Hike Pawnee & Buchanan Pass Loop

26 miles 2800 ft gain  - Loop Trail

Added by Nicole Mason

This 26 mile loop, which crosses the Continental Divide twice, can be done as an intense one-day trail run, but I love the mountain mornings and prefer to make this an overnighter. There are versatile camping options - plenty of space and can easily be modified to a one, two, or three night trip.

Before you start your trip, get a camping permit from the Boulder Ranger Station. Plan to spend your first night in the Crater Lake BZ (Backcountry Zone), and your second in Buchanan BZ. If you're feeling particularly sedate, you can easily spend a third night in Coney Creek.

Start early in the morning, as the parking lot tends to fill up quickly. From the Long Lake trailhead follow the Pawnee Pass trail. It takes you past Long Lake and then starts to rise gently up to Lake Isabelle. Keep climbing up past tree line to the switchbacks on the exposed shoulder of Pawnee Peak. The wind is usually wicked up there so make sure your backpack is streamlined and put your windbreaker and gloves on before the ridge. Pawnee Pass is your first of two crossings of the Continental Divide, at 12,550 ft you have climbed 2,400 vertical feet in 4.5 miles.

Be cautious of fast developing storms. I've heard that lightning can strike unsuspecting hikers even in clear skies, so try to be over the pass before noon. If you have made good time there is the option to summit Pawnee Peak itself, just a half mile and 400 ft more of ascent from the Pass.

Descending from the Pass can be hairy in high winds, as the footing is steep, loose scree. Trekking poles come in handy when gusts knock you off balance. The trail drops 1,500 ft in just a half mile, and then levels out into a very pleasant meadow full of wildflowers. Pawnee Lake makes a perfect lunch spot.

Continue on through gently descending forest and look for Crater Lake trail on your left. It will be farther than you think, after you've passed the valley opening on your left and a series of switchbacks down to the creek. The trail splits in a hollow before you cross the creek. If you see waterfalls you've gone too far.

Crater Lake Trail takes you 1.1 miles up a series of switchbacks and bare rock. Small cairns mark the way. The trail levels off at a log jam below Mirror Lake and then continues to the campsites at Crater Lake, where you will spend your first night. This bowl surrounded by 12,000 ft peaks is absolutely sublime with the stoic Lone Eagle Peak (11,900 ft) overhead. It's a Class 4 climb if you've brought your gear.

The next day head back down to the trailhead and turn left onto the Cascade Creek Trail, continuing on the same way you were headed yesterday. This part of the hike is the most gentle and is absolutely lovely, through meadows and aspen groves, replete with wildflowers and babbling brooks. If you didn't go to Crater Lake there are tons of camping opportunities along this trail. Keep your eyes out for moose.

Cascade Creek Trail is aptly named for four major and numerous minor waterfalls that it passes. After about 3 miles you'll see an area of dense campsites over the falls where Buchanan and Cascade Creeks come together and descend via a few switchbacks to another flat section where the Buchanan Pass Trail splits off. Turn right and start climbing. This is the lowest point in the loop at 8,772 ft.

The trail climbs along streams and switchbacks in dense forest. There are a few different options for crossing Buchanan Creek that are not well signed, and as far as I could tell it didn't matter which one you took as long as you end up on the right side of the stream as you are climbing. About 2 miles from the trailhead there is a turn off for Gourd Lake, a beautiful camping alternative if you have more time and energy. Another mile after the trail levels out in a high alpine valley and crosses the creek again. Continue on into the Fox Park Hanging Valley. There is a perfect little campsite in a copse of trees on the right before the trail turns to the right and reenters the woods. Sleep here on your second night. We saw lots of deer and a moose on this section of the trail and it was one of my all-time favorite campsites.

In the morning get back on the trail to Buchanan Pass, a 1,400 ft climb. This pass is slightly lower (11,837 ft) and the approach more gentle than Pawnee Pass. Immediately to your right is a false summit, but there is the option to continue south to Sawtooth Mountain from there.

Enjoy the descent into the Coney Flats with all of its wildflowers and patches of eternal snow. It's a pretty section but feels like a bit of a slog. You can take the side trail to Coney Lake for another lovely campsite. Otherwise you will go through the Coney Flats Trailhead area (reached only by 4WD vehicles) 2 miles after the pass and bear right on the Beaver Creek Trail. 5 more miles will get you back to the Mitchell Lake trailhead and your car if you are doing the classic two night trip. If you're spending a third night in the woods find a campsite anywhere before the Mount Audubon trail split. That is roughly the border of the Four Lakes BZ, where camping is not allowed.

From the Audubon trail it's just 1.7 miles to the parking lot. You'll emerge at the Mitchell Lake Trailhead and follow the road about 1 mile back to the Long Lake trailhead, and your car.

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🥇Top Contributor

about 4 years ago

Premier Colorado Loop

This is almost as incredible as the 4-Pass Loop in Aspen, if you time it right the wildflowers are insane. Ran the loop with the add-on to see Lone Eagle Peak again, definitely worth it. The lower elevations on the trail can get pretty hot but there's a good amount of water access to cool off.

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