Saturday, August 7, 2010

Pawnee - Buchanan Pass Loop - 27 miles

The Pawnee - Buchanan Pass loop in the Indian Peaks Wilderness has been on my running bucket list for several years. Finally made the time to experience this incredibly scenic 27-mile loop.

Time:  6:05
Distance: 27 miles
Effort: Hard/Long
Body: Fair
Weather: Sunny & Warm

For a trailrunner, there's few things better than running on new trails through stunningly beautiful and challenging terrain. Saturday's run through the 76,000-acre Indian Peaks Wilderness offered up a heaping plateful of the new, the beautiful and the challenging.

Earlier in the week, Todd G. and I were exchanging messages about doing something long this weekend. I'd been reminded about the Pawnee-Buchanan loop by a few messages on the Boulder Trail Runners listserv and proposed we head to the high country Saturday morning to run the loop. With no hesitation, the plan was set.

Saturday morning rolled around and we met up at 4 a.m. for the drive over to the Brainard Lake area. I'd expected to find the trailhead bustling with activity, but when we arrived a bit after 5 a.m., there were only a couple of cars in the Long Lake trailhead parking area, a far, far cry from what we'd find six hours later when we returned to the trailhead after our run.

We set off just after 5:30 a.m. The sun had yet to begin striking the mountain peaks, but there was just enough light to illuminate the rock and root-strewn trail that winds its way through a relatively brief stretch of forest before climbing up to and skirting the north side of Isabelle Lake. 

Todd G. climbing up toward Isabelle Lake

Isabelle Lake from the Glacier Trail - Pawnee Pass Trail junction

From Lake Isabelle, the trail climbs steadily past treeline, up through the sub-alpine zone and into the world of rock. The climb up to Pawnee Pass is relatively moderate and completely runnable. At this early hour, we only came across two hikers on the way up to the pass.

Making out way up toward Pawnee Pass in the alpine zone.

We hit the pass in about 1:03, pausing to take a few pics and eat a bit. 

The sign at 12,550-foot Pawnee Pass.

From the top of the pass, the trail descends down the west side through a long section of rock into the Cascade Creek drainage. With Pawnee Lake below, it was constantly tempting to look up at the gorgeous view, but the tricky terrain required one's full attention.

Once out of the rock and just above the lake, the trail entered a lush meadow of wildflowers in full bloom. We looped around the north side of Pawnee Lake and began a sweet and moderate descent down the valley and hung a right onto the Cascade Creek Trail. 

Pawnee Lake on the western side of Pawnee Pass.

The trail continued down and we made good time cruising along this fine, dirt singletrack, pausing occasionally to soak up the views of the Cascade Creek's namesake waterfalls.

Just past where the Cascade Creek Trail crosses Buchanan Creek, we hit the junction with the Buchanan Pass Trail, hung a right and began the steady climb up through dense forest toward Buchanan Pass.

Like the Cascade Creek Trail, the early part of the Buchanan Pass Trail is moderate and runnable. Up a bit higher, the trail has several steep sections that had us power hiking. There were a couple of places where the dense forest gave way to big, beautiful meadows, like the one in Fox Park. With rocky, sawtooth-like peaks looming above and a thin ribbon of singletrack unfurling in front of us, the views were sublime. 

Running through Fox Park on the Cascade Creek Trail (yet another pic of Todd running well ahead!).

We managed to lose the trail one time, just after a creek crossing. We spent a good five or six minutes wandering around looking for the trail. Naturally, once we found it (right where it should be), we spent the next five or six minutes wondering how in the hell we missed it in the first place. 

After a long, final power hike through another color-explosion meadow of wildflowers, we crossed the rounded hump of Buchanan Pass. Next up was the long, rocky descent down the rest of the Buchanan Pass Trail and the Beaver Creek Trail en route to Coney Flats. All the creeks that poured down across the trail through here reminded me of what an important water factory the Indian Peaks Wilderness area is. 

Wildflower meadow just below the west side of Buchanan Pass.

Looking east from Buchanan Pass.

Looking west back up toward Buchanan Pass.

The run down from Buchanan Pass is pretty tough. There are very few sustained sections of trail without rocks, so the descent requires one's full focus. Still, we made decent time down, with Todd leading the way a minute or so ahead (as he was on most descents). 

Right as we hit the lake at the Coney Flats trailhead, I sucked the last bit of water from my hydration pack...just in time for the hottest part of the run. The Beaver Creek Trail flows through a forested area for a bit before climbing up and over an eastern shoulder of Mt. Audubon. By the time the climbing began in earnest on this section, I was parched. Without water, I'd been slacking on nutrition since I hate eating gels without a water chaser. Before I knew it,  I was in a full-on bonk, the likes of which I'd never experienced before (I'm usually very diligent about nutrition and hydration). Let the death march begin.

