When it comes to great trail loops, almost everyone has heard about 4 Pass Loop – an iconic 26 mile loop that circumnavigates the Maroon Bells and goes over 4 alpine passes. It’s a beautiful loop and a fantastic run, but there are a few draw backs. The drive from Denver takes about 4 hours and the hoards of tourists will take away from the solitude of the wilderness. Fortunately for us front-rangers, there is a closer, less popular loop that gives 4 Pass a run for it’s money.
This alternative loop goes by several names including the Indian Peaks Marathon, Pawnee-Buchanan Loop, or the Indian Peaks loop. As you probably guessed, it’s in the Indian Peaks. On clear days, the rugged skyline of the wilderness can be seen from Denver nestled straight west of Boulder. Given the proximity to Denver, the area sees more traffic than any other wilderness area in the state. Luckily, the ruggedness of the region means that plenty of solitude can still be found.
I’ve run the loop 4 times in the past year and each time I leave planning my next attempt. When I first got wind of this 27 mile alpine loop, I spent a few hours online reading the blog posts of other runners and trying to piece together a rough idea of exactly what I was signing up for. To save you a little bit of leg work, I’ve included a quick-guide at the end of this report.
About a month ago, the snow had finally melted out enough to give the loop a go. This year I haven’t been running as much and didn’t feel as strong, so I went into this run with the goal of just stretching the legs out a bit and spending some time in my favorite spot. That night, I packed my Nathan Vapor vest with a few gels, some water, and a light shell before setting my alarm for 4am. The alarm came and went, and by the time I turned the headlights on in my car, it was after 5am. I wasn’t worried, the weather was supposed to be good and I was familiar with the course.
An hour and half later, I reached Brainard Lake and drove up to the Mitchel Lake TH, which services Mt Audubon, Mitchel Lake and Coney Flats. While most people like to run the loop counter clockwise, I’m a firm believer in going clockwise for several reasons. First, you get Pawnee Pass (the high point on the run) out of the way early. Second, the front side of Pawnee Pass is the most popular area in the wilderness, so by doing it first you avoid the crowds hiking up the basin. Lastly, clockwise maximizes the descents and condenses the climbs.
Once parked, I put on my Scarpa Tru’s, threw on my pack, and started my watch. A quick mile on the road, and I was at the Long Lake TH and the single track began. The first few miles went by easily, and my body stabilized to the thinner air. Two turns later the real climbing began and I buckled down for the next 2500 feet of vert on absolutely perfect single track. The trail winds up onto a large plateau, and after one last pitch I reached the top of Pawnee Pass. I glanced at my watch and was surprised to see that I was 15 minutes ahead of my previous fastest time. Suddenly my priorities changed as the possibility of a new PR itched at my brain. After a few seconds of debating, I opted to enjoy the day and keep the easy pace.
The next 10 miles are my absolute favorite in the state. The trail drops almost 4,000 feet over 10 miles of technical trail…starting with a 1500′ descent in half a mile. It’s stunning, and the absolute ruggedness of the basin is breathtaking. This morning, basin is dark and as I turn the first switchback, I’m submerged into an entirely different world. Gone are the alpine meadows and wildflowers, replaced by walls of black stone and a biting wind. It’s electrifying.
Everything slows down for a few seconds and my breath seems held. Then the floodgates open and the calm is swept away in a cascade of flying feet and rushing air. The initial descent is over too quickly and the rush starts to fade as the trail moderates and drops from the upper basin into the Lone Eagle cirque. The cirque’s namesake provides a panoramic backdrop as I continue the descent towards the lower junction. Before I know it, I’m at the junction making the hard right turn towards Fox Park.
Water is everywhere, and the streams are flowing strong. For the next 4-5 miles the trail ascends slowly and the miles click by. The trail gradually loops around Thunderbolt Peak before it angles left up a steep slope for about 1000 feet and enters the most beautiful meadow I’ve ever seen – Fox Park. It’s green and covered in wild flowers, and is criss-crossed by multiple small streams. I often stop here and take a nap and soak up the beauty. I stop and fill up my pack with water and snap a few photos. A quick glance at my watch and I’m running through the valley towards Buchanan Pass. I start the climb strong, but once I hit the treeline, I resort to hiking the remaining 1000 feet. A panoramic view of Longs Peak, Denver, and the entire Indian Peaks wilderness greets me at the top. I glance at my watch and I’m now 30 minutes ahead. Running the loop sub-6 hours is suddenly a possibility, but I’m going to have to work for it.
I give up on my easy comfortable run, and decide to shoot for sub-6. I re-lace my Tru’s before starting the descent down into Coney Flats. The descent is steady and fast, and I’m moving well. The sun is now in full effect and it’s hot. As I enter the trees the heat gets stifling, but it’s always this way and I push through it. I reach the Flats and run quickly across the little ponds as I’m breaking down the splits in my head. It’s going to be close and I’m going to have to really work the last climb. I hit the first hill determined and begin the final climb.
