Thursday, October 7, 2010

Buchanan/Pawnee Pass Loop Run

As I mentioned recently, in September I ran a Buchanan/Pawnee Pass loop described by a few other Colorado trail runners. The route is in the Indian Peaks, and crosses two high passes on the Continental Divide. For someone who does not run ultra distances, it was a spectacular 26-mile brute of a run! Here is the full report.

Total time was 9:46 hours, distance 26.4 miles, elevation gain/loss 6,828 ft.

I started a bit late, and got running around 9 AM. I had estimated 7.5 to 8 hours to finish, with a couple of hours padding before sundown. As it turned out, I would need them.

I ran OK on the smoother moderate slopes, and on the first few miles over to Coney Flats, but the Indian Peaks trails tend to have a lot of small round rocks, and a lot of the route after that took longer than I anticipated. Imagine running between baseballs and golf balls scattered on sandy singletrack, and then put it on a slope, and add rock steps. Plus, I was pretty tired by the halfway mark, and I still had the 3,800-foot ascent to Pawnee Pass ahead of me. I ran what I could, but it wasn't much, and it wasn't fast.

The weather, however, couldn't have been nicer, and the drive up to Ward gave me some indication of the great fall colors I would see.

The Long Lake parking lot was full, so I parked at Mitchell Lake, which had plenty of room. The Beaver Creek/Mount Audubon trail leaves from there anyway, and it makes up the first part of this run. The parking lot itself is already at a high elevation at 10,500 feet, so after a short run through gently sloping pine woods, the trail ascends above tree line and up the east ridge of Mount Audubon.

On the top of this ridge is the branch to the summit of Mount Audubon. Ahead, Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park comes into view. Autumn was in full force up there, with even the ground cover decked out in reds.

I really had no idea what to expect on this trail, but it ends up threading in and out of the tree line for a while, then descends into some really nice forest on its way down to the Coney Flats trailhead. The section down in the woods was smooth, easy running and I made good time. Groves of golden aspens were scattered here and there. This is down in the valley near the trailhead:

I don't think there was a sign indicating the direction to Buchanan Pass, but there was really only one trail leading west, so I took it. There was some more nice forest trail, then it opened up and the trail started ascending:

Above tree line, this trail gets pretty scenic, with rugged mountains all around. It's also tough to discern exactly where the trail will lead you on its way to Buchanan Pass, but it ends up going almost to the end of the valley, then sneaking left up a side valley to the pass, which is out of view at first. This is the final approach to the pass:

The east side of the pass itself is a small cliff band. The path slopes up to the cliff and then zigzags through it.

At the top at roughly mile 9, I stood on the Continental Divide for the first of two times that day, looking west into Grand County (below). The top consists of gently-sloping grassy terrain. What you can't see is the intense wind whipping by, encouraging me to get off the ridge.

Not being familiar with the trail, I looked ahead, wondering where it would go next. See the valley in the middle, and the peak on the left? The trail goes 3,000 feet down and around the peak before ascending 3,800 feet back up to Pawnee Pass. It's a rugged 12-mile loop, and it would take me most of the afternoon. Then there's the descent from Pawnee Pass, which is about 5 more miles.

The singletrack snaked along some steep grassy slopes, which was fun. The basin below the ridge was beautiful, and would make a great spot to spend some time and have a picnic. It's pretty remote, but it's also the type of open bowl terrain that would be fun to ski; it reminds me of Vail's Back Bowls.

The next mile through the woods was steep and rugged, and similar to parts of the Engineer and Coal Bank trails north of Durango. It's at this point that it started to sink in just how far down I was going.

The next image is from a flat meadow area before the descent into the forest for miles -- and miles. I didn't adjust the color in this photo; the plants on the ground were red, and the sun was shining right through the leaves. There was red and gold everywhere.

Judging distance is a bit fuzzy for me on long runs, especially when I haven't done the route before. At this point I was still entertaining the idea that the mountains in the back were past where I was going, and that I'd turn at the ridge on the left. Hah! That's just the Thunderbolt Creek drainage, which is at the start of the 7 mile trek around Thunderbolt Peak.

After descending into the forest there were many miles of this:

It was good to have some shade, because I was starting to think about where to stop for water. I decided to wait for Cascade Creek, which I thought might be shaded a bit more, and therefore cooler and clearer. It was, but not by a huge margin.

At one point there was a patch of ferns that had turned gold, but not yet brown. They stood about 3-4 feet high, and the light glowed through them.

Finally I reached the junction with Cascade Creek, which is in the forest off to the right below. It's the leftmost point on the GPS track above. This is the 15-mile mark. The mountain in the center is at the very top of the Cascade Creek valley, Pawnee Pass is out of sight above a hanging valley to the left, and the spectacular Crater Lake basin -- including Lone Eagle Peak -- branches off to the right.

