I highly, highly recommend backpacking the Pawnee-Buchanan Loop in Indian Peaks Wilderness. There were beautiful views, two mountain passes, and gorgeous fall colors.
After finishing the Superior Hiking Trail and laying pretty low in Minnesota and Denver the last two weeks, Michael and I were ready for some backpacking. I, unfortunately, came down with a cold, so we had to push it out a a few days, but we still made it!
We were looking for a one or two night backpacking loop less than a 2-hour drive from Denver. We landed on the Pawnee-Buchanan Loop, also lovingly known as the Double Bypass Loop since you hike over two mountain passes.
Michael and I decided to do the Pawnee-Buchanan Loop as an overnight trip with the plan to hike counter-clockwise and camp at Crater Lake. It’s a 27-mile loop with an additional 2.8 miles to and from Crater Lake.
Pawnee-Buchanan Loop Day 1
We left Denver at 6:00 am and reached the Mitchell Lake Trailhead by 7:30 am. It was cloudy and chilly. I was wearing shorts. A cold front had just come through the night before and the weather was colder than I anticipated it would be.
I crossed my fingers that I would warm up as I hiked and that hopefully the sun would come out. If not, I had a hoodie and leggings in my pack to put on if I got desperate.
The trail started with an uphill to the Beaver Creek/Mount Audubon junction. We continued on the Beaver Creek trail, which dropped us down into the trees, slightly shaded from the wind, to the Cooney Flats Trailhead.
From there it was time to start making our way up to Buchanan Pass. It was a very gentle grade, which is a big help when hiking above 10,000 feet.
It was still cloudy and the wind was blowing. Fortunately, the clouds seemed to be moving pretty fast and we could see some patches of blue sky.
I begged the sun to come out and guess what?! It did! Kind of. There were still lots of clouds, but there was also way more blue patches of sky than before.
It definitely helped warm me up, but since we were getting ready to go over the pass I threw on my rain jacket. It’s always windy on mountain passes.
Michael and I headed up the pass with a slow and steady pace. We kept turning back to take in the view and noticed some clouds coming up just south of us.
As we got closer to the Continental Divide, the clouds got closer to us. We started to feel some graupel, which is like a snow/hail mix. Luckily, we were almost at the top!
However, our pace was nothing compared to the pace of the weather. By the time we were just about to crest we were getting pummeled by graupel. It was cold and it hurt! Not to mention the wind was insane. And again, I was wearing shorts!
There was a giant rock pyramid right at the top. We beelined to it and hid behind it hoping that the wind and graupel would die down a bit.
What an adventure. I guess that’s what happens when you hike across the Divide!
Once things calmed down a bit we started walking down the backside of Buchanan.
I say things calmed down, but the wind was still howling. I couldn’t feel my legs, but dang the views were gorgeous.
And what do you know, the sun came back out!
Once we got down into the trees we stopped to take a break at a campsite and I put on my leggings. It almost looked as if the graupel bruised my legs! Little purplish dots everywhere.
Afterwards, we continued to hike down, where we went through a forested area. The fall colors were outstanding.
We even saw a moose!
Eventually we made it to the Cascade Creek Trail junction, the lowest part of the trail, and started ascending again. By this time in the afternoon it felt quite warm – a nice change from the chilly morning! Warm enough to change back into my shorts.
The mileage on my GPS watch told me that we should have been to camp already, but we still had a few miles to go. This messes with my mental game and makes me feel more tired/slow than I actually should be. It’s frustrating. I think I’ll stop wearing a GPS watch. I didn’t use one at all on the Superior Hiking Trail and it was refreshing.
We finally made it to the spur trail to Crater Lake. Woohoo! From there it was only a little over a mile to campsites.
I couldn’t believe the view of Lone Eagle Peak over the lake. As Michael said, “this is so damn pretty.”
It took more time than I’d like to find the designated campsites. It was like a scavenger hunt with minimal clues. We eventually settled down at campsite 5, a little spot near Mirror Lake.
After dinner we enjoyed some whiskey by the lake.
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It was starting to get dark, so we climbed into the tent to finish the whiskey, eat some chocolate, and hang out. I’m pretty sure eating chocolate before bed helps keep you warm. Let’s hope that’s true! It’s going to be a chilly one!
Pawnee-Buchanan Loop Day 2
We wanted to get an early start, so that we wouldn’t get home too late. I had my alarm set for 6:30 am, but when it went off it was still dark and so cold that we couldn’t get out of the tent yet. We snoozed for another 20 minutes and had to force ourselves to start moving.
Eventually we made it out of the tent and packed things up quickly. I’m glad we had a warm breakfast of Mountain House skillets wrapped in tortillas. My toes were already starting to get numb.
Before we started hiking we had to stop and take in the views from Mirror Lake for just a little bit longer. Absolutely incredible.
We started hiking back towards the Pawnee Pass trail and Michael spotted a black bear! I only saw his big, fluffy butt as he was running away from us.
On the Pawnee Pass Trail we started hiking up. Similar to yesterday, it was a gentle grade. The sun wasn’t quite up over the mountains. There was a crisp chill to the air and a thin layer of frost covering the valley.
Eventually the trail led us to an area where we were surrounded by mountains. It was gorgeous, but daunting at the same time. I knew we where going to have to hike up and over one of them.
We continued on the trail and took a quick snack and water break. We had the worst view…
Then the fun started. We began climbing up gradual, rocky switchbacks to the top of Pawnee Pass. There have definitely been some rockslides over time that have covered parts of the trail, but none of them were too bad until we got to about the last 100 feet to the top of the pass. It was like the trail was completely washed out and all that was left were loose rocks to scramble up. Or we just lost track of the real trail and made things much harder for ourselves. We’ll never know.
The view from the top of Pawnee Pass wasn’t as stunning as the one from Buchanan. The top was a little more rounded so you couldn’t see down into the valley from which we just hiked. I wish I would have snapped a pic from further down, but my fingers were pretty numb and I was just concentrating on hiking to the top.
Still beautiful despite my frozen rectangle smile. There is also a nice view of Granby Lake in the distance.
The opposite side of Pawnee Pass was bright, sunny, and warm with views of a few lakes in the distance. Fortunately, the switchbacks weren’t as rocky on this side of the divide. It was still pretty gradual.
After a few miles the trail leveled out to a flat, wide trail. We had seen very few people up until this point, but then there were a lot of people out hiking on a beautiful Friday afternoon.
A short road walk from the Long Lake Trailhead we were back to our car at Mitchell Lake Trailhead.
Pawnee-Buchanan Loop Thoughts
Michael and I both loved backpacking the Pawnee-Buchanan Loop! We’d both even do it again, which is saying a lot.
The loop has beautiful scenery throughout the hike. The fall colors were stunning, but I bet it’s gorgeous during wildflower season as well.
We both thought that it was prettier than the Four Pass Loop, which is also saying a lot. The fall colors and minimal people on trail could have played a part in this.
The Pawnee-Buchanan Loop was challenging with the two passes, but not extreme enough for it to be too uncomfortable. It wasn’t at all boring.
I can’t believe that I hadn’t done any hiking in the Indian Peaks Wilderness before this point. It is so pretty and so close (90 minutes) to Denver! I’m already excited to go back for more hiking and backpacking in the future.
I highly recommend backpacking the Pawnee-Buchanan Loop if you get the chance!