On Day 1 of our adventure backpacking the Pawnee – Buchanan Loop in Colorado’s Indian Peaks Wilderness we found beautiful sub-alpine lakes, cascading water, snow-covered trails and had a close encounter with one of North America’s largest creatures. Most of the first day on the loop follows the Beaver Creek Trail which eventually ends at the intersection with the Buchanan Pass Trail. We tagged Red Deer Lake on a spur hike and then called it a day in the sub-alpine area east of the 11,837′ Buchanan Pass. Hard to cram more beauty or wilderness into one day but we still have four more to go.
Day 1 – Brainard Lake to East Slope of Buchanan Pass (10-miles with added Red Deer Lake spur)
Jennifer and I started our journey backpacking the Pawnee – Buchanan Loop in the parking lot of the Brainard Lake Recreational Area. We rolled into the parking lot a little after 7:00 AM and got a very good spot on the west side of the lot. Plenty of people came rolling in after us and the park was filling up fast by the time we had gathered our supplies and strapped on our packs.
We headed to the north and skirted the north side of Brainard Lake. This part of the adventure, unfortunately, is along the asphalt road. It also has a ton of day hikers clamoring for selfies along the lake’s shore so don’t have any illusions of having this part of the trail to yourself.
Beaver Creek Trailhead
After leaving Brainard Lake we continued along the road about half a mile to the Mitchell Lake parking area where the trailhead for Mitchell Lake can be found on the southwestern corner of the lot. Don’t take this trail by accident as the Beaver Creek Trailhead is found on the north side of the lot. Thankfully this is where we finally left the asphalt and a lot of the day hikers behind. The Beaver Creek Trail heads through the trees and quickly finds the treeline exposing the slope of Mount Audubon.
Mount Audubon & Beaver Creek Trail Intersection
Shortly after reaching the treeline and about 2.5 miles in, the trail reaches a junction. To the left, the trail continues to climb to the summit of Mount Audubon (perhaps a good and strenuous side trip if you wanted to add more adventure to your journey). We headed to the right where the Beaver Creek trail begins to descend on its way towards Coney Flats. This is where we lost what remained of the day hikers.
Snow in Mid-July
From the intersection, the trail will descend the north side of Mount Audubon. The northern slopes of mountains in Colorado are the last to lose their winter coats. The trail still had a lot of deep snow drifts that covered it in mid-July. Thanks to my good sense of direction and a GPS we were able to locate the trail after cautiously crossing over large swaths of white terrain. This early difficulty gave me pause about the conditions that the passes might be in but we decided to push ahead and find out for ourselves. Once the trail dropped back into the treeline we lost the deep snow drifts and it was much easier to make our way to the Coney Flats area.
The Coney Flats Area
After 5-miles of hiking, we reached the Coney Flats area. This is another Trailhead for those with 4×4 vehicles and would be another good starting point for the loop. We ran across some Jeep enthusiasts tearing through a water obstacle just before the parking area for the Coney Lake and Beaver Creek trailhead.
This area has a lot of trail junctions and it would be easy to get lost, but there is good signage that helped keep us on the right path. First, we merged onto the Beaver Creek/Coney Lake/Buchanan Pass Trail which was more of the dirt road that leads to the before-mentioned parking area to the west. Near the parking area, we saw a sign letting us know we were re-entering the Wilderness area (not really sure when we left it). A short distance down that path the Coney Lake trail splits off to the left and the Beaver Creek Trail continues straight ahead.
A Wet Beaver Creek Trail
The Beaver Creek Trail climbs slowly from the Coney Flat’s parking area through pine forests to the junction with the Buchanan Pass Trail about 7 miles into the journey. The hike through the trees was a rather wet one when we were there in mid-July. The path itself at times was more of a creek than a hiking path. I would suggest Gortex shoes. Jennifer had them and her feet remained dry… mine were not so lucky.
Buchanan Pass & Beaver Creek Trail Intersection
The Buchanan Pass Trail intersection is an odd one. The Beaver Creek trail basically turns into the Buchanan Pass Trail as it continues straight towards the pass itself, but if you take a sharp right then the Buchanan Pass trail leads north towards the Red Deer Lake trail and other wilderness trails.
A Close Encounter With Nature
We continued straight for a short distance before finding a spot for Jennifer to rest while I searched for a camping spot. I left her there with the bear spray and continued up the trail.
When I hike without the bear spray I make a lot of noise to let larger creatures know I am in the area as to not surprise them and have an unfortunate encounter. As I searched for a campsite I was clapping my hands about every 30 seconds or so. About 30 seconds had passed and I rounded a corner, clapped my hands, and heard a large body go crashing through the trees parallel to my position. A million possibilities of my impending death flooded my brain. I quickly recovered from my small heart attack and saw a huge bull Moose starring me down. He was now standing at a much safer distance on the other side of a small creek about 40′ from me. It was both magical and terrifying.
Campsite Night 1 on the Pawnee – Buchanan Loop
Anyways, about a quarter of a mile past the Buchanan Pass Trail junction and where the trees started to thin as we once again approached the tree line I found us a nice camping spot. There is a small creek in the valley here running from the snowfields near the Buchanan Pass. The area is open to free camping so no permit is needed. We made camp in a small stand of pine trees. Unfortunately, there was a small natural retaining area catching snow melt next to our tent that went unnoticed and later that evening gave way. We returned to the tent after hiking to Red Deer Lake to find our tent in an inch of water. Luckily the tent didn’t leak and we just moved it to dryer terrain.
Red Deer Lake Spur (2.5 miles roundtrip)
After we set up camp for the night we headed back down to the Buchanan Pass & Beaver Creek trail intersection and headed north towards the Red Deer Lake trail. The Buchanan Pass trail descends through the trees to a small meadow where a bridge crossing a small creek had given way. The bridge was split in half in a V-shape with most of it now underwater. We skillfully jumped the swollen creek and continued on the path.
Buchanan Pass & Red Deer Lake Intersection
After about 3/4 of a mile, we reached the Buchanan Pass trail & Red Deer Lake intersection. If you aren’t looking for the trail signs it could be easy to miss as the Red Deer Lake trail starts out pretty narrow at the intersection. It is a fairly steep 1/2 mile climb from there up to the lake.
Red Deer Lake
Red Deer Lake sitting at 10,372′ is itself a beautiful little lake with the Red Deer Mountain rising behind it. There are several nice-looking campsites at the lake as well if one wanted to make their way here with the packs.
End of Day 1
Once we had taken in the lake’s scenery we quickly returned back to our campsite to prepare dinner and call it a night.