There was a lot of color scattered on the hillsides and on the way up along Cascade Creek.

Cascade Creek is well-named, and the trail was steep as it followed the narrow canyon and waterfalls up the valley. Here's one of the cascades:

Just above this I found a good set of pools from which to fill my two water bottles using a filter, and drank another bottle's worth of water while I had the chance. It was the first of 3 refills during the run.

At this point I was wondering where Lone Eagle was. It's actually around the rock outcropping on the right, a huge mass that rises 1,500 feet right out of the valley. The toothy ridge ahead is part of the upper valley, and the views just get more spectacular as you go.

I had to include this picture of Lone Eagle Peak again, because it's one of my favorites. This peak is on the cover of Gerry Roach's Indian Peaks guide, and I've wanted to see it since I first saw the picture. Some time I'll come back and approach from Grand County side, which is an easier trip, and take the side trail up to Crater Lake. I can't wait.

Shortly after I took the photo of Lone Eagle, I encountered the trail junction that leads to it, branching off to the right, while the Pawnee Pass trail takes a hard left and begins to ascend a series of switchbacks up to the hanging valley containing Pawnee Lake.

When the terrain opens up there is a set of rocky meadows with a creek running through them. The pass is still out of sight to the right, above the lake, which is about 1/2 a mile from here. I filled my bottles for the second time, in the creek in the woods straight ahead. I also drank a bit from one bottle before filling and capping it. That made about 6 bottles consumed already (including the two I started with), so having the filter was absolutely crucial on this run.

After ascending again through the pines, you can finally see the pass, although if you haven't been here before, you likely won't be able to tell where exactly it is. The lake is ringed by mountains and jagged ridges. Where's the pass?

It's almost exactly straight ahead along the path in this photo.

This is the view looking back down towards Pawnee Lake, which is in the shadows:

At one point I heard very quiet clucking and dove-like sounds. I looked down and 3 well-camouflaged ptarmigans were nervously pacing around the entrance to a little burrow waiting for me to pass by. They remained only a couple of feet away while I carefully took pictures, instead of flying away loudly and scaring the heck out of me, as they often do. This is one of them:

Below is the view from about 2/3 of the way up to the pass, and I spent the whole ascent wondering where the trail was going to pass over this ridge, and whether it was going to involve climbing. It didn't, although the trail was steep dirt near the top. The exit point is the lowest notch in the middle.

In my tired state, this section of trail seemed to take forever; in fact, it was about an hour from the lake to the top of the pass. It was like a dream where you keep moving forward but the goal keeps getting farther away. Several times I thought I was right near the top, only to find more switchbacks increasing the distance and taking me in the other direction.

I've run quite a few Colorado 14ers, and I've never felt this tired on an ascent, even though I was walking it. Of course, a lot of those approaches are only 4-5 miles, and this was at mile 21 of the route. Near the top, I felt like I had to sit down every 50 feet and rest. I stopped for a snack and water, which helped a little, but I was running on fumes.

I can't tell you how good it felt to be over the ridge and looking down at the last stretch of valley, although the parking lot is still behind the brown hill on the far left of the next photo. This was the second crossing of the Continental Divide for the day. I was racing against the setting sun now.

The descent was tough in the shadows of the mountains, even though the east was still lit with sunlight. The terrain is littered with rocks that required careful placement of tired feet. I admit it was a bit trying, and I just wanted to get onto some nice dirt so I could run easily!

By the time I got down into the trees I was out of water again, and filled both bottles from a stream above Lake Isabelle, drinking some extra before setting off again. I didn't finish all of it, but even so I ended up at about 8 bottles of water for the day.

I'd never been up here late in the season during a dry summer, but Lake Isabelle was shockingly low, a far cry from the scene early in the spring last year. I passed a couple hiking just below the lake, and they were the last people I'd see until the parking lot.

I got to my car almost exactly at sunset, which was my main and most important goal (even though I had a headlamp and a warm top). I had not completed this run as fast as I had hoped, but I had completed it. I stretched for about 10 minutes in the parking lot as the other stragglers also returned to their vehicles. I felt pretty good considering, although a drive home is never conducive to recovery, and my legs would feel stiff later.

The next day wasn't bad, with a bit of soreness on the outside of my quads. I took Monday off from running and walked, stretched and used the foam roller (calves, IT band), but felt good on Tuesday and resumed running.

Lessons learned: start early, and up the time estimate for runs on difficult terrain! The water filter was great. Food and clothing were right on, except I didn't need the light rain shell (mainly for wind). But I've found my worst times in the mountains have come from not having enough wind and rain protection, so better safe than sorry. All in all, things worked out as planned.


  1. Fantastic pictures! Glad that you were able to make it back to the car before dark. Back in the day, a high school friend and I made a couple of backpacking trips to Cascade Creek and you describe perfectly the hike up to Pawnee Pass. It seemed to be always beyond the next rise.