We had not been backpacking this entire summer and with fall weather quickly approaching, we bought a dispersed camping permit ($5) in the Indian Peaks Wilderness’ Cascade Creek Backcountry Zone. Our trip? A 12.8 mile overnight trip with 4,008ft in elevation gain to Pawnee Lake.
Ryan, Scott and I would begin our hike at the Long Lake Trailhead in the Brainard Lake Recreation Area, which is located near Ward, CO. It is worth nothing that entry to this recreation area requires a $10 entry fee which is good for 3 days, however we were able to use our America The Beautiful national parks pass to gain free entry. Yay!
This is a verrry popular area, so we got to the trailhead at 6:30am on Saturday in order to ensure that we would get parking. We slowed down on our drive in to get a good look at a female moose that was grazing beside the road before continuing on to the Long Lake Trailhead where we snagged one of the last ~8 available spots. Away we went!
The first park of the hike is very easy (we all consider it to be more of a walk, or stroll, than a hike!) and follows Long Lake on a nice, flat trail for two miles until you reach Lake Isabelle and the Pawnee Pass Trail junction to the right. We said our goodbyes to the flat trail behind us, and began to make our ascent. We quickly surpassed treeline, offering spectacular views of the front range behind and Lake Isabelle below us. At this point we had only seen one other group of people, making for a quiet morning to take this ascent at our own pace.
We soon made it to the top where the ground leveled out for a bit on the alpine bench (at 11,770ft in elevation). This offered panoramic views of Navaho Peak, Apache Peak, and Shoshone Peak. From here we made our way across the tundra, seeing many pikas and marmots (including an entire family of marmots– so cute!).
Standing at the base of our final ascent, we looked up towards the switchbacks across the scree field ahead of us. Slowly but surely we made our way up, stopping briefly at the top of Pawnee Pass (and the Continental Divide!) at 12,650ft in elevation to take in the breathtaking views of the valley to the west that we were about to descend in.
None of us were prepared for the trail that we were heading down. As we peered down into the valley, a “trail” was barely visible among the steep incline of unassorted, rocky rubble. Surrounded by scenery and terrain that I had never seen before, my breath was taken away as a precariously made my way down the slope. 40mph winds pushed me tight against the mountainside as I used my hands to carefully make my way around the rocks, as falling was not on option on this section.
We carefully made our way down and we finally reached the grassy bottom of the valley about 1.5 hours later. We were so relieved, and stopped for a quick break. The sun finally had begun to peek out from behind the clouds and the wind had ceased– I flopped down into the tall grass and took it all in. The grassy valley was riddled with wildflowers of all sizes and colors. I got very nostalgic as I took it all in; this scenery reminded me strongly of the Eastern Sierras in which I spent my time in growing up.
Onward, we went! We reached treeline just as our packs begun to feel heavy and our feet sore. We followed a few social trails along the lake until we came across the perfect spot. A pre-established camping spot beside Pawnee Lake, we threw down our packs and sprawled out on the rocks bordering both our campsite and the lake. Laying in the sun with no noise but some bluejays in the distance, it did not take long for us all to be immersed deep into a mid-day nap.
Upon rising, we set up the tent and then went about our afternoon. It was about 1pm, so we had plenty of time to fish, read, or nap. We even got into the lake and waded around for a bit, eventually gaining confidence to jump in for a swim! We heard cheering from the other side of the lake where a few other campers had situated themselves.
We sat by the lake and watched the sun set, and as the sky began to darken we cooked up some sausages and couscous with vegetables for dinner. We ate, laughed, and cleaned up before heading into the tent for a few games of Rummy 500. At about 10pm the temperature finally began to drop as we got ready for bed. Ryan and I in the tent, and Scott in the hammock (the stars out there were spectacular!).
We arose at dawn for some hot tea and oatmeal to fuel us for the re-ascent of Pawnee Pass. As the boys took down camp, I ventured back out to the lake where I was fortunate enough to catch the morning reflection of the surrounding mountains. Finally, around 8am, we threw our packs back on headed out and up!
Luckily, the ascent was no where near as difficult as the day before. The weather was perfect; all sun and no wind. We comfortably made our way up, taking in all the views before we reached the top of the pass.
We made our way back to the trailhead, passing many other hikers (and dogs!) on our way.
We reached the car around 1pm and said our goodbyes. Ryan and I stopped at a cafe in Lyons called the Stone Cup for some ice cream smoothies to properly refuel before heading home.
All in all.. we will most definitely be back. The serenity that we experienced down at Pawnee Lake was unparalleled by any place we had been before. The only regret that I have is that we didn’t pack in on Friday which would have given us the entirety of Saturday to explore the area, which is home to several other lakes and peaks.
You could hike this as a full 12.8mi day hike, but I would suggest that you take it easy with a 6.4mi hike in each day and fully enjoy the beauty that this area has to offer. Sure, it was quite the trek to get there. But not one single part of it wasn’t worth it.