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Pawnee-Buchanan Loop


One of the top long loops in Colorado.

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12,528' 3,819 m


8,820' 2,688 m


6,632' 2,021 m


6,615' 2,016 m



Avg Grade (5°)


Max Grade (23°)

Dogs Leashed

Features Birding · Fall Colors · Lake · River/Creek · Views · Waterfall · Wildflowers · Wildlife

Permits are required for overnight travel in the Indian Peaks Wilderness.


This is an easily accessed world class 27 mile loop, leading through some absolutely stunning terrain. The closest comparison to this route is the four pass loop around Maroon Bells. I do not think this quite matches that level of scenic beauty, but it comes pretty close and is much easier to access for most of the state to give it an extra star.

Need to Know

There is an $11 charge to access the recreation area.

Must have an Indian Peaks Wilderness Permit to overnight in this area. The permit is only $5.00, but it is necessary. Permits can be applied for by email or in person, no over the phone or fax option. Note that permits can take up to two weeks to process, so plan ahead.

2020 COVID Update per website: "Brainard Lake Recreation Area is open with some minor changes to help facilitate social distancing in accordance with local, state and federal guidelines. This includes allowing 80% capacity in parking lots along with a scheduled entry (details below). This scheduled entry is not a reservation system. We anticipate some of the displaced visitors will take advantage of the parking available at the Gateway Trailhead parking lot immediately outside of the BLRA and opt to hike or bike into the area. . . (…)."

Runner Notes

This is a very rocky loop. It is a good ankle workout. Much of it is also above treeline. Come prepared as you would anywhere else in Colorado during the summer monsoon season.


I started this loop at the Long Lake TH in the Brainard Lake Recreation Area. Take the trail from there, and follow it the .5 miles to the Mitchell Lake TH. Head out early as this area is quite popular later in the day.

From Mitchel Lake head up the Mount Audubon Trail. This will head up above treeline quickly and you'll go around Mount Audubon, so enjoy views of the mountain. At the junction where the trail heads up to Mount Audubon, continue on to the Beaver Creek Trail.

The Beaver Creek Trail will take you to Coney Flats after about 3.5 miles. At Coney Flats, which is where the trail hits the 4x4 rd, take a left to head up Buchanan Pass Trail. This trail is not wonderfully marked and I struggled a bit with feeling certain I was on the right trail. Head towards the high ground and you'll be on the right trail. It is 3.5 miles to the pass.

Enjoy the view as you climb and hit the pass.

After the pass, the trail is splendid as it drops quickly down into the trees. The trail continues through meadows and across creeks. The views and the solitude are amazing.

Continue on the Buchanan Pass Trail west until you hit the aptly named Cascade Trail. This will be the lowest point in your journey. The Cascades and falls along the next couple of miles are some of the best you'll find in Colorado as you follow Cascade creek higher.

Eventually, you'll separate from the creek as you climb into the basin. Enjoy the view as the jagged mountain walls encircle you and you wonder where the hell Pawnee Pass is. Around that time, you'll come across the Pawnee Pass Trail to rise above the basin and begin a slow and painful climb up to the pass.

When you are close to losing your mind, begging for this friggin' climb to end, you'll be about 500 ft from the top.

From the pass, there is a great singletrack that drops back to into the trees, past Lake Isabelle and to the Long Lake TH.

Flora & Fauna

Bugling elks, little critters, big birds trying to get the little critters and wildflowers galore can be found on this trail.


Shared By:

Jason Doedderlein with improvements by Brendan Tuchowski and 2 others

Trail Ratings

  4.8 from 52 votes


  4.8 from 52 votes
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in Colorado


1,229 Views Last Month
69,378 Since Sep 30, 2015



Climbing Buchanan Pass on the west side.
Jul 9, 2018 near Nederland, CO
Early morning along the trail
Sep 6, 2018 near Nederland, CO
looking out toward Shoshoni and Apache peaks to the south.
Aug 7, 2019 near Nederland, CO
The view from Beaver Creek Trail.
Apr 26, 2015 near Nederland, CO
Before reaching the switchbacks
Jul 26, 2020 near Nederland, CO
The ascent/descent from Pawnee Pass is incredibly beautiful. A top spot in Colorado.
Aug 25, 2015 near Nederland, CO


Current Trail Conditions

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Aug 15, 2021
Karen Williams
Jul 25, 2021
Joanie Andersen
Jul 20, 2021
amy i
Spectacular loop! We ran counterclockwise and encountered several downed trees between 8-20 miles but it was totally doable and SO beautiful. 26.1mi — 8h 00m
Sep 12, 2020
Kelsie Goddard
Winter conditions. Went clockwise and only made it to the top of Pawnee Pass. — 4h 33m
Aug 16, 2020
Jordan G
TH filled by 7:15am-> had to park outside entrance station + extended run. VERY Rocky; carpets of wildflowers. 32.4mi — 8h 40m
Oct 13, 2019
Krzysztof Danielewicz
27.8mi — 8h 47m
Aug 24, 2019
Tiest van Gool
Fantastic run over the Pawnee and Buchanan passes. 27.5mi — 10h 31m
Sep 8, 2018
Sarah Feinberg
Counter clockwise loop with a Mt Audobon summit. Stuck in the dark for the last 3 miles. 31.1mi