A mountain pass delivers the perfect aesthetic vision of why we hike. I’m convinced of it as I crest 11,844-foot Buchanan Pass on a three-day loop in the Indian Peaks. To either side, the spine of the Continental Divide stretches outward like a gunsight, creating a clear distinction between what’s behind and what’s ahead. Behind me, the trail snakes through the talus and disappears into a green valley. Somewhere behind that, Boulder, my hometown, melts into the horizon. Ahead of me, rows of snow-streaked, barren peaks outrun my vision. In their creases, they hide alpine lakes, roaring waterfalls, and wildflower meadows. It’s hard to leave a view like this, but in two days I’ll score another, atop 12,541-foot Pawnee Pass.
From the Mitchell Lake trailhead
(1) Head north on the Beaver Creek Trail, ascending the eastern flank of 13,223-foot Mt. Audubon and diving back into the woods, to the Cooney Creek trailhead near mile 4.6.
(2) Continue west on the Beaver Creek Trail (it becomes the Buchanan Pass Trail at mile 5.9) and cross the Continental Divide near mile 7.7, before descending to Thunderbolt Creek at mile 10.1.
(3) Return to the main trail and continue counterclockwise to a junction at mile 13.
(4) Veer east onto the Cascade Creek Trail and take it 2.7 miles to a fork.
(5) Turn south to stay on the Cascade Creek Trail and walk another 1.2 miles to Crater Lake.
(6) Retrace your steps to the fork.
(7) Pick up the Pawnee Pass Trail and head 6.4 miles east to the Long Lake parking area (cross the Divide near mile 20.7).
(8) Walk .7 mile along the Forest Service road back to Mitchell Lake.
Thunderbolt Creek (mile 10.1)
Cap off a long day in this meadow tucked between the Divide and 11,913-foot Thunderbolt Peak. There are a handful of social sites.
Crater Lake (mile 16.9)
The view from this lakeside camp might even top the wide vistas from the passes: It’s like the Dolomites, minus the espresso bar. Aim for site #10, 11, or 12 on a shoreline facing 11,919-foot Lone Eagle Peak, a pointy spire that dominates a backdrop of Thirteeners. (Crater Lake permit required.)
Turn night one’s camp at Thunderbolt Creek into a basecamp and explore the unnamed lake about 1.5 miles upstream via a steep, off-trail scramble beside a waterfall.
Crazy Boulderites. The fastest-known time for this route (without the Crater Lake spur) is 4:50.40. If you prefer “taking your time,” as the record-holding runner calls it, it’ll take about that much time to reach the first pass.
Not only will you encounter the best weather (daytime temps in the 70s), but you don’t have to deal with any permit regulations after September 15.
Trailhead 40.083686, -105.581617; 26 miles west of Boulder on FS 1122C Season Mid-summer to early fall for snow-free hiking Permits Required ($5 per group) between June 1 and September 15 Custom mapbit.do/IndianPeaksTwoPassContactbit.do/IndianPeaksTrip databackpacker.com/IndianPeaksTwoPass
- State: CO
- City: Denver, CO
- Distance: 25.1
- Contact: bit.do/IndianPeaks
- Land Type: Wilderness Area