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Pawnee Lake, Indian Peaks Wilderness, CO

Hopping Pawnee Pass might be the secret to escaping the Indian Peaks’ crowds.


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Colorado’s Indian Peaks Wilderness is no stranger to crowds—That was pretty obvious as I tried to park my car earlier this morning. But with a bit of extra exertion, and a permit for the less-popular Cascade Creek Backcountry Zone, I’ve managed to find a piece of solitude among the madness. Sitting on the northern end of Pawnee Lake, watching the sunset’s glow drift over the surrounding peaks without anyone else around, I think hoofing it up and over 12,511-foot Pawnee Pass was well worth it. From my vantage point at the edge of the water, I can almost pick out the dayhikers atop the pass racing to get back to their cars before sunset. Luckily I’ve got none of their urgency driving me; with camp pitched  and not another backpacker in range, I’ve well and truly escaped the Front Range hordes.

Trip Stats
Distance: 16 miles Difficulty: 3/5 Rating: 4/5 Duration: 2 days

Turn-by-Turn from Brainard Lake Recreation Area

  1. Follow the Pawnee Pass Trail west. You may need to connect a couple park roads and herd paths to get there if you’re parked in the overflow lot (common on weekends). 
  2. Snake past Long Lake and climb to the western end of Lake Isabelle at mile 3.2, where views of Navajo, Apache, and Shoshoni Peaks dominate the skyline. 
  3. Continue on the Pawnee Pass Trail, switchbacking up a series of benches before cresting the pass itself at mile 5.8. 
  4. Drop down the west side of the pass, linking scramble-y tight switchbacks through talus until the trail bends north as it approaches the lake at mile 7.7. 
  5. Leave the trail and aim for the northern end of the lake, west of the outlet. Pitch camp in easy walking distance of the water at mile 8. 
  6. The next morning, retrace your steps back over Pawnee Pass and to Brainard Lake. For bonus views of the Rockies on your way out, follow the ridgeline north from Pawnee Pass to Pawnee Peak and look out over the Great Plains and the eastern edge of the mountains.

Permit Required from June 1 to September 15, available at recreation.gov ($5 per night) Contact Indian Peaks Wilderness GPX Download