Hiking Brainard Lake
Pawnee Pass via Long Lake and Lake Isabelle
Distance: 4.6 miles one way
Elevation: 10,520 to 12,550 feet
Highlights: Spectacular views, wildflowers, lakes, cascading creeks, tundra
Topo map: Ward
Surrounded by craggy peaks and pointy gendarmes (pinnacles on a ridge), this pass is one of our favorites. However, it's not necessary to hike all the way to the pass to enjoy the trail. The quarter-mile stroll to Long Lake affords unsurpassed views across the lake to Navajo (note the "organ player" on the west side) and Apache Peaks. The 2.1-mile hike to Lake Isabelle is also an easy way to experience some of the best scenery in the Indian Peaks Wilderness.
Starting at the Long Lake Trailhead (see map), the trail goes through spruce/fir forests and crosses the wilderness boundary at Long Lake. The Jean Lunning Scenic Trail (about a 2.5-mile loop if you circle the lake) branches to the left at the lower end of Long Lake, and the Pawnee Pass Trail skirts to the right. The Jean Lunning Scenic Trail rejoins the Pawnee Pass Trail shortly beyond the upper end of the lake. The trail to Niwot Ridge branches off from the Jean Lunning Trail at the upper end of the first meadow. Even if you don't take the Jean Lunning Trail, it's worth going a few steps out of your way to the outlet of Long Lake for the view.
Take the Pawnee Pass Trail on the right-hand side of Long Lake and climb gently through the forest, making a couple of switchbacks before reaching Lake Isabelle. Early in the season a broad, rippling cascade gushes out of a snowbank below this lake. Just before reaching Lake Isabelle, cross the South St. Vrain Creek on stepping stones and climb a small ridge, emerging slightly above the lake. Isabelle is an irrigation lake and is usually drained in late August. If the lake itself is your goal, check with the Forest Service to determine whether it still holds water.At the first view of Lake Isabelle, the trail splits, with the Isabelle Glacier Trail leading straight ahead, skirting the right-hand side of the lake, and climbing to Isabelle Glacier in another 1.7 miles. The Pawnee Pass Trail turns to the right and crosses the creek three times before zigzagging through the last outposts of trees into fields of tundra and talus. The views looking down into Lake Isabelle, which is often tinted a jade green by glacial milk, are splendid. En route, you pass several tarns, bogs, and meadows and go through several miles of alpine flowers. Snowfields often persist until late in the season, especially the large snowfield across the trail just before the pass.
Upon reaching Pawnee Pass, it's worth descending the other side for a few switchbacks or so to see the dramatic gendarmes on the west side. If you continue to drop, you will reach Pawnee Lake in 2 miles, Crater Lake in 5 miles, or Monarch Lake in 11 miles. From the pass, you can climb Pawnee (elev. 12,943 feet) or Shoshone (elev. 12,967 feet) Peaks, or several other Indian Peaks. It's possible (but difficult) to make a loop trip, crossing Pawnee Peak and dropping down between Pawnee Peak and Mount Toll to Blue and Mitchell Lakes, and then back to the Long Lake trailhead. There are no marked trails to the peaks, so a topo map and backcountry experience are essential.
When the pass was surveyed for a railroad route in 1882, Canadian Native Americans carried in bread and other supplies over a saddle just south of Pawnee Pass, hence the trail's former name of "Breadline Trail." Pawnee Pass Trail was built during Franklin Delano Roosevelt's presidency by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Fred Fair, Boulder City Engineer in the early 1900s, discovered Isabelle and Fair Glaciers early in the twentieth century and named Isabelle Glacier and Lake Isabelle for his wife. After he died in 1935, his ashes were scattered over the two glaciers.
Niwot Ridge, the long stretch of tundra across the Isabelle Lake drainage from Pawnee Pass, was established as one of only seventeen long-term ecological research stations in the country in 1980 by the National Science Foundation. The site is internationally famous for alpine research conducted by the University of Colorado Mountain Research Station.
The following trails connect to the Pawnee Pass Trail: Jean Lunning Trail, Niwot Ridge Trail, and the Isabelle Glacier Trail.
Take CR 102 west from the Peak-to-Peak Highway (SR 72). At the end of CR 102, circle Brainard Lake to the junction for the Long and Mitchell Lake parking areas. Turn right and continue to the Long Lake turnoff (to the left) and parking area.
© Article copyright Pruett Publishing.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication