William J. Hunter (Lake Isabelle)
Do you like waist-high wild flowers, frequent stream crossings, snow fields, clear blue sky, alpine lakes, and dogs? Then you might like the hike to Pawnee Pass, which is a 9 mile round-trip hike on the Long Lake Trailhead in the Brainard Lake Recreation Area of the Indian Peaks Wilderness. This serene and breathtakingly beautiful hike requires only modest effort but offers big rewards. Here I give you some tips for how to approach this spectacular hike and what to expect.
Starting Early is a Must
Most people will tell you to start hikes in the mountains early to avoid the heat, the crowds, and the afternoon storms. That advice applies here also, but the most important reason to start early on this hike is the light. With the sun rising behind you as you start the hike, the mountains are lit up in front of you. If you are lucky enough to have a clear day, Lake Isabella mirrors the sunlit mountains. The wildflowers also look better as the low sun creates cool, shady areas offset nicely against sparkling fields of warm color.
Getting to the Trailhead
The Long Lake Trailhead is in the Brainard Lake Recreation Area near CO 72, (12 miles north of Nederland). You have to pay a $10 entry fee. The Long Lake Trailhead is a short drive from the entrance.
When to go
Brainard Lake Road is usually open from mid-June through mid-October, depending on weather. If you want to see the most wildflowers, go in early July through early August. Also, Lake Isabelle is drained each August for agriculture purposes by a private company. The empty date varies each year. If you are hiking in August or later, check on the status of the lake before you go (303.541.2500).
Highlights of the Hike
The trail starts along a babbling stream fed by Long Lake. The sound of trickling water in the quiet of the early morning is very peaceful. Soon, the trail reaches Long Lake and then follows the north shore of the lake. You pass two connections for the Jean Lunning Trail, a 1.2 mile loop around the lake that you should take on your return hike. The trail gets steeper as you cross several streams fed by snow melt. Depending on when you visit, you might pass several snow fields and patches of wildflowers.Credit: William J. Hunter (2016)
William J. Hunter (Colorado Wildflowers near Lake Isabelle)
After the Pawnee Pass Trail split (2.1 miles), the trail climbs steeply over Lake Isabelle, providing a more expansive views of the lake below, the valley to the east, and the peaks to the west and north, including Navajo Peak (13,409'), Apache Peak (13,441') and Shoshoni Peak (12,967'). Be sure to take side trails down to the lake for even better views of the mountains.
After more switchbacks up the north valley wall, you reach open tundra of Pawnee Pass and the Continental Divide (approximately 4.5 miles). The trail is well maintained and not very rock at all.
On this trail, dogs are allowed if on a leash. I have never seen so many dogs on a hike. Almost every other hiker had a dog, and they were all well-behaved. If you are a dog lover, this might be a great hike for you.
I prefer hiking on trails with variety, especially ones that include open meadows. The hike to Pawnee Pass fits this bill. It has forested trails, stream crossings, open meadows full of wildflowers, and rocky switchbacks with great views. All packed into a hike that is only 9 miles round-trip.
Extending the Hike to Pawnee Lake
For even more high altitude hiking, you can follow the Pawnee Pass Trail up to the Continental Divide, and then drop about 1600 feet in 1.85 miles to reach Pawnee Lake. This part of the trail is strenuous, especially on the way back, and it adds almost another 4 miles to your hike.Credit: William J. Hunter (2016)
William J. Hunter (Stream crossing on Pawnee Pass hike)
You can also take the Long Lake trail to more remote spots of historical interest, if you are comfortable with higher elevations and scrambling. On Navajo peak, one of the high peaks above Pawnee pass, a plane crashed in 1948 on Niwot ridge (12,900 ft). The wreckage site in the gully below is known as “airplane gully”. You are not allowed to remove any parts of the wreckage, as the site is a historical aviation archeology site.
If you are looking for a hike in the Colorado Rockies that has great scenery, good trails, and variety, the hike to Pawnee Pass is a great choice. The length of the hike is quite manageable. In fact, even if you don't make it all the way to the pass, you will likely still enjoy this hike, with its abundance of wildflowers, meadows, stream crossing, and mountain views.Credit: William J. Hunter (2016)
William J. Hunter (View from Pawnee Pass)