Not a very well kept secret, the Indian Peaks Wilderness is a Colorado gem just south of Rocky Mountain National Park. This area can get pretty crowded, but one reliable way to escape these throngs of people is simply to get farther from the trailhead. For how many people fight for a parking spot at Brainard Lake, it can be amazing how few people you see once you are just 3 miles from the trailhead passing one of the main day hike destinations such as Lake Isabelle. The loop through Pawnee Pass (12,542 feet) and Buchanan Pass (11,837 feet) is dramatic, strenuous, and unforgettable.
The classic loop covers 27 miles, but there are several great extension options that are well worth making this a three-day adventure. The main extension options are Lake Isabelle (0.2 mile and 40 feet of gain), Pawnee Peak (1 mile and 400 feet of gain) and Crater Lake (2.8 miles and 350 feet of gain). All should be considered given ample time and energy.
The trek starts at the Brainard Lake area, but there are two other potential access points at Coney Flats and Monarch Lake (though this one adds several miles to the loop). Your decision about whether to hike clockwise or counter-clockwise will depend on what camping zones are available for your permit (June 1 to September 15) and your preference on whether you want to climb or descend the steep side of Pawnee Pass. The views around Pawnee Pass are definitely better as well. This write-up will focus on the clockwise option.
Starting at Mitchell Lakes Trailhead in the Brainard Lake area, follow either the road or a small trail paralleling the road to the Long Lake Trailhead. This is to shorten your third day, which is a long slog, and lengthens your first day, which is already likely to be your shortest. From Long Lake, continue toward Lake Isabelle, which is a beautiful lake in a dramatic cirque that attracts many day hikers. As soon as you turn right toward Pawnee Pass, the crowds diminish rapidly. Keep climbing steadily up through trees until they start to thin out and you reach a rocky clearing. In front of you will be the final climb to the pass with long and steady switchbacks. The pass itself is quite wide, with a sign to mark your achievement. Consider summiting Pawnee Peak if you have the time. After you start to descend the other side of the pass, your world changes drastically.
Immediately upon starting your descent, the steepness will become very apparent as the trail drops 1,500 feet in just a half mile through a chaos of boulders and scree. Keep careful footing and continue down toward Pawnee Lake where many excellent campsites along the lake are available. If you are camping at Crater Lake, continue onward another few miles to stay the night. The following day can be a bit of a slog, but if you are visiting Crater Lake, it certainly adds a nice highlight to this middle portion of the hike. A bonus are the cascade waterfalls that give Cascade Creek its name. Turn right at the bottom of the valley toward Buchanan Pass. The recommended spot to camp this evening is in Fox Park, the grassy clearing you’ll enter after a demanding set of switchbacks. Watch for moose and deer.
The final day starts with a long and well-graded trail up into the trees above Fox Park before entering another area that seems an awful lot like Fox Park minus a few trees. The flowers here are lovely. Upon finally getting to the pass, you’ll see a huge valley open before you with Sawtooth Mountain and its large perennial snowfield on the right. Continue down for a long time until reaching the Coney Flats Trailhead. Turn right toward Mount Audubon for a very long and exhausting forested climb to the shoulder. The numbers of this day aren’t particularly challenging, but after descending Buchanan Pass, finding another 1,500-foot climb can come as a surprise. After descending on the other side of the shoulder of Audubon, it is only a few more miles to your vehicle that is hopefully stashed at the Mitchell Lakes Trailhead.