Pawnee Lake from Crater Lake: Pawnee – Buchanan Loop: Day 4

Reflections of Pawnee Pass in a small pond
A small pond near Pawnee Lake reflects Pawnee Pass and the jagged peaks of the Indian Peaks Wilderness.

Day 4 of backpacking the Pawnee – Buchanan Loop was a short one for us. Some might choose to push on and make this day the final one or take an entire day off from hiking and just enjoy the majestic scenery found around Crater Lake. We choose to push on a short distance to Pawnee Lake which lies just below the tree line and the wall of rock that is Pawnee Pass.

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


Day 4 – Crater Lake to Pawnee Lake (2.3-miles)

I awoke early on the fourth day of our adventure backpacking the Pawnee – Buchanan Loop and tried to get some sunrise shots of Lone Eagle Peak and Crater Lake. However, the clouds had rolled in overnight and the lighting wasn’t the best. I crawled back into the tent and slept until around 9:30 AM. This time when I awoke the clouds had started to break up. We spent a few hours hanging out around Crater and Mirror lakes before getting back on the trail.

Crater Lake and Lone Eagle Peak
Lone Eagle Peak rises with its sharp point from the waters of Crater Lake.

Back on Cascade Creek Trail and the Pawnee – Buchanan Loop

Hiker taking a selfie on a cliff edge
Jake not looking too bad for having been in the wilderness for 4 days. Standing on the edge trying to get a look at the canon and cascading creek below.

Just after noon we hit the trail once again and returned to the Cascade Creek intersection. The descent back to the trail was quick. Once we hit the trail we headed towards Pawnee Pass. The trail through this section is pretty steep but well covered. Once the trail tops the ridge, we could hear the sounds of crashing water. Just off the trail is a nice canyon with the cascading creek running down it. It is hard to get a good look at it, but the sound is amazing.

Buchanan & Pawnee Pass Loop Map

Home of the Marmot

A hiker approaches a small boulder field
Jennifer hikes on the trail heading towards a boulder field and the home of the marmots.

We continued climbing the trail as it crawled upward. Before long it topped a ridge and entered a boulder field. Here we saw the typical Colorado marmot family living amongst the boulders.

Pawnee - Buchanan Pass trail
Looking back towards Lone Eagle Peak from the trail to Pawnee Lake.

Choosing the Wrong Path

A backpacker climbs over a fallen tree
Jennifer crawls over a fallen tree. There were many others on the trail to Pawnee Lake.

The trail passed through the boulder field and back into a dense pine forest. The trail crosses back over the creek where there is a split in the trail. We weren’t sure which way to go and chose to head left paralleling the creek bed. This section of the trail turned out to be difficult and unmaintained. There were numerous large fallen trees blocking our route. We chose to push forward as the trail itself seem well traversed. In hindsight, I believe if we had gone straight after crossing the creek the path would have probably been easier.

Pawnee Lake

Camp Deer
Our campsite at Pawnee Lake had a resident deer who came by before sunset.

Even with the challenges of our poor trail choice, we did make our way to Pawnee Lake. Pawnee Lake is located at 10,877′ and is about 20.5-miles on the loop trail (not including any of the spurs). The north end of the lake has several large and well-established campsites. We stayed at a gorgeous spot on the northeast side covered in trees. The only downside was this spot had lots of mosquitos.

Permits are required when camping in the backcountry of the Indian Peak Wilderness. 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.

Pawnee Lake
Pawnee Lake sits just below tree-line. It is the last place to camp before heading over the pass and returning to Brainard Lake.

Contemplating Pawnee Pass

Pawnee Pass Rock Wall
The trail over Pawnee Pass is hidden in this wall of rock.

While the 2.3-mile journey from Crater Lake to Pawnee Lake made for a short day it allowed us to spend more time at Crater Lake as well as have a relatively easy hiking day before taking on the challenging ascent of Pawnee Pass. Sitting on the shore of Pawnee Lake watching the sunset and looking up at the jagged and towering 12,000 plus foot mountain walls I was left wondering where on earth the pathfinders had found a trail able to ascend this steep terrain. I took some comfort knowing many others had gone before me.

Let us know what you think about this moment.