Buchanan Pass & Gourd Lake Trails: Pawnee – Buchanan Loop: Day 2

Day 2 of our journey on the Buchanan – Pawnee Pass Loop saw us travel another 6-miles on the Buchanan Pass Trail up and over the pass before turning onto the Gourd Lake trail and climbing up the steep switchbacks another 2.7-mile to our campsite near the lake. It was a day of two tough climbs, Buchanan Pass & Gourd Lake, but with beautiful mountain scenery, wild creatures, lakes, waterfalls, valleys, and streams. It was a great day to be backpacking in the Indian Peaks Wilderness.

View east from Buchanan Pass
The top of Buchanan Pass rewards backpackers with panoramic views of the Indian Peaks Wilderness.

Get caught up on the Pawnee – Buchanan Loop by using the links below.


Day 2 – Buchanan Pass to Gourd Lake (8.75-miles)

Bridge over Middle St. Vrain Creek
The last bridge across the Middle St. Vrain creek.

After breakfast, we packed up our campsite in the tree line east of Buchanan Pass. We crossed over the last bridge spanning the creek and started our climb up the Buchanan Pass Trail.

Buchanan & Pawnee Pass Loop Map

Another Moose

Moose Sighting
A young moose having breakfast on the slope leading to Buchanan Pass.

We hadn’t made it a quarter of a mile when we were greeted by an adolescent moose. Much smaller than the one I had surprised on Day 1. While we didn’t approach the amazing creature I did take the opportunity to grab a few pics. This moose seemingly couldn’t have cared less that we were there. Other than the occasional glance he proceeded in consuming his breakfast as if we weren’t even there.

Above Treeline on Buchanan Pass

A hiker follows the trail down Buchanan Pass
Jennifer starts the descent west off of Buchanan Pass.

Back to the trail, we quickly left the treeline where the grueling climb up Buchanan Pass commenced. The climb up to Buchanan Pass isn’t overly technical, but it is steep at times. There is a spot near the top where you might feel like you are scrambling up the side of a rock wall, but it really isn’t that bad. The worst for us was when we encountered a snow drift still covering the steep path. So, we had to go off the path and it was a little hairy making our way across. Another week of sunshine and this section would have been clear.

A hiker looks out over the Indian Peak Wilderness
Jennifer stands on top of the most rugged section of the Buchanan Pass climb.

Buchanan Pass

A hiker takes a nap next to a cairn.
Jennifer stops for a siesta on the top of Buchanan Pass.

After 9.5 miles (not including the Red Deer Lake Spur) we reached the 11,837′ high Buchanan Pass. It is a broad saddle with sweeping views back across the valley from where we had come as well as similar views of the path ahead to the West. We took the opportunity to have a snack and Jennifer even laid down for a quick siesta as I explored the high land.

A hiker follows the trail down Buchanan Pass
Jennifer starts the descent west off of Buchanan Pass.

Alpine Bench

Trail full of water
The trail once again resembles a creek on its way down the mountainside.

The descent off the pass is quick, but not as steep as the climb up, and the terrain in mid-July was covered in alpine grass and wildflowers. The trail drops onto a small alpine bench dotted with small ponds and snowfields as it approaches treeline. I thought this was one of the most magical places on our journey. I would imagine as the summer goes on that this area dries up, but in mid-July, snowmelt created a boggy land where the trail was often a creek bed.

Buchanan Pass Alpine Bench
There is an Alpine Bench just before the treeline on the west side of Buchanan Pass full of snow and small pools of water.

Tree Obstacles

Fallen Tree on the path
A tree had fallen directly on the Pawnee – Buchanan loop trail. One of many such obstacles to overcome.

The trail then continues its descent into the trees. We found a lot of obstacles to our path in the form of fallen trees that must have come down over the winter. I would imagine that the chainsaw crews would take care of this a little later in the season.

Water Obstacles

Buchanan Creek
The path crosses over Buchanan Creek several times as it descends into the valley below.

Shortly, the trees briefly give way to a sprawling valley as the small tributary creeks come together to create the larger Buchanan Creek which the Buchanan Pass Trail will parallel and cross over several times until it intersects with the Cascade Trail. There are several creek crossings that require hikers to pass through the swift cold waters. We undertook these barefooted, but I recommend sandals or water shoes. Yes, the water is frigid. It is still very close to the creek’s snowy source.

Avalanche Area

Shallow Buchanan Creek Gorge
A shallow gorge carved by Buchanan Creek.

After skirting a shallow gorge carved by Buchanan Creek, the trail will enter into a thick pine forest. The trail descends through these dark woods for over a mile before emerging into a rather large avalanche area. The trees were all pushed over and while recent it didn’t look like it was this year’s winter season.

Avalanche Area
An avalanche had come through at some point and ripped all the trees out leaving this exposed terrain.

Potential Camping at the Gourd Lake Intersection

At the far side of the avalanche area and about 13.5 miles on the main loop, the Buchanan Pass trail intersects with the Gourd Lake trail. There is a very nice area on the south side of the trail (left in our approach) that would have been a great spot to drop a campsite and then proceed to do a day hike to Gourd Lake. We, however, decided to huff the backpacks up and camp at the lake. This decision was made before we left as permits are needed to camp in the Gourd Lake area.

This is a real-time permit availability tracker provided by our friends at Outdoor Status. They track cancelations so no permit goes unused. Sign up today to get emails sent directly to your inbox when your campsite becomes available.

Gourd Lake Spur (Add 5.35-miles Roundtrip)

Adding 2.7 miles of trail one way with over 1,200′ of elevation gain was probably not the smartest thing to do with full packs at this point in our journey. We were very slow in our ascent. The climb up is grueling and not especially breathtaking. It stays in the woods and you are left to wonder how many more times the trail will switchback before cresting over the top… Spoiler alert: it’s 17 times!

The Waterfall into the Valley

Waterfall across the valley from the switchbacks
Looking down at the waterfall from the top of the switchbacks. The trail to Gourd Lake starts on ground that is lower than the bottom of that waterfall.

At the start of the ascent, there is a waterfall across the valley on the opposite wall that is nice to hear as it crashes down from high above. However, by the time you get halfway through the switchbacks you realize you have topped that huge waterfall and are still climbing.

On Top of the Switchbacks

Valley View
Those who climb up the steep Gourd Lake spur are rewarded with views of the valley beyond.

As we neared the top of the switchbacks we were rewarded with nice views down the valley, now far below. The trail then turns away from the steep walls and heads to the subalpine Gourd Lake nestled in a rocky nook at 10,795′. Before reaching the lake the trail passes to the right of a small pond, don’t be fooled this isn’t the lake. Shortly past the pond the trail finally makes it to an arm of the actual lake. This is the vine of the “gourd” and the main lake is reached by skirting the trail as it hooks to the right.

Gourd Lake Vine
The vine of the gourd at Gourd Lake. The main body of water is reached on a trail to the right.

Camping at Gourd Lake

There are several nice camping spots around the lake. A permit is needed to camp in this area. Exhausted, we made camp and just in time as a late afternoon thunderstorm rolled quickly through. We hid in our tent and emerged after to clear skies… Colorado is awesome like that.

The Beauty of Gourd Lake

Gourd Lake was gorgious in the late afternoon light.

The lake was gorgeous and a close second in beauty to that found at Crater Lake on Day 3. The rocky peaks around Gourd lake rise mostly to the west and north of the lake so while the views tonight were very pretty the early morning yet to come was stunning.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Vicky says:

    As always the photography is breathtaking. I so appreciate your posting with experience on the trail. What a sight!

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