Adjacent to the south side of Rocky Mountain National Park is a 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 passes along the continental divide, 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.
Stats for the Pawnee – Buchanan Loop
- Distance: 27 miles (36.5-miles with recommended spur trails)
- Approximate Total Elevation Gain: 6,625′ (add another 1,650′ for all spurs)
- Highest Point: Pawnee Pass (12,550′)
- Trailhead: Brainard Lake – 10,300′
- Type: Loop
- Class: Colorado Strenuous (AKA: extreme)
- Season: Mid-July thru late 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′)
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 of bad weather. Thunderstorms during Colorado summers are unpredictable and very deadly. Colorado has one of the smallest populations in the United States and yet, 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 pass and back to the relative safety of 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 traveling counterclockwise. The key to the counterclockwise direction is to wait until the second morning to cross over Buchanan Pass. You will also 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 is that the hardest part of the loop is waiting on the last day of the journey.
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.