Adjacent to the south side of Rocky Mountain National Park is a slightly less traveled area known as the Indian Peaks Wilderness. It has 133 miles of trails. The land here is full of stunning beauty with alpine lakes, waterfalls, glaciers, wildflowers, and wildlife. The best way to see a large portion of this gorgeous wilderness is via the Pawnee – Buchanan Loop. It is a 27-mile loop trail. (That’s right, it is basically a marathon if done with no spurs.) You’ll cross over two Continental Divide passes, Pawnee Pass & Buchanan Pass. This trail has some of the best alpine trails in the state of Colorado. Its beauty is often compared to that found on the Four Pass Loop. Add to it that the trailhead is only about an hour and a half drive from Denver and you have what might be the most gorgeous and accessible mountain loop in all of North America.
Backpacking the Pawnee – Buchanan Loop in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Guide
- Camping Permits
- Backpacking Season
- Which Way?
- Sample Itinerary
Stats for the Pawnee – Buchanan Loop
- Distance: 27 miles (36.5-miles with recommended spur trails)
- Total Elevation Gain: 6,625′ (add another 1,650′ for all spurs)
- Pawnee Pass Elevation: 12,550′
- Buchanan Pass Elevation: 11,837′
- Trailhead: Brainard Lake (10,300′)
- Type: Loop
- Class: Colorado Strenuous (AKA: extreme)
- Season: Mid-July to Mid-September
- Time on the Trail: 3-5 days (runners do the loop in 1 day… not recommended)
- Optional Spur Hikes:
- Red Deer Lake – 2.5-miles roundtrip (10,372′)
- Gourd Lake – 5.35-miles roundtrip (10,795′)
- Crater Lake – 1.6-miles roundtrip (10,327′)
- Camping Permits: Required
The Indian Peaks Wilderness is broken into zones. Backcountry camping is allowed in each (Four Lakes is the exception) with a permit. Crater Lake is the only place with designated campsites. All other zones allow camping everywhere but you still need to follow leave no trace principles. Permits are issued through recreation.gov and typically become available in early February for the entire summer season.
The main Pawnee – Buchanan Loop Trail passes through the Four Lakes, Coney Creek, Buchanan, and Cascade Creek Zones. You may also choose to add on Red Deer Lake which is in the Middle St. Vrain Zone. Crater Lake and Gourd Lake are treated as their own zones. Check out the official Indian Peak Wilderness Backcountry Zone map for more details. Make sure you know which area you will be camping in and on what day to make your permit reservations quickly when they become available.
Winter is harsh in the Indian Peaks Wilderness and while the park does allow camping in most areas we only recommend this to very experienced cold weather campers.
The Summer season in the Indian Peaks Wilderness officially runs from June 1st to September 15th. However, the Pawnee – Buchanan Loop Trail will typically have snow on the passes until late July making the crossing very dangerous without proper gear. While the weather is typically nice enough in early to mid-July we would only recommend experienced backpackers take on the trail during this time and carrying micro-spikes is highly recommended.
The best time to make this journey with the best weather and tones of wildflowers is August to mid-September. Make sure to check the weather before setting off as snow storms can happen year-round.
The Trailhead to the Pawnee-Buchanan Pass Loop
There are several possible trailheads for the Pawnee-Buchanan Pass Loop. However, the Brainard Lake Recreational Area’s parking lot is the most common as it is easy to get to and it is located on the loop. Other Trailheads add mileage or require 4-wheel drive. Plan on arriving to the parking lot before 8:00 AM. While not as popular as Rocky Mountain National Park to the North the Indian Peaks is no secret and it has a smaller infrastructure, as a result, the parking lot fills up fast with day hikers.
The best alternative for backpackers with a 4×4 vehicle is the Coney Flats parking area to the north. You will bypass the crowds and can show up a little later but don’t be fooled this area is popular as well, mostly with jeepers.
Getting to the Trailhead
Arriving at the trailhead for the Pawnee – Buchanan Loop involves a relatively short but curvy drive through the front range mountains of the Rocky Mountains. From Denver, most travelers will make their way through Boulder, Colorado and then head into the mountains to the small town of Ward. From here it is only a few miles to the gate of the Indian Peaks Wilderness. There is a fee to access this area of the park but it is covered by a National Park Pass if you have it.
Which Way Should We Hike?
