Pawnee Pass Hike

Trailhead: Brainard Lake/Long Lake
Distance: 9-11 miles
Difficulty: Medium

Last summer, I did the Pawnee Pass trail as a trail run; I remember it being really hard, but also really beautiful.  So of course, I talked Andrew into doing it on Saturday.  Apparently I have a tendency to undersell the mileage to convince him to do hikes I want to do.  I guess I just think that most of the best places to hike to are slightly farther than most people are willing to go.

So we left the house a little before 6 and headed up to Brainard Lake Recreation Area.  We were ultimately accessing the Indian Peaks Wilderness – we’ve done a few hikes in this area via the Fourth of July trailhead in Nederland.  I like the Brainard Lake access, though – you forego the 4 mile 4WD road (which makes our dog carsick) and there is an entrance fee station, so only a limited number of cars are allowed in.  It does cost $11 to get in – some of my favorite hikes/runs have entrance fees because I think they end up being less crowded!  After the obligatory stop a Chick-fil-A for breakfast, we were on our way UP.  When we pulled through the entrance station at around 7:30, the ranger told us that the Long Lake trailhead parking wasn’t open yet, so we’d have to park in the Brainard Lake day use lot, adding .75 miles to the hike each way.  Cue Andrew asking “So… how long is this hike?”.  There are vault toilets at both this trailhead and Long Lake.

The first ~1/2 mile is just walking past Brainard Lake on the road.  It wasn’t exactly a hike, but we spotted walk-in lake access next to the car and took note – we could use it as a doggie paw/leg bath for Layla at the end of the hike.  Once you get on the trail, the next 2ish miles are super mellow and shady as you hike past Long Lake (minimal elevation gain) and make the gradual climb up to Lake Isabelle.  The trail signage is good – keep following the signs for Pawnee Pass trail.  There are lots of little inlets/ponds on this section for a dog or human to play in and the water is SO clear.  The whole time we were hiking this section, I was trying to figure out why my trail run was SO hard last year – I could remember the beginning being runable, the end having some runable switchbacks, so there was only 1 mile that was a tough hike out of 11 – why was it so hard??

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Lake Isabelle is beautiful!  Most people (I think) do the first part of the hike, and then loop around or hang out on the Lake, so the rest of the hike isn’t crowded at all.  Just after the lake comes into view, there is a trail that starts climbing out of the basin on the right and a sign – this is the Pawnee Pass trail.  Here is where you start the tough, rocky climb portion of the hike.  Don’t forget to look back into the basin as you climb – the views of Lake Isabelle, and later Long Lake and another alpine like keep getting better!  We ended up running into a few sizable snow fields, which I definitely didn’t have last year.  I HATE crossing snow fields and get really nervous and panicky, so I usually try to find a long way around if it exists; most of the snowfields had longer rocky routes you could take instead.

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We somehow lost the trail (why does this always happen?  Seriously… everyone else had no trouble finding it) and ended up in a rocky/mossy basin with a nice little lake where we had a snack.  Once we backtracked, we could easily pick up the trail and continued up.  We got to the top of the rocky section at about 4.8 miles (the detour added ~.3 miles) and were able to see the rest of the hike – the high switchbacks.  Normally this last section of the trail is a fairly easy hike up to the pass – I remember being able to run most of it despite the altitude (the pass is at ~12,300 ft).  But when we looked up, we saw that the top half was a giant snowfield.  Most of the hikers ahead of us were opting to leave the trail at this point and scramble straight up the scree to the top.  Having already gotten a great hike in at this point and worried about Layla’s paws on the scree, we decided to enjoy the views and turn around.  On a less snowy day, you would reach Pawnee Pass and be able to see into the other side of the basin, where the trail continues.  You can also climb another ~500 feet up Pawnee Peak – there isn’t really a trail, but the path to the top is obvious.

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The hike back down is fast.  On the way back down one snowfield, I thought I would be cool and try to go straight across instead of taking the rocky route around that I took on the way up.  I ended up getting about 10 steps in and sliding down to the rocks on my butt.  Layla thought it looked so fun that she slid down to meet me.  Of course, Andrew just walked straight across like it was no big deal.  Once we got to Lake Isabelle, we started passing a lot more people and dogs.  We dubbed Layla dirtiest dog – while her white paws and tan legs were black with mud, most of the other dogs were completely clean.  Andrew says she takes after her mom.  After a quick dip in Brainard Lake, we headed home.

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Since we had to drive back through Boulder, we made a quick stop for Apres-hike beers and food at Avery.  They have a great dog-friendly patio (Dear Denver – please bring back dog-friendly breweries!!) and we both loved our food.  And obviously the beer.  Saturday well spent.

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