Finally, about mid-way up the climb over Audubon's shoulder, a small stream crossed the trail. Throwing caution to the wind, I got down on all fours and started sucking up the cold, succulent waters. With my gut filled, I started feeling a bit better and picked up the power hiking pace a bit and got myself over the final climb to the intersection with the Mt. Audubon trail.

It was here where we really started seeing the day-hiking crowds...people climbing up to the summit of 13,232-foot Mt. Audubon. After picking my way slowly through one final stretch of super-rocky trail, I picked up the pace as the trail switch-backed down toward the Mitchell Lake Trailhead. I had hopes of catching up to Todd, but my bonk had slowed me down too much and he was running too strong. 

After dumping spent gel packets in the trash and re-filling hydration bladders from the ranger's water cooler ("I bring that up with me for people that forget to bring their own water."), we ran down the road a bit, decided walking on the pavement felt better, hung a right and made our way the last quarter-mile to the Long Lake Trailhead, where it all began a little over six hours prior.

This is a challenging run. I felt pretty beat up by the end. No doubt the bonk on the last climb had an affect, as did the 7,000 feet of elevation gain and loss and the rocky, but totally runnable, descents. 

It's funny...there were times, mostly in the last hour, where I would have been happy to not be running. I was hurting and wishing to be done. Fast forward to the finish and the drive home, and all those thoughts had been long-banished, replaced by recollections of soaring, ragged peaks, stunningly glorious mountain lakes and tarns and almost unworldly meadows of wildflowers bursting with color. Add all that to the pleasure of testing one's body in a wild place and running with a friend and you've got a recipe for near-perfection.


  1. Nice. Lake Isabelle is one of the prettiest places I've seen up there.

    I have yet to run Pawnee in the summer. I had a blast in the spring last year. The snow fields were unexpectedly fun, I was laughing.

    Yesterday I was a bit farther south at Devils Thumb, a 16+ mile loop in 4:45. Even on 16 mi., my legs felt worked.

    You guys were smokin' to do 27 in 6:00, and that's a monster loop. I will need 10 hours for that one :)

  2. Awesome pics and damn fast time. If Tim G's 5:50 from that email exchange earlier in the week doesn't stick, seems that you've got the FKT!

  3. MT2 - yep, beautiful spot(s). Thanks for the correct spelling of Isabelle Lake (fixed it in the post). I'll have to check out the Devil's Thumb loop and the link to your spring trip.

    I think the FKT for the loop is something like 4:59. I"m confident we could have knocked 30 minutes off our time pretty easily. Between picture stops, getting off-trail and not pushing the pace we ate up a bit of time - all intentional, since we were really enjoying the day.

  4. Justin - From Bawkin's FKT site, Johannes R. and Ben K. ran clockwise (as did we) in 4:59. See here:

    And, I had some watch problems at the end. Probably off by five minutes (I don't think I timed the last half-mile of road walking/running - and I stopped the watch when I refilled water at the ranger hut at the Lake Mitchell trailhead.). Thus, absolutely no claim to FKT. As noted above, though, I think even on a not-feeling-great day like yesterday, we could have done better. Todd, in particular, was running strong - much stronger than was I.

  5. Hey Jim, that was probably one of the best days of running I've had this summer. I think we need to hit the Grand Canyon in the spring. Have fun on the river.

  6. I second that. Nothing like exploring new territory. If the snows come late enough, we'll have to look at the Gore Range, or at least something long in the Eagle's Nest Wilderness - something to tide us over 'til a spring R2R2R can be planned and put on the calendar.

  7. Wow - one adventure the next. Grand Canyon?! Awesome. Please keep me informed.

    Good report, great pix. Well done.

  8. Jim, nicely done! I'm hoping to get out there in a few weeks to take on the same route. Can only hope the weather is as nice as it was for the both of you.


  9. Fantastic pics and report. Definitely adding that run to my (ever growing) list. Looks awesome.

  10. GZ - yeah we were kicking around the idea of following in your footsteps and hitting the GC R2R2R this spring. Will keep you posted, since you're coming along.

    Jaime - It's a great loop. I'd like to try it counterclockwise too.

    Chris - many thanks. Get there early. I couldn't believe how many people were milling around when we finished.

  11. hey man. I'm gona be training in Indian Peaks all summer and I stole some pics off your page for a blog post. hope you dont mind but you had some nice ones in there and i'd much rather send a fellow colorado runner some views than anyone else! maybe we can meet up some time out there and you can show me around!

  12. Feel free to use the pics. Always appreciate a link. I've got a lot of exploring to do in the Indian Peaks. Only run there the one time. Got my eye on another loop there. Pawnee-Buchanan is a must-do to be sure. You will love it. Drop me a line anytime if you want to meet up for some miles.

  13. I am planning a trip...need advice...can I get a contact info please