We went counterclockwise and that is the way our description of the Pawnee – Buchanan Loop will follow. Both directions have pros and cons. There are several factors to consider when choosing your direction. The most important factor is the potential for bad weather. Thunderstorms during Colorado summers are unpredictable and very deadly. Colorado has one of the smallest populations in the United States but one of the highest occurrences of people being hit by lightning. While unpredictable the storms are very common during the summer months in the early afternoon. Hikers should always plan to get over the various passes and back to the relative safety of the treeline early in the day.
The circuit is steepest on the west side of Pawnee Pass. If you dislike going downhill more than uphill you will appreciate the counterclockwise direction. Follow our itinerary for a 5-day adventure or cut a day off the journey by combining the 3rd & 4th days or the 4th & 5th days. You could cut the journey even shorter by eliminating the Gourd Lake spur and easily make this a 3-day journey. The key to the counterclockwise direction is to wait until the second morning to cross over Buchanan Pass. You will want to camp close enough the night prior to crossing over Pawnee Pass that you are over the pass by 11:00 AM. The downside of hiking counterclockwise is that the hardest part of the loop is waiting on the last day.
If you choose to hike the Pawnee – Buchanan Pass Loop clockwise, start as early as you can to get over the Pawnee Pass early on the first day. There is no camping allowed between Brainard Lake and the west side of Pawnee Pass (the Four Lakes area). If you don’t make it, it would mean a return to your vehicle. The goal on a clockwise adventure would be to be on the pass no later than 11:00 AM. This should give you time to descend the other side prior to any potential afternoon thunderstorms rolling in. Likewise, backpackers would need to camp so that crossing over Buchanan Pass could be accomplished by 11:00 AM as well, although the terrain on Buchanan Pass is much easier than that of Pawnee Pass.
Gear for Backpacking the Pawnee – Buchanan Loop
The Pawnee – Buchanan Loop is a typical high-altitude trail in Colorado. You will need to pack for a variety of weather. A 3-season tent is fine but you will want a warm sleeping bag for the cold (high elevation) nights. Bear Canisters are required by the park’s service. The park’s service also requires that you camp more than 100′ from any lake, stream, or trail. As always abide by the Leave No Trace practices when in this and all wilderness areas.
We’ve put together a full backpacking gear list that goes into detail about why we chose the gear and the level of importance of each piece for those just getting started.
Water is abundant throughout the Indian Peak Wilderness. Traversing swollen streams is often the most challenging areas on the trail. While some stretches can be dryer late in the season, for the most part, this isn’t a trail where you will have issues locating water. Bring your backpacking filter and enjoy the fresh mountain snowmelt.
The only official toilets found on the Pawnee – Buchanan Loop are those found at the Brainard Lake parking lot. Make sure you bring your camp trowel and dig proper cat holes more than 200′ from all water sources.
Our recommended journey is a 5-day, counter-clockwise adventure. This will give you plenty of time to see it all and at a decent pace. Don’t forget to get your permits for the specific camping zones. For more details about this 5-day journey check out our detailed review.
1st Day: Hike 7.5-miles from Brainard Lake to the East Slope of Buchanan Pass. Camp in the Coney Creek Backcountry Zone. Add 2.5-miles for a round-trip journey to Red Deer Lake.
2nd Day: Hike 8.75-miles over Buchanan Pass and on to Gourd Lake. Camp at Gourd Lake which is a specialized Backcountry Zone. Note that you will lose about 2,200′ of elevation on the backside of Buchanan Pass and regain 1,200′ of it on the way up to Gourd Lake.
3rd Day: Hike 9-miles from Gourd Lake to Crater Lake. Camp at Crater Lake which is a specialized Backcountry Zone with specific, established campsites.
4th Day: Consider this your day of rest. Spend the morning exploring the beauty of Crater Lake and Mirror Lake then hike 2.3-miles from Crater Lake to Pawnee Lake.
5th Day: Hike 6.5-miles over Pawnee Pass and on to Brainard Lake. It is important to get over Pawnee Pass before the chance of afternoon storms that are very common in Colorado Summers.
Backpacking the Pawnee – Buchanan Loop
Backpacking the Pawnee – Buchanan Pass Loop is an experience that lives up to the hype. It stands apart as a truly amazing journey full of beauty in a state that lacks for neither. If you are looking for a challenging backpacking adventure that will leave you with memories for a life time then the Pawnee – Buchanan Loop is for you.