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Pawnee Pass (D.8)

Description: If your dream is to stand with a foot either side of the Continental Divide this is the hike for you.  Along the way you will pass two of the most beautiful mountain lakes to be seen in the Rockies.  You'll experience three life zones; the Montaine, Sub-Alpine and Alpine.  And you'll be exposed to unequalled views both east and west of the divide.  While this is probably the most difficult hike on Beyond Boulder it is certainly not one to be missed if you are in good enough condition to tackle it.  

Difficulty:   A Very Difficult D.8, 9.6 Miles (from trailhead), 2,150' Elevation, 7 Hours - Pawnee Pass is not for everyone.  It should really only be considered by those who are in good health, and who have the stamina for long sustained climbing at altitude.  You'll want to start early on this hike as weather can change quickly in the afternoons on the divide.  As this hike is an extension of both the Long Lake and Lake Isabelle hikes on Beyond Boulder, there is no shame in lowering your goal to one of these hikes if you find it is just too much.  They are all wonderful, beautiful hikes.

Driving Directions: Brainard Lake Recreation Area.  The BLRA is west of Ward, CO.  There are two popular ways to reach Ward, one via Canyon Rd west to Nederland and then north on the Peak To Peak Hwy to Ward.  The other is to travel north from Boulder on CO 36 toward Lyons, turning left onto Left Hand Canyon Rd following the signs toward Ward.  Left Hand Canyon Rd ends at the Peak To Peak Hwy where you will turn right. Both options will take you about an hour.  Once on the Peak To Peak in Ward you will see a sign for BLRA indicating a left turn onto Brainard Lake Rd 112.  This road will switchback up to the Visitors Entrance.  There is a $11 per car fee.  BLRA can become very crowded causing parking issues in the summer, especially on weekends, so early hiking is advised during the high visitor months of June-August.  Google Map directions here...

Most parking is in the parking loops east of Brainard Lake, which adds some asphalt to your hike.

Parking: Parking in BLRA is now limited to the overflow parking at the beginning of the Brainard Lake loop road.  This means you will be adding a mile of asphalt to the nearly 10 miles of trail hiking.  A ranger told me there is still parking at the trailhead but don't count on finding a space.  The road can be used in summer months to drop off riders or supplies at a picnic table around Brainard Lake, as it's a favorite picnicking spot for visitors.

Trailhead:  To get to Long Lake trailhead from overflow parking head toward the restrooms located at the west end of the parking area near the Brainard Lake spillway.  Cross the spillway on the old loop road and make your way around the north side of the lake.  You will come to a stone bridge crossing Mitchell Creek.  Just after this bridge you will turn right up the road toward Long and Mitchell Lake trailheads.  The road will split again, and this time stay to the left toward Long Lake.  The trailhead is located just beside the small ranger hut at the old parking area.  (Note: An optional, and perhaps more attractive start to this hike would be to circumvent Brainard Lake on the south side and take the Niwot Cutoff trail as documented in the Long Lake and Lake Isabelle hikes.  That route offers better options for seeing the famous Brainard Mousses.  I mean Mooses.  Er, Moose.)

Click image for Pawnee Pass detail on Google Maps

Click image for Pawnee Pass detail on Google Maps

Trail Guide: (Note: From the Long Lake trailhead you quickly pick up the feeder stream from Long to Brainard.  If it's a hot dry day, you may run into swarms of mosquitos, so you might be wise to bring some bug repellant with you on your hike, or lather up at the parking area just in case.  After about .2-.3 miles you will come to the start of Long Lake and a bridge across the stream.  The banner image for Beyond Boulder was taken on this bridge.  Enjoy the view, then return to the trail and continue along the right side of Long Lake to the 1.2 mile point.  Here you will come to a split in the trail, with the Pawnee Pass Trail rising to the right and Jean Lunning Loop dropping toward the source of Long Lake on the left.  Stay to the right, heading up Pawnee Pass.  Continue on this trail to approximately the 2.0 mile point where you will come upon Lake Isabelle.  To the left there is a short trail that will take you to the Isabelle spillway where the runoff drops beautifully over steep, rocky pitch on its way to Long Lake.  At this point you will also come up on the split of Pawnee Pass trail and the trail that will take you further on to some nice resting spots along the bank of Lake Isabelle.  If you are going no further, take this trail, find a nice spot to sun yourself and enjoy the views until you are ready to retrace your route back to the trailhead.

If you are really ready for the hike up to Pawnee Pass you will turn right, continuing on the Pawnee Pass Trail and head up.  For the next 2.5 miles you will climb through lush forest, crossing creeks from time to time, as well as hike steep switchbacks with some exposure, and finally a long switchbacked ascent of the scree field just before the summit of Pawnee Pass.  There you will find a large wooden marker letting you know you are standing on the Continental Divide.  Carry on a little further for some incredible views to the west of the divide.  As with most summits on the divide it can get quite windy and cool at the pass so you may want to pack a windbreaker for your trip.  I found that by retracing my steps a few hundred feet you can find some protection from the wind on the eastern slope on the way back down the trail for a more enjoyable rest and something to eat.

Map Resources: EveryTrail MapUS Forest Service (Ward); US Forest Service (Monarch Lake)Also, the BLRA offers a great map for the asking when you pay your entrance fee.

Après Hike: You will no doubt develop a deserving thirst after any of the great Indian Peaks hikes, and there's no craft beer better suited for after this hike than Walnut Brewery's Indian Peaks Pale Ale.  Walnut lays claim to Boulder's original brewpub and has a great menu to pair with their beers.  They are located on Walnut in the heart of downtown between 11th and Broadway.

Picnicking: Many beautiful options with tables and grills around Brainard Lake and parking areas.

Restrooms:  Plenty at parking lot and trailhead.

Dog Friendly: Yes.

Cell Service: Nope.