Pawnee Peak Overview
Pawnee Peak is a kindly gentleman in the midst of a rough neighborhood. Pawnee's main claim to fame is that it lies a gentle half mile north of the very popular Pawnee Pass hiking destination. Thousands of people each year embark on the moderate trek from the Long Lake Trailhead near Brainard Lake to the 12,550' saddle between Shoshoni and Pawnee Peaks. The hike passes two large, beautiful lakes, and the views to the east and west are spectacular.
But it is relatively few people who scramble the additional 400 vertical feet on gentle terrain to take in the even more spectacular vistas awaiting them from the summit of Pawnee Peak. Pawnee is the root of the spectacular ridge that houses Little Pawnee Peak and divides the two stream drainages which empty into the popular Brainard Lake. To the south lie the massive and pointy Navajo and Apache Peaks, covered with glaciers and gendarmes, not to mention the improbable north ridge of Shoshoni. To the north are the massive stolidity of Mount Audubon and the memorably conical Mount Toll. To the west lies Lake Granby and, closer, the incredible maze of the Lone Eagle Cirque. Several of these peaks are accessible only by arduous and semi-technical routes. Yet Pawnee lets you take them all in with a short 9-mile hike on good trails.
Pawnee is most easily accessed from the ultra-popular Brainard Lake area in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. The Indian Peaks are essentially the southern annex of Rocky Mountain National Park, however they have their own character and are far less choked with tourists.
Pawnee lies at the junction between the two major drainages which feed Brainard Lake. On the south, the Long Lake/Lake Isabelle drainage terminates at Pawnee Pass half a mile south of the peak on the Divide. On the north is the Blue Lake cirque (Mitchell Lake drainage) defined by Pawnee/Little Pawnee and Mounts Toll and Audubon. Separate trailheads (each at 10,500') service popular trails into each drainage and both are accessed through the Brainard Lake Recreation Area.
Brainard Lake is easily accessible by paved road from the Peak to Peak Highway (CO72). Turn west at the well-marked intersection with Brainard Lake Road in the easy-to-miss town of Ward 12 miles north of Nederland. For much of the year (mid-October through mid-June) there is a road closure and small parking area after 2.5 miles. During the summer months, you can pay your $6 user fee and proceed an additional 2.5 miles to Brainard Lake proper. A one-way loop road circles the small lake and the Mitchell Lake and Long Lake trailheads split off on a marked, paved road at the western end of the lake.
Both trailheads are very crowded during summer weekends and fill up quickly. There is also parking in certain (marked) areas along the Brainard Lake road including the Niwot Picnic Area from which a convenient cutoff trail proceeds to Long Lake.
The easiest route to the summit of Pawnee is via the southern drainage. Two miles of easy and largely level trail lead past the aptly named Long Lake and on to Lake Isabelle with spectacular views of the glacier of the same name as well as the gendarme-ridden ridges of Navajo and Shoshoni Peaks. From here, the trail turns north, switchbacking up steeper terrain, passing a hanging valley, and eventually emerging in the broad alpine meadows of Pawnee Pass. There is no established trail from here, but even those with little route-finding skill should be able to make their way up the Divide to the summit. (4.5 miles one-way with 2400' of elevation gain).
The other, more challenging route threads the northern drainage to the gorgeous Blue Lake from the Mitchell Lake TH. Pass the lake on the northern (right hand) side and ascend a broad slope aiming for the broad Toll-Pawnee saddle. This slope is often snow-covered until late summer and significant snow exists even in October. Though the slope is not extreme, an ice axe and crampons may be prudent in places. From the saddle, head south to the summit (4.5 miles one way with 2400 feet of elevation gain).
These two routes can be nicely combined into a great, though taxing, 10+ mile circuit and easily combined with an ascent of Mount Toll.
Access to Pawnee Peak is hampered by the limitted open season of the Brainard Lake Recreation Area (early-mid June through mid-October). During closed times, an extra 5-6 miles must be added to any planned milages. One popular option is to park at the closure and bike the paved road to the standard summer trailhead.
During open season, a $7/vehicle fee is charged. The fee is good for 5 days but only applicable to the same vehicle. A season pass is available for $25.
Indian Peak Wilderness Rules and Regulations (lifted from one of Kane's excellant IP pages)
When To Climb
Pawnee is accessible at all times of year. Winter climbers should be aware of avalanche danger on the broad, steep slopes below Pawnee Pass. Summer climbers should be aware of Colorado's penchant for violent, sudden, and all-encompassing lightning storms and hail. The upper sections of both northern and southern approaches ot Pawnee are quite exposed with little shelter.
There is an established and popular campground at Brainard Lake. Backcountry camping is allowed at designated areas though permits are required (June through September, see above). The Indian Peaks has various backcountry zones (BZs) in which only certain number of groups are allowed at a time. More information here soon.
Current Weather and Forecast
- USA Mountains (A Norwegian Perspective)
Trip report by a Norseman visitting the Indian Peaks. Includes some really stunning photos.
- Pawnee Peak TR
My trip report (with photos) for our Pawnee Peak climb (July 17, 2004).
- Pawnee Peak with dramatic weather
- The Audubon to Little Pawnee Ridge Adventure