Day 3 of our backpacking adventure on the Pawnee – Buchanan Loop saw us hiking from one gorgeous mountain lake to another. Along the way, we took in several waterfalls on the Buchanan Pass Trail as well as the Cascade Creek Trail before arriving at the spearhead looking at Lone Eagle Peak and the shores of Crater Lake via the Crater Lake Trail. This 10-mile journey from lake to lake is Colorado backcountry hiking at its finest.
Get caught up on the Pawnee – Buchanan Loop by using the links below.
Day 3 – Gourd Lake to Crater Lake (9-miles)
We awoke to a beautiful clear day. Gourd Lake was placid which made for some stellar reflections of the mountainous landscape on the glassy water. We enjoyed the calm of this remote lake for most of the morning. There was only one other group at the lake and we barely saw each other. We had the place mostly to ourselves which made the grueling effort of getting to the lake on the previous day more than worth it.
I highly recommend Gourd Lake as a side trip while on the Pawnee – Buchanan Loop or as a destination hike of its own using the Monarch Lake Trailhead.
Descending the Gourd Lake Spur
After spending most of the morning taking in Gourd Lake we had a late breakfast, packed up, and headed out. The trail down from the lake is back down the way we came in. The descent of the switchback-laden trail was much quicker than the previous day’s slog-up. Before long we found ourselves back on the Buchanan Pass Trail headed west.
Back on the Pawnee – Buchanan Loop
From the Gourd Lake Trail intersection, the Buchanan Pass Trail continues to descend through a thick pine forest, mostly following the Buchanan Creek. The descent is a more gradual one to the junction with the Cascade Creek Trail. The one bit of excitement is crossing over an aging bridge that is perched above a steep cascading tributary. There is a nice handrail to hold onto, but if this isn’t your sort of thing a hiker could find it unnerving.
Cascade Creek & Buchanan Pass Intersection
After about 15.5 miles on the main Pawnee – Buchanan Loop trail (not including the spurs to Gourd or Red Deer lakes), we came to the junction with the Cascade Creek Trail. At roughly 8,800′ this is the lowest point on the entire circuit. The highest point, 12,550′ Pawnee Pass, is yet in front of us but we won’t get there until Day 5. The area around the intersection is nice and flat with a lot of options for campsites.
Monarch Lake Trailhead
If you take a right at the intersection the trail will lead to the Monarch Lake Trailhead, about 3.5-miles away. This is another good starting point for the loop, but it is more commonly used by either day hikers or backpackers who wish to do an out and back either to Gourd Lake or Crater Lake rather than the full Pawnee – Buchanan Loop. We took a left at the junction and proceeded southeast towards Crater Lake.
Cascade Creek & Falls
Within half a mile of turning onto the Cascade Creek Trail, we realized the creek was well named. For the next mile or so the creek is full of cascades and waterfalls. We have hiked all over Colorado and this might be the densest collection of waterfalls in the state. The collection is simply known as Cascade Falls. Of course with this many waterfalls, the trail climbs quickly and at times steeply. The trail is well maintained through this section as well and was one of the few places on the loop we ran into quite a few day hikers enjoying the falls. This area is gorgeous and time should be allotted to really soak it all in.
Through the Woods and Into the Meadow
Eventually, the trail does venture away from the creek and wonders through a more dense forest and into a meadow. The ascent of the trail softens as it meanders through the trees and climbs through the meadow surrounded by high mountains seemingly on every side. This is supposed to be a great spot to find moose, but we didn’t see any. Other hikers we passed on the trail did, so I guess we just had bad timing. There is another creek crossing in the meadow but this time there is a bridge so no need to remove your shoes like on the Buchanan Creek crossings.
The Trail Resembles a Creek
Shortly after the bridge, the trail does return to a steeper climb as it skirts along the west side of a mountain. Again we found that in mid-July there was a lot of water coming down the tributaries in this section. The trail often resembles more of a shallow creek than a footpath. It got especially bad just before reaching the junction for Crater Lake. In this particular spot, the path was reduced to several single boards laid on end and used by travelers to traverse the tributary. The only problem was that at the end of the boards was a 6′ section of water with no board. My shoe got soaked… bring on the blisters. Again Jennifer was fine because she has Gortex shoes. Lesson learned. I bought Gortex shoes as soon as we returned home.
Cascade Creek & Crater Lake Trail Intersection
Around 19 miles on the loop, we made it to the junction for Crater Lake. The trail to Crater Lake is a right turn and heads south. If you take a left here you will continue on the Cascade Creek trail towards Pawnee Pass but we got our permits for camping at Crater Lake so that is where our third day on the Pawnee – Buchanan Loop came to an end.
Crater Lake Spur (Add 1.6 miles roundtrip)
We took a right turn at the intersection and headed south towards Crater Lake. The trail continues to climb but eventually levels out onto a large flat boulder. Here we found a few cairns identifying the path ahead, but this is also where we got our first good view of Lone Eagle Peak. We were almost there.
Mirror Lake & Lone Eagle Peak
The trail passes over Cascade Creek on a log bridge before climbing through a section of steep switchbacks. Once at the top of the switchbacks we found ourselves at Mirror Lake. Mirror Lake is the lake that most people who hike to this area are looking for. It has that iconic reflection of Lone Eagle Peak in the small lake’s still waters. This was the view we had been drawn into the Indian Peaks Wilderness for and we weren’t disappointed.
Crater Lake Camping
We wanted to find a good campsite. Camping in the area is by permit only, but sites aren’t assigned. You have to stay in an established numbered site and we wanted one of the good ones. There are numbered sites starting near the last bridge across Cascade Creek, so if you don’t get here early enough you could be stuck with a spot well away from the lake. With this in mind, we quickly continued on the trail to the right of mirror lake and made the short trek to the north shore of Crater Lake.
Crater Lake Site #12 & #10
Crater Lake doesn’t have the reflective views that Mirror Lake has, but the way that the steep cliffs of Lone Eagle Peak shoot straight up out of the water is breathtaking. We set up camp on site #10. The Park Service rotates the sites, but when we were there #12 was the nicest spot. It sits on top of a large boulder at the edge of the lake. It was already taken so we settled for site #10. Site #10 is also nice but requires a small tent as the level ground is limited here. We have a small tent so it fit perfectly.
Remote Camping at Crater Lake
We spent what was left of the afternoon sitting by the lake. Later, while Jennifer made dinner I got to know our neighbors who set up on site #12. With only 12 sites and knowing how difficult it can be to get permits, we were surprised to only come across two other groups camping at Crater Lake. One of the rangers had said that all the permits were sold for that night so it is sad to see so many sites go unused.
A Night Under the Stars and Lone Eagle Peak
After dinner, we climbed into the tent and set a 1:00 AM alarm. When that alarm sounded we begrudging climbed out of the tent and made our way down to the lake’s edge. It was worth the effort as the star-filled canopy stretched out overhead and we took an hour doing some astrophotography. The perfect way to end a long day in the mountains… or rather start one.