The trail ascends gradually but insistently and I feel myself starting to falter. My quads are burning and my side is starting to lock up. I begin to look at my Suunto every few minutes as my pace gets slower and slower. It’s not long before I realize that sub-6 is gone. A little longer and I reach the top and begin the seemingly endless descent back to the car. This is my least favorite part. The trail is dirty, busy, and hot. Fifteen minutes later I trot down the last few steps into the parking lot. My time was still faster than before, but not by much. Still, I feel elated. I lay down and let my heart rate lower before making a simple dinner on my camp stove. Other runners trickle into the parking lot, each with their own mini-adventure to take home. As I begin my drive back to Golden, I’m already thinking about when I will be back.
TH: Brainard Lake or you can park at one of the upper trail heads: Long Lake or Mitchel Lake. There is a $10 fee to park at any of these trail heads
Distance: ~27 miles
Vertical Gain: ~6500 feet
When to run: July-September
- Brainard Lake: 10,350′
- Long Lake TH: 10,500′
- Mitchel Lake TH: 10,480′
- Pawnee Pass: 12,550′
- Monarch Lake Junction: ~8880′
- Buchanan Pass: 11,840′
- Mt Audubon shoulder: 11,400′
Clockwise directions: Park at Mitchel Lake TH. Run back towards Long Lake. Follow the signs toward Pawnee Pass. You should turn right twice (both signed) before reaching the top. If you pass Victoria Lake you’ve missed the second turn. At the top, descend towards Monarch Lake. A few miles into the descent, you’ll pass a left turning junction for Crater Lake. Go straight unless you want an extra 5-6 miles of extra credit. You’ll cross two really large bridges. Shortly after the second one you’ll reach a junction. It’s at around 8800′ and there is a medium sized boulder next to the trail. Turn right, going towards Buchanan Pass. You will pass 1 trail junction for Gourd Lake (don’t turn) and you may loose the trail as it crosses some tributaries. Take your time and make sure you aren’t on a stock trail. Immediately before Fox Park, there is a large avalanche debris field. Pick your way through it, staying towards the left (upper side) before reconnecting with the trail on the other side. Follow the good trail up to Buchanan Pass and descend into Coney Flats. Angle right, crossing several small foot bridges. Look for signs marking Beaver Creek (trail #911) on the right. Take this trail up to the junction with the Mt Audubon trail and stay left to descend back into Mitchel Lake.
Counter-Clockwise Directions: Park at Long Lake TH and run towards Mitchel Lake. Take the trail towards Mt Audubon (the second trail on the left, don’t go towards Mitchel Lake proper). Climb trail staying right at the intersection for Mt Audubon. Descend into Coney Flats and turn left at the dirt road and cross the small foot bridges heading up and left. Follow road for 300 yards before it turns to a wide trail. Climb to Buchanan Pass and descend. Just below Fox Park you’ll reach a large avalanche debris field. Stay right (upper side) and pick your way through. At the junction for Gourd Lake go straight towards Monarch Lake. At the intersection near a medium boulder, turn left and begin the climb towards Pawnee Pass. You should pass a large bridge shortly after making this turn. If you go below 8500′ you’ve missed the turn. Continue climbing until you reach a junction for Crater Lake. Go up and left passing the junction into the upper basin. Climb above the treeline and Pawnee Pass is up and left. You won’t be able to see the trail from the bottom, but just keep moving and you’ll never loose it. Go over the pass and descend towards Victoria lake. You’ll reach two junctions, turn left (downhill direction) for both before reaching the parking lot for Long Lake.
- Running Vest or Pack
- Water Purification tabs
- Gloves and Hat
- Shell and mid layer
- Ibuprofen and small first aid kit
My personal gear for early season:
- Handheld bottle
- Marmot Super Mica jacket (optional)
- MSR water purification tabs
- Gu or Hammer gels
- 4 ibuprofen pills
My personal gear for late season
- Nathan Vapor vest
- Marmot Super Mica jacket
- MSR water purification tabs
- Real food (check out Skratch Lab’s cookbook)
I personally prefer to go fast and light, so early season you don’t need a bladder for water. There are streams every few miles, but be sure to use a filter or tabs to purify. I try to start no earlier than 30 minutes before sunrise to avoid needing a headlamp. On average, if you start by sunrise you have almost 12 hours of usable daylight, so unless you expect to be moving at less than 3 miles/hour you probably won’t need a headlamp.
Watch the weather, at the end of the run you will be above treeline so don’t get caught out while exposed. I’ve seen storms come in around 2:00pm and last for several hours of HEAVY rain.
I’ve run the course solo 3 times, and once with a group. While running with friends is always safer, it will be slower. Keep this in mind if you go as a group. Discuss places to regroup if you are doing a “no-drop run” or have cut offs for new SAR needs to be called for help.
There is no cell reception at all once leaving the Peak-to-Peak highway, so don’t count on your phone for anything more than photos.
If there is no parking at either Mitchel Lake or Long Lake TH’s, park at the Brainard Lake parking lots. It only adds 0.3 miles extra.
This loop is technical and challenging, so be prepared. Once you descend over a pass, you’re pretty much committed. BE SMART and make solid choices. I’ve gotten bloodied and battered on this loop, so always plan on being self sufficient. A rescue would be difficult and expensive.
Caleb is an avid runner and can be found anywhere there is alpine singletrack or cold beer…preferably both.