Backpacking the Pawnee – Buchanan Loop

A quick overnight backpacking trip on a Front Range classic – The Pawnee-Buchanan Loop in the Indian Peaks Wilderness.

I have been in the Boulder, CO area for nearly 15 years now.

At this point, I have done many of the hikes, skis, and backpacking trips avail in this area.

Though I always love do something new, certain areas are always nice to do again.

So when d-low invited me along for one of his rare weekend get-a-ways, I readily agreed for the chance to do the Pawnee-Buchanan loop.

Joining us for this trip would be our good friend Makrhamm.

We started off at 8am at the Brainard Lake TH where it was already busy. We literally snagged the last spot at the Mitchell Lake TH.

After shouldering our packs, we quickly made our way up to Long Lake.


We made our way along the nicely graded trail and quickly came to Lake Isabelle.

From here, we steadily climbed up to Pawnee Pass on the Continental Divide.

The wildflowers were stupendous.

The divide was reached and we took the (almost!) mandatory Pawnee Pass shot. 🙂

The views from the pass are among my favorite on this loop.

The western side of the divide was noticeably more lush.  The wildflowers continued to impress.

We soon arrived at Pawnee Lake and took a rather scenic break.

We made camp below Fox Park and enjoyed the wonderful spot.

We made trail the following morning and worked our way to another highlight of the trip: Fox Park.

With the wide open meadows, lots of wildflowers, meandering streams and view to the divide, it is among my favorite places in Colorado.

We started our climb up to Buchanan Pass and enjoyed more of the alpine terrain.

At the top of Buchanan Pass, we enjoyed more great views and headed down the many switchbacks. Some of which had views to Buchanan Pass above.

Along the way, we saw more wild flowers. Including some late season glacier lilies.

We quickly made it to Coney Flats and took a last view towards Buchanan Pass and Sawtooth.

We did the steady, but nicely graded climb over the shoulder of Mt. Audubon.

(The photo below is a cheat as I neglected to take a shot from this stretch of trail. .  So I used an older photo of mine. The trail has not  changed much since I took it, though. 😉 )

We then arrived at the Mitchell Lake TH where family and friends were meeting us.  A wonderful cookout was had at the picnic area with lots of yummy food, good beer and great company.

A great end to a wonderful weekend!

All the photos

Trail Deets

One of my favorite loops. All the information for the loop can be found here.

"Karma is a b**** Dept. "  Not having done this loop during the summer in quite some time, I was a bit surprised at the increased number of backpackers vs previous summers.

d-low sums up my reaction best:

Along the way, Mags, who hasn't hiked the Pawnee Buchanan Loop in the summer in a few years, kept remarking that there were so many more backpackers on the trail then in years past. Mags doesn't like crowds and will probably wind up moving to a cabin off the grid in Montana. We thought that maybe the loop had been featured in Backpacker or Outside Magazine. So we took it upon ourselves to ask the hikers where they heard about the hike. "Excuse me, are you hiking the Pawnee Buchanan Loop? Have you hiked it before? Where did you hear about it?" And as karma would have it, 3 out of 4 parties asked heard about the hike on, Mags' website. Mags has brought his own nightmare upon himself. We couldn't stop laughing. It was the perfect example of karma.


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10 years ago

This looks like a great loop. Another loop, easily accessible from Boulder, is to take J. Ley’s red route from Copper Mtn over Uneva Pass and on the Eccles Pass then down into Silverthorne, using the Summit Stage bus to complete the loop back to Copper. I had missed this route when I hiked the Mexico to Steamboat chunk of the CDT in 2010, so I added it as a loop with a section of the official CDT route from Jones Pass back to Georgia Pass that I also missed when I took the bike path. This is perfect for… Read more »

"Ziggy" Heigerick
"Ziggy" Heigerick
9 years ago

What kind of weather conditions can I expect in late May??? My son and I will be flying in from Atlanta to do the Lost Creek Loop (36 mi)

8 years ago

Doh! It snowed like crazy in May!

Jeff Hoff
Jeff Hoff
5 years ago

I have a trip planned July 8-10 for the Buchanan/Pawnee loop And a little concerned about snow when ice on the passes as I do not have much experience with those conditions. So depending on snow pack this year compared to normal years do you think I will run into any issues?

4 years ago

how’s the exposure at the passes? any scrambling required?