The Best Day Hikes in America: Pawnee Pass
Indian Peaks Wilderness, Colorado
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With all due respect to Rocky Mountain National Park, Front Range hikers know to pass on its traffic and ice-cream-shop hordes in favor of the instant highs of the Indian Peaks Wilderness just south. There, crystal lakes, airy peaks, abundant wildlife, and lung-bursting challenges lie a lead-footed hour and change from Denver. Early highlights mean crowds thin out the farther you go: Tackle 12,541-foot Pawnee Pass on a weekday, and you might have all those serrated ridges (and one or two rare Colorado glaciers) to yourself.
Depart from Long Lake, keeping an eye out for moose munching in the marshy areas of South St. Vrain Creek. Dense pine and fir give way to alpine terrain as you climb toward Lake Isabelle, which is rimmed by spiky Thirteeners and the white patch of the receding Navajo Glacier. Listen for marmots whistling from their granite perches after you pop out of treeline near mile 2.8, then it’s roughly 1.8 miles of rocky switchbacks up and over a wide tundra bench to the Continental Divide. Columbines, paintbrush, arnica, and sky pilots come to life in midsummer, but the best view is over Pawnee Pass’s sheer drop-off to a sea of peaks. Supersize the view by scaling Pawnee Peak, a 400-foot climb directly to the north. Start early to avoid afternoon thunderstorms in summer—and be back in funky Nederland for a Joy Ride Cougar Pale Ale and Fra’Mani pizza at the Crosscut Pizzeria and Taphouse.
Distance 9.2 miles (out and back) Trailhead 40.078100, -105.583144 Drive time 1:22 from Denver Season June to October Contact