Hiking The Pawnee Pass Trail

This. This is the Colorado I imagined as I drove mile after boring highway mile on my journey from Florida to Colorado last October.

I’d never been before, but these snow-covered mountains—even in the summer—these thick green forests, and the rocky, rushing streams are what I expected to find when I planted roots in my new state.

I kind of knew I’d love it here. But I didn’t know this life change would actually change my life.

On Labor Day I decided to get out and explore some new mountains, so I headed up toward Brainard Lake. It’s a little area northwest of Boulder in the Arapaho & Roosevelt National Forests and sits at around 10,500 feet. Since it’s so high, the snow stays around longer making the camping, hiking, and touristing season a bit shorter.

I was headed for the Pawnee Pass Trail, which begins on the edge of Brainard Lake. I heard it gets busy early, so I packed up my things and got on the road just after 6 a.m on Monday.

The drive is a gradual 26 mile incline that winds up a two-lane road through the trees, the houses getting fewer and further apart. When I made it to the entrance, I could tell I was one of the first ones there because the rangers were still getting their station ready and there was just one fully-loaded SUV in front of me; a kayak strapped to the roof and several bikes hitched to the back. I paid my $11, promised myself I’d buy a national park pass for next season, and drove to the lot, which would dump me closest to the trailhead.

I hadn’t even started my hike yet and already the views were….this. The mountains, the crystal clear lake, and the moose blocking the trail—the Colorado in my dreams.

I chatted with the park rangers keeping people at a safe distance from the moose, and he pointed me toward the Niwot Trailhead. It snakes through the woods along the bottom of Long Lake, turns into the Jean Lunning Trail before hitting the Pawnee Pass Trail which took me the rest of the way. Each step took me deeper and higher into the mountain range.

I plodded across manmade wooden footbridges over top of rushing streams, stopped to take about one million photos, and took a banana break or three. My biggest asset was my Camelbak. I was chilly in shorts and a jacket when I started out, but also extremely thirsty that high up.

When I finally got to what I felt like was the very top (it wasn’t), I sat down right in the middle of the trail and ate two apples and a Clif Bar. I was dizzy from thin air and about 100 switchbacks and I could feel Sundays long bike ride in my legs.

But I was loving it because I was doing it. I savored the view for a few more minutes, then started my descent, heading back down the way I came. I was on the same trail the whole time, but it felt like a completely different hike—plus it started getting PACKED with people and dogs. Then, when I passed by Lake Isabelle, it started snowing! Pure magic.

If I had to guess, I’d say I hiked about 12-13 miles in about 5-6ish hours. I wish I’d recorded it on my GPS watch, just for fun.

A big thing out here is heading up to the high country to see the leaves change. I think I’ll head back up to Brainard Lake again in a couple weeks and see what Fall is doing.

So thankful for this place. And so excited for more adventures coming soon!

Push on, PUSH ANIMALS >>>

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