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.
Get caught up on the Pawnee – Buchanan Loop by using the links below.
Day 2 – Buchanan Pass to Gourd Lake (8.7-miles)
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After skirting a shallow gorge carved by the 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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.