Terra Incognita, or the Pawnee-Buchanan Loop

It seemed prudent to park at the farther trailhead and get the 0.7 miles of road running over early. Somehow I knew that after a long day running in the mountains (and you can put quotes around ‘running’ if you like), the last thing we’d want to do was to pound pavement for a kilometer. I’ve heard of this route by many names: the Pawnee-Buchanan Loop, the Indian Peaks Circuit, the Helluva Dayhike, and more, but I’m going to refer to it by what it is: the Indian Peaks Wilderness Marathon, 26-and-change miles of some very challenging terrain, 6700′ of vertical gain. And it’s been on my list for a long time!

Stephanie, Peter, and I finished the perverse pavement pounding in short order at the Mitchell Lake Trailhead and gratefully took to the nice forest trail. Audubon. It was a beautiful 7am in the mountains and the fact that it was a Wednesday made it twice as nice. We climbed 900′ up the eastern slopes of Mt. Audubon admiring the flowers and relative lack of other traffic on the uber-popular trail. At the trail crest, we took a right on the much less traveled Beaver Creek Trail headed north and downhill 1300′ toward the St. Vrain valley. After an hour and a half, Peter turned back complaining of persistent muscle strains.


There are two major climbs and descents on the loop and this “warmup hill” wasn’t one of them. Six miles in and sufficiently warmed up, we reached the 4wd trailhead at Coney Flats (9800′) and turned west for the first of the Divide crossings at Buchanan Pass. The trail became indistinct in places and we had to cross a couple of snowfields, but soon the climb began in earnest up the steep eastern side of the pass.

Running toward Buchanan Pass

Steph leads the way into the spectacular Buchanan Creek valley.

Topping out at 11,837′, we were greeted by very strong winds as well as the expected fantastic views. We’d come 9.5 miles in three hours and had a decision to make. Steph, of course, is a trail-running animal and could easily handle far more than this paltry loop was likely to dish out. Yours truly, on the other hand… Last year, this jaunt wouldn’t be anything too taxing and in fact would have been fantastic training for the San Juan Solstice 50 miler. This year, I’ve been, shall we say, diversifying my recreational interests (slacking off) and have only run more than ten miles once since February. Once we dropped over the west side of the Divide into (for me) Terra Incognita, my bed would be made and I’d have to sleep in it for another 18 miles.

In for a penny, in for a pound! Go big or go home! Time to put on the big-boy pants… Steph took off like a shot down the rocky western side of the pass.

The lovely Fox Park west of the Divide.

One of many stream crossings.

Terra Incognita

The descent was steep, switchbacking across a steep and rocky slope. But the views… wow! Despite having spent six years adventuring in Colorado’s Front Range, I’ve never spent any significant time on the western side of the range. We dropped through open forest and fields of flowers and alpine tarns into the scenic Fox Park. The slope had moderated a bit and we managed to make good time down the long valley of the Buchanan Creek. A couple of stream crossings made things a little interesting and they only got more interesting once Thunderbolt Creek joined from the south. Fortunately, most of the crossings were facilitated by anything from single logs to actual bridges and we mostly kept our feet dry. Both wildflowers and pine beetles were in full effect.

Almost two hours after leaving the pass, we reached the trail junction of the Buchanan Pass and Cascade Trails at 8800′. This is the westernmost and lowest point on the loop. We were more than half way through in terms of distance, but still had a daunting 7 mile, 3500′ climb back up to the Divide. We had a quick lunch, treated water, and motored on trading our relaxed running pace with a more sustainable brisk hike upwards. The weather was still great and it was actually kind of hot down here in the relatively thick air and lack of wind.

Cascade Creek is well named

Yours truly enjoying a waterfall and a Hammergel

The rational behind the Cascade Trail’s naming quickly became clear. This trail literally passes one waterfall after another for a couple of glorious milesup the valley! Despite being the less-visited side of the Wilderness and a weekday at that, we passed a couple groups of backpackers on the trail as we climbed higher and higher. After three miles of climbing along the creek, we reached the turn-off for the (reportedly) scenic Crater Lake. The lake and it’s amazing view of the Lone Eagle Cirque are supposedly well-worth the trip, but we didn’t relish tacking an additional two miles onto an already ambitious day.

Higher up, we started to get great views. This is Mt. Cherokee and the eastern wall of the Lone Eagle Cirque.

Rounding the corner, we got to see the back side of Mt. Toll.

Above 10,000′ we started climbing through ledgy open forest with scattered views of the various wonders that lie west of the Divide. The peaks in the Brainard Lake region are pretty familiar to me but from on the horizon and in person, but seeing them from this side was definitely something new. We stopped to treat water at Pawnee lake and eyed the continuous walls of the surrounding cirque. It was gorgeous, but improbable. There’s a hiking trail up that? Really? Where!?

Amazingly, it really did work out. In an hour, we climbed 1800′ from Pawnee Lake to Pawnee Pass, switchbacking left and right through huge talus piles, bypassing sections of recent rock-fall, dodging towers and steep drop-offs. Not until about 300′ below the pass did I finally grok what was going on and that the trail exited in a completely different place than I’d expected. Suddenly the temperature dropped and the wind came up and we made the startlingly abrupt transition to the flat tundra of Pawnee Pass.


The west side of Pawnee Pass. There’s a trail up that?!

Steph finishes the second climb and crosses the Divide again.

Back in Familiar Terrain

The wind was howling and some ominous weather to the southwest, not to mention a definite eagerness to be finished, prompted us to hurry down the well-worn Pawnee Pass trail back into the familiar Brainard Lake area.

23 miles into a big run, I was feeling pretty whipped. My stomach had been iffy most of the way up the Cascade and Pawnee Pass trails and I was clearly in need of some sort of nutrient I wasn’t getting. Amazingly, Steph seemed like she’d finally warmed up and would be perfectly happy going back for a second lap, faster this time, and maybe a third cool-down lap! Wearily, I set off down to Lake Isabelle far below, trying to keep Steph in sight and simultaneously not perform a flying face-plant courtesy of one of the numerous available hazards to navigation.

After the precipitous drop to the lake, she took pity on me or maybe my condition improved and we managed a decent pace on the flatter, smoother trail. In the last half mile, I actually started to feel pretty good again. Not good enough that I wasn’t happy to see Peter asleep in my car at the trailhead, but good enough to manage a marginally-heroic pace coupled with a rugged look past the Long Lake viewpoints and the scads of motor-tourists.

Final tally was 27-ish miles in nine and a half hours. The scenery was fantastic, the company kindred and supportive, and the whole experience definitely a highlight of an already eventful summer.

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