Pawnee Lake, Brainard Lake Recreation Area, Indian Peaks Wilderness Area, Colorado

Pawnee Lake - 12.8 miles

Brainard Lake Recreation Area

Pawnee Lake (10,877')

Pawnee Lake (10,877')

Round-Trip Length: 12.8 miles
Start-End Elevation: 10,515' - 10,877' (12,541' max elevation at Pawnee Pass)
Elevation Change: +362' net elevation gain (+4,008' total roundtrip elevation gain)
Skill Level: Strenuous
Dogs Allowed: Yes
Bikes Allowed: No
Horses Allowed: No
Related Trails:

Pawnee Lake - 12.8 Miles Round-Trip

Pawnee Lake (10,877') is located 6.4 miles from Long Lake Trailhead in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. It lies at treeline west of the Continental Divide in a steep-walled valley below Pawnee Pass.

Trail Map | Photo Gallery

Pawnee Lake is accessible from Monarch Lake (west of the Divide) via the Cascade Creek Trail, but the east-west route from Brainard Lake offers a decidedly more scenic trek that includes Long Lake, Lake Isabelle, Pawnee Pass and four miles of spectacular travel over treeline.

It follows the Pawnee Pass Trail up to the Divide, then drops 1665’ in just 1.85 miles to the lake. The trail is strenuous in both directions, particularly the climb from Pawnee Lake back to Pawnee Pass.

Backpackers will have little trouble timing their ascent to avoid weather, but day hikers should plan for a long day that may include waiting out storms before it’s safe to return:

The trail moves quickly up the north shore of Long Lake past two connections for the Jean Lunning Trail (1.2 miles : 10,674'). Travel steepens (1.85 miles) in a thinning forest to Lake Isabelle and the Pawnee Pass Trail split (2.1 miles : 10,892').

The Pawnee Pass Trail climbs steeply over Lake Isabelle on a shifting path that clears treeline and edges to the north side of the valley (2.8 miles : 11,425').

It briefly moderates across an alpine bench (3.5 miles : 11,770’) with exceptional views that include Navajo Peak (13,409'), Apache Peak (13,441') and Shoshoni Peak (12,967').

Methodical climbing resumes on switchbacks up the north valley wall (3.6 miles : 11,883') before leveling in open tundra to Pawnee Pass and the Continental Divide (4.55 miles : 12,541').

A few steps ahead lead to stunning views down the west side, and the beginning of a precipitous descent through rugged talus into the Pawnee Lake basin.

Rock yields to flower-riddled slopes through 5.4 miles (11,700’) across more even terrain. The forest gradually reconstitutes by 6.1 miles (11,150’), where you’ll find spurs that branch off for the lake.

Backpackers may find established sites off these social trails, but it’s otherwise advisable to remain on the designated trail for efficient travel.

Thicker timber signals proximity to the lake, which is now hidden from the trail. Look for a cairn marked spur at 6.37 miles, which veers left to Pawnee Lake (6.4 miles : 10,877’).

The lake is hemmed by steep south and west walls, but its east shore is long and accessible, albeit with minor encumbrances. Campers may find more accommodating terrain just above the lake.

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Interactive GPS Topo Map

Key GPS Coordinates - DATUM WGS84

  • N40 04.674 W105 35.073 — 0.0 miles : Long Lake Trailhead
  • N40 04.550 W105 35.220 — 0.2 miles : Jean Lunning Trail split #1
  • N40 04.234 W105 36.071 — 1.1 miles : Jean Lunning Trail split #2
  • N40 04.171 W105 36.719 — 1.7 miles : Begin Moderate switchbacks to Lake Isabelle
  • N40 04.222 W105 36.876 — 2.1 miles : Lake Isabelle - Pawnee Pass Trail split
  • N40 04.328 W105 37.192 — 2.6 miles : Steep, winding climb above treeline
  • N40 04.313 W105 37.495 — 3.2 miles : Grade moderates across wide alpine bench
  • N40 04.372 W105 37.779 — 3.6 miles : Winding climb up north valley wall
  • N40 04.488 W105 37.887 — 4.1 miles Winding climb up north valley wall
  • N40 04.567 W105 38.117 — 4.55 miles : Pawnee Pass (12,541')
  • N40 04.595 W105 38.359 — 5.0 miles : Steep descent down west side of Divide
  • N40 04.673 W105 38.485 — 5.35 miles : Transition from talus to alpine grass
  • N40 04.762 W105 38.505 — 5.6 miles : Pass through alpine landscape on mild terrain
  • N40 05.112 W105 38.572 — 6.1 miles : Grades moderate on approach to treeline
  • N40 05.288 W105 38.737 — 6.37 miles : Cairn-marked spur to lake outlet area
  • N40 05.255 W105 38.739 — 6.4 miles : Pawnee Lake

Worth Noting

  • Over 65% of this trail runs above treeline. Carry versatile layers and sun protection. Do not attempt Pawnee Pass if storms are in the area. Anticipate steep grades and rugged terrain, particularly between Pawnee Pass and Pawnee Lake.
  • Remain vigilant on the final approach to the lake, as it’s hidden (and not immediately accessible from) the main trail.
  • Arrive early to secure parking (spaces are limited) and avoid crowds on the busy trail artery leading to Lake Isabelle.
  • Pawnee Lake joins Crater Lake in forming the headwaters of Cascade Creek, which feeds Buchanan Creek and inlets at Monarch Lake.

Camping and Backpacking Information

  • Permits are required for all overnight backcountry campers in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, June 1 - September 15.

  • Permits are required year-round for day and overnight use by large groups (8+) or organizational groups such as scouts, churches, schools and hiking clubs. Group size is limited to 12 people or people and stock combined.

  • There are no designated sites in this travel zone - dispersed camping only. Use established sites whenever possible to minimize impact. Camp at least 100' away from lakes, streams and trails.

  • Campfires are prohibited east of the Continental Divide, and at Pawnee Lake. Gas stoves only.

  • Dogs must be leashed at all times.

  • Stock is not permitted in the Four Lakes Backcountry Zone, which includes access to Pawnee Lake from Brainard Lake.

Fishing Information

  • Fishing is permitted in Long Lake, Lake Isabelle, Pawnee Lake and their tributaries with a valid Colorado fishing license. Note Lake Isabelle is partially drained each year, at different times. Call ahead for the latest conditions (303.541.2500).

Rules and Regulations

  • There's an $11 fee to enter the Brainard Lake Recreation Area. Use the self-service kiosk if no attendant is on duty.
  • Dogs must be leashed at all times in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area.

Directions to Trailhead

The Long Lake Trailhead is located within the Brainard Lake Recreation Area off of CO 72, (12 miles north of Nederland, just north of the town of Ward).

From Highway 72, turn west on Brainard Lake Road. In 2.6 miles you'll reach a pay station. Use the self-service pay station if no attendant is on duty. Continue another 3.2 miles on the paved road to the Long Lake Trailhead. This road may be closed at the halfway point from late October - late June or early July (depending on snow).

Contact Information

Boulder Ranger District
2140 Yarmouth Avenue
Boulder, CO 80301

Sulphur Ranger District
9 Ten Mile Drive
P.O. Box 10
Granby, Colorado 80446

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