Pawnee – Buchanan : Off-trail option

One of my many faults is that I tend to enjoy new experiences rather than the comfortable routine.

As I am typing this article, I am looking to the summit of an 8400′ peak.

One of my favorite local hikes…

Yet I have not been there in perhaps two years.

I know the twist and turns. Know what to expect when I come up to the saddle. And what I’ll see.

I can enjoy an old favorite, perhaps, if not as many people are around.

But throw in a busy trailhead area as well and I tend to shy away from going there.

Such as it is with the Pawnee-Buchanan Loop.

I’ve done the loop perhaps seven or eight times in the past seventeen years. Maybe more.

It is very popular loop. And the area is crowded during the summer.  Much to my chagrin, I played a small role in this popularity.

It is not my first choice to hike or backpack for a weekend now.

For my friends who have fewer opportunities to backpack than I do, I can see why they enjoy this loop.

It is insanely scenic, less than an hour from our home and with roughly 27 miles and 7000′  gain over two mountain passes, it is certainly a full weekend.

View mere minutes from the trailhead parking area.

So when a group of friends received a weekend to backpack, we went to the well for an old favorite. One that would not disappoint.

They convinced me to join them.

But I had a proposal: An off-trail route I spied on a map. And one another friend of mine has in fact done in the past. “Let’s do something different“.

And we did this past Saturday.

An early morning start brought us to a an already rapidly filling parking lot.

We did not waste time powering up the trail and enjoying the first of the many scenic highlights on this trip.

Classic view of Lake Isabelle

The usual mix of backpackers,  trail runners and day hikers were already present.  And it is easy to see why.

A beautiful area that is very accessible. And looks like something that very much defines the phrase “Colorado Backpacking“.

We soon started our climb up to Pawnee Pass.

The pass was reached and the descent down the many steep switchbacks began.

But now the interesting part of the trip began.

Rather than drop to the lake and deep into a valley to come up again to another pass, we went over an un-named pass instead. We’d hugged the divide for a good part of the day.

We’d cross car-sized talus, walk steeply up slopes, make some interesting Class 3 or possibly easy Class 4 moves that had to be scouted out and did lots of micro-navigation.

A wildness experience was had in a Wilderness area. In the busy Front Range area of Colorado, not a common occurrence.

The delights of the area could be savored in a relaxed fashion.

The way was arduous at times. But well within our comfort, skill and enjoyment levels.

The payoff was stupendous.

But we still had to work our way down.

The drainage was followed.

Easy enough.

But where to cross? Scramble down? Travel most efficiently?

The “Devil was in the details” as the cliché goes…

A lake not named on the quads was soon reached.


We started our descent along the steep drainage. A game trail would pop up here and there. It was not technically difficult but did require us to pay attention to the terrain. To blindly stumble forward would have cost us much time and more energy.

Even during the difficult terrain that was beauty to be had and savored.

Our off-trail campsite was reached.

A favorite spot tucked away.

A good place to look back from where we came.

We relaxed. Ate. Had a libation or two.

Josh’s son had a high fever. Being a good Dad, Josh opted to stay at home. So we took Josh along anyway. 🙂

The following morning we were back on trail. And would remain so for the rest of the trip.

We saw some more people for the first time since the previous morning. But not nearly as many as if we had done the loop in the traditional fashion.

The high mountain meadows were surrounded by mountains bathed in the morning light.

The brilliant, but brief, Colorado wildflower season was a riot of color.

The second pass that gives the loop its name was reached and crossed.

We soon reached a place not far from where I backpacked on skis a few short months ago.

Our way was quickly made up to the shoulder of Audubon. We could see the weather building up.

The trailhead was less than two miles away.  And downhill.

The thoughts of cold beer, burger and fries spurred us forward.

I had not been to Brainard Lake during the summer for quite some time.  The USFS did a very good job of managing the use, the parking situation and even making some more trails to connect all these areas together.

People strolling, fishing or picnicking.

All content and happy in this classic Colorado landscape.

A very nice way to end the hike.

The car was reached.

We drove to Ned and had that beer, burger and fries.

We were happy.

A great trip.

And it shows how even the familiar, and the  busy, can still delight. All it takes are some maps, a willingness to explore and some good friends who enjoy this type of trip, too.

All the photos

Post trip nosh: I have to put in a very good word for Ned’s.  A welcome addition to Ned since April of this year. In the same place as the old Whistler Cafe (and the same color scheme!), the owners kept the same basic diner/pub-grub menu but with more consistency and better service.  And with some additional dinner-type items, too.

We all had some damn good burgers and delicious sweet potato fries. The beer menu was limited but they do have rotating taps. Craft ales, IPAs, wheat beers and macro-lagers (Coors or similar) were all represented. Our server was fantastic, attentive and friendly.

Some American style pub-grub or breakfasts classics are what I enjoy after a trip in the outdoors. Pizza has its place. And AYCE Indian food with lots of chai hits the spot in winter.

But there is something about pub grub that is perfect after a good, hard and satisfying trip.

And Ned’s delivers. Very well.

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John D
7 years ago

Nice one.

fred torres
fred torres
7 years ago

Paul, just subscribed. Enjoy your rambles: on trails/off trails and by the playful expression of information that can be used or not…though worth considering