Pawnee Lake

Saturday, Aug. 20, to Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011

Pawnee Lake, Indian Peaks Wilderness

My buddy Ian joined me for a backpacking and fly fishing trip to Pawnee Lake in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, but, unfortunately, our hike was not rewarded with any trout. Although Pawnee Lake enjoys a reputation on the Web as being a spot to catch cutthroats, we saw nary a fish while we were there. Usually I can at least see the trout in alpine lakes like this one, even if I can’t catch them. I wonder if this lake may not be deep enough for the trout to survive the winter freezes. That previously linked Web site says the lake is 22 feet deep. Ian and I also speculated that the Department of Fish and Wildlife might have been doing some non-native species management at Pawnee Lake that left it temporarily bereft of fish. Ian found this DOW report1 about trout species and quantities in area lakes, but Pawnee was absent from the survey. It was interesting to learn that Colorado DOW pilots stock alpine lakes2 with native cutthroat trout fingerlings.

The couloir that leads down to Pawnee Lake just west from Pawnee Pass. Rock fall obscures parts of the trail, requiring some route finding.

Also left out of trail descriptions was any mention of the scramble on the western side of the Continental Divide. Just after you start down from Pawnee Pass at 12,550 feet, you encounter a lot of rock fall that has obscured parts of the steep trail down to the lake. Descending the couloir just west of the pass can be a bit hairy with a heavy pack on. I found myself scrambling with hands and feet on the way down Saturday. On the way back up Sunday, it was more obvious where the trail was and that we had been led off-trail at least once Saturday because fallen boulders had blocked the path.

Trip Summary

The view west from Pawnee Pass, on the Continental Divide at 12,550 feet.

Destination: Pawnee Lake about 2 miles west of Pawnee Pass, Indian Peaks Wilderness west of Ward, Colo.

Distance hiked: about 11.8 miles round-trip

Elevation: started from Long Lake trail head at Brainard Lake at 10,500 feet, reached high point of 12,550 feet at Pawnee Pass, descended and camped at Pawnee Lake at just below 11,000 feet

Temperatures: probably low 80s during the afternoon; my watch read 45 degrees at 6:00 am

Pack Weight: probably 25 to 30 pounds (I did not weigh my pack, but I was carrying my normal gear plus a two-person tent.)

Notes: Double check whether the destination currently has fish before hiking all the way out there to try to catch them. It was disappointing to see no fish this time. On the up side, my Jacks ‘R Better Sierra Sniveller quilt was perfect for this trip. I slept just right: not too warm, not too cold. Even this late into August, trekking poles would be handy for Pawnee Pass. There were several snowfields remaining on the eastern side of the divide.


Looking west toward Lake Isabelle near the start of the hike.

Lake Isabelle from above.

Looking northwest toward Pawnee Lake.

Hiking southeast toward Pawnee Pass. The couloir that leds up to the pass is to the right of the rock formation in the upper left that looks like an Easter Island Rapa Nui sculpture.

Hiking southeast toward Pawnee Pass. The couloir that leds up to the pass is to the right of the rock formation in the upper left of the image that looks like an Easter Island Moai sculpture.


1Indian Peaks Wilderness Lakes FISH SURVEY AND MANAGEMENT DATA,” Benjamin Swigle, Aquatic Biologist (Fort Collins/Boulder), undated PDF file on Colorado Division of Wildlife Web site

2Stocking Native Rocky Mountain Cutthroat Trout With Planes in Colorado’s High Mountain Lakes,” Photo Gallery by Tim Romano. Uploaded on October 16, 2009, Field and Stream magazine


2 Responses to Pawnee Lake

  1. Doug N. says:

    I’d like to chat with you more about your time here. A few friends and I plan on making this trip in June of 2012 and would like to hear about your experiences (thoughts on the hike from the parking lot all the way to Pawnee Lake, fishing, solitude, what you would do different, campsite situation, etc).

    • Joe Mason says:

      Sure thing. I posted this trip reported months ago, so I don’t remember much to add to the info already here. Knowing I’ll forget details, I do these write-ups so I’ll have notes to reference in future seasons.

      Where are you from? Have you backpacked in the Indian Peaks before? The climb to Pawnee Pass is one of the more arduous hikes I’ve done in the Indian Peaks. I don’t think I would recommend Pawnee Lake as a fishing destination based on what I wrote in the post. There are about a half dozen established campsites surrounding the northern end of the lake. Unfortunately, several of them are closer to the lakes than they should be under Forest Service guidelines. This destination does not seem to get as much traffic as Crater Lakes or Forest Lakes, but there were three or four couples/groups camped around the lake when we were there. It’s not a big lake and it’s hemmed in pretty closely by the mountainsides, but we didn’t feel like we were on top of other folks.

      If I were doing this trip again, I would not do it with the goal of fishing. And I would bring my trekking poles. I’ve never regretted bringing my trekking poles on a hike, but I have regretted leaving them behind. June 2012 should have good weather, but there could still be a couple of small snow fields to negotiate near the pass for which the poles are handy.

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