The Indian Peaks! Ah, it's been too long since we ventured up there. They're fabulous, rugged mountains and only a short hour's drive away. Furthermore, Amy and I have now lived in Boulder for one year; definitely a cause for celebration. I've had my eye on an ambitious loop hike starting from the Brainard Lake area for quite some time now. We ventured up to Blue Lake last year with Pam, Jack, and Kimberley and were amazed by the beauty and relative ease of access. This time, we aimed to hike up the southern drainage that empties into Brainard Lake, hike up to the divide at Pawnee Pass, scoot up and over the gentle Pawnee Peak, and descend the trail-less slopes between Pawnee and Mount Toll (with a possible side-excursion up the latter mountain, time permitting). We'd then return via the Blue Lake trail for a round-trip of 11 miles or so. The hike would encompass two drainages, pass four large lakes (not counting Brainard), and get Amy up to the Divide, which she has never visitted in this region.
Unfortunately, we didn't get quite the early start we'd hoped for. Various eventualities conspired to keep us from the trails until after 9am. Brainard Lake was, predictably, crowded and we had to park at the Niwot Picnic Area and take the Cutoff trail, adding half a mile to our day. Fortunately, the weather looked good (except for some clouds hugging the peaks of the Divide) and we were feeling good.
Fortunately, the first two miles of trail were trivially easy. Broad, well-groomed path (nearly suitable for wheelchairs?) lead past the northern shore of the aptly-named Long Lake. At the far end of the lake, the trail became marginally rougher, but still had gained perhaps a hundred feet of elevation total since the trailhead. In another mile we began to climb more steeply and eventually reached the lovely Lake Isabelle. We were greated with fantastic views across the lake to various of the most rugged and mighty Indian Peaks--Navajo, Apache, Shoshoni--as well as the Isabelle and Fair glaciers clinging precipitously to their flanks.
The outflow from Lake Isabelle and the remnants of last year's snow.
Lake Isabelle is nice enough, but it's the vista of (left to right) Navajo, Apache, and Shoshoni which make it really impressive.
Our path diverged here to the right and headed up, away from the lake, on a narrow series of switchbacks through open forest with several stream crossings. We gained altitude quickly, passing a series of cliffs and eventually reached a lovely, swampy hanging valley under the Pawnee and Little Pawnee ridge. But the ascent offered only a brief respite and soon we were rapidly climbing again on a series of short, rocky switchbacks.
Amy nears the top of the first set of switchbacks at about 11,500'. Lake Isabelle is visible below.
Our view of Pawnee (sunlit) from 11.5k'.
The weather to this point had been reasonably good, though clouds shrouded one bit of the peaks or another. Whisps of fog had begun creeping up the valley and could now be seen level with our current elevation in the valley above the lakes. We continued doggedly onward and soon reached a plateau at about 11,500' full of beautiful alpine flowers, pikas, and several groups of hikers. The trail wound across the plateau and up the steep, broad slope at the end via a series of long, rocky switchbacks. By the time we were starting to feel winded, we reached the snowfield at the top of the slope. It was easy to pass on the north side, and we emerged in the lovely meadow at 12,500' which marks Pawnee Pass.
The weather was still questionable, but intermittent holes in the fog let in a weak sunlight and the wind was fairly calm. To the west we could see a good cluster of clouds, but not the fog which now completely obscured the valleys to the east. After a short snack, we set off cross-country to climb the remaining 400' of Pawnee Peak a short half mile to the north. The view to the west over the sharp cliffs was stunning, studded with gendarmes and imposing towers and fins of rock. Below, Pawnee Lake glittered in intermittent sun and the maze of the Lone Eagle Cirque beckoned attractively.
Was that thunder we could barely hear? No, I think that was an airplane.
We reached the deserted summit at about 1:15 and concidered our options. Clouds completely shrouded the drainage to the north, but I could make out occasional views enough to see that a large snowfield awaited us below the Pawnee-Toll saddle. Amy wasn't keen on descending that sans axes, and I had to agree, given the weather and our tired state. Just at that moment, distinct thunder was heard and the choice was clear. A retreat back the way we came rather than pushing on and completing the second half of the loop. The distances were about the same, but the retreat was a known quantity and technically easier as well.
Back down at the Pass, the weather to the west was looking unambiguously threatening. Masses of black clouds trailed rain on Granby and more could be seen waiting for their chance to make our lives miserable. We scurried down the trail without even pausing for a snack. The rain hit when we were most of the way down the first set of switchbacks and back to the plateau. Thunder was now quite distinct and definitely moving in our direction. We were off the exposed terrain of the Pass, but the broad, shelter-less plateau lay ahead and I wasn't too happy about it.
We set a blistering pace in heavier and heavier rain finally dropping off the edge of the plateu just as the lightning arrived in our immediate neighborhood. Flashes were followed a second or two later by booms all around us. We threaded the second set of switchbacks in heavy rain and forded the conciderably-swollen stream mindful of slick rocks and logs.
By the time we got back to Lake Isabelle, the thunder had deminished a bit but the rain was still strong. Ditching plans at having a rest and snack by the lake, we continued outward at top speed becoming completely sodden. We were back down in the valley now and lightning danger was largely passed, but we were sodden and cold and just wanted to get out to the warm car. The last two miles of easy trail seemed a lot longer than they had in the morning.
With about a mile left to go, we suddenly came upon a large group blocking the trail. Various people in rain gear clustered under a make-shift tarp tending to a man in a stretcher. It turns out he'd suffered a kidney stone attack while hiking and the Rocky Mountain Rescue folks had come to get him out. This certainly put our cold hands and sodden, sore feet in perspective. We offered any assistance we could and ended up carrying out a large, empty backpack for some of the rescue folks. By the time we got back to the car, the rain was more or less over, but we were wet enough, it really didn't matter. We collapsed gratefully, revelling in the wonders of heat.
It was a great hike with dramatic scenery and exciting weather. It's a shame we didn't complete the loop, but we summitted anyway and had quite an adventure. I look forward to returning to climb the snowfield from Blue Lake and perhaps ascending Mt. Toll as well.
The Wilderness Journal