Loop
- Arrive at the Brainard Recreational area’s parking lot before 8:00 AM in the summer months before the lot fills up with day hikers. This area is very popular.
- Alternatively, if you have a 4×4 vehicle you can head to the Coney Flats parking area instead and bypass the crowds and the access fee.
- There is an $11 access fee to the Brainard Recreational area inside Indian Peaks Wilderness.
- Free entry with a National Park Pass.
- The entrance fee is good for 3 days.
- Permits are needed for backcountry camping in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. This is a popular area so plan well in advance. The permitting system is now done online and typically goes live in early February.
- Snow typically covers the trail from October thru late July. It can snow here year-round.
- A bear canister is required when backpacking in the Indian Peaks Wilderness.
- Backpackers are not allowed to camp within 100′ of any lake, stream, or the trail. You aren’t allowed to camp at all in the Four Lakes area which is on this map in blue. As always use Leave No Trace practices when in this and all wilderness environments.
- Check out the Indian Peaks Wilderness website for more details.
- Don’t forget your hiking poles. Your knees will thank you later.
- Plenty of water all along this loop so bring your filter.