Indian Peaks Northern Loop: Summer

This month’s hike is a Colorado Front Range classic. It  features a nice mix of forest and alpine hiking,  including two crossings of the Continental Divide.

DSCF1245I arrive at the Mitchell Lake trailhead at 10:30 A.M.  The parking  lot is mostly full. The Beaver Creek trail climbs steadily north through a cool green forest.  When it breaks through to treeline, I move to the side of the trail for a snack.  A young woman comes by with her weimaraner.  The dog seems much more interested in my food than in hiking.  Despite the crowded parking lot, I won’t see another human until Thurdsay night.

About the gear:  The tag on the back of my pack is a permit for wilderness camping that I picked up at the Ace Hardware store in Nederland on the way to the trailhead.  For this hike, my base weight before adding food, fuel and water is about 10 lbs.  Total weight is about 15 lbs.  Ultralight hikers generally like to use a frameless pack when carrying weights in this range.  On my back, though, my first generation Vapor Trail is a lot more comfortable than my frameless pack, the original Golite Jam. So for now, I’m willing to carry the extra pound.  That said, there are some lighter packs with a decent frame and padding, such as the Gossamer Gear Gorilla that I’m keeping an eye on.

DSCF1246Bluebells thriving in the shade of low-growing evergreens

DSCF1251Marmot hiding in the underbrush

DSCF1252The Beaver Creek trail reaches a high point before it descends  into the trees and willows.  On my way to Coney Flats, I startle a pair of elk who bolt across the trail.

DSCF1259I get a  good view of Sawtooth Mountain and Buchanan Pass, tomorrow morning’s destination,  from Coney Flats.  Tonight I’ll be staying in the trees just short of the pass.

DSCF1275The forecast calls for little chance of rain,  so I don’t need much in the way of shelter.  Here my Golite poncho tarp is set up to protect from the wind that is blowing over the Continental Divide.

About the gear: I prefer a larger tarp or tarptent in wet weather but for this trip a poncho tarp is just fine and eliminates the extra weight of a rain jacket.  I forgot to bring a ground sheet so I slit the side of the trash compactor bag that was  lining my pack.  In the unlikely event of rain, the poncho should provide enough protection to my pack.  The trekking poles are Pacerpoles.  Not ultralight but ultracool.

DSCF1278Home sweet home

DSCF1284Camp chores are done.  I go wandering and find this lovely little stream.

DSCF1287Light  begins to drain from the sky.


The sun sets behind the Continental Divide.

DSCF1294Waiting for the water for my morning tea to boil

About the gear: The stove in the photo is a Caldera Cone.  After years of being a canister stove fan and playing with alcohol stoves on the side, this is the the stove that got me to switch.   It’s very stable and efficient and works well in the wind.  What more could you ask for?

While I’m having breakfast, I hear the call and response of coyotes howling nearby.  It’s a good morning.

DSCF1295To the pass!

DSCF1296While hiking toward Buchanan Pass,  my peripheral vision picks up movement on the rock slope to my left.  A  coyote is running along, keeping a very safe distance away.  He’s very different from the coyotes I see in my  neighborhood near downtown Denver who barely cross the street when our paths cross.  You can see how this one is keeping a close eye on  me.

DSCF1318The view west from the top of the pass

DSCF1321As much as I love the alpine world, it’s always a treat to come down into the trees.

DSCF1326 Wildflowers have done well this year.


DSCF1332Indian  Paintbrush peek out from the understory.

DSCF1333The trail meanders through Fox Park.

At some point, I check my watch and realize that if I keep up my free and easy wandering, I’ll never make it to Pawnee Lake by nightfall.  So I switch into gear and hike down Buchanan Creek,  past the turnoff for Gourd Lake and into a lodgepole forest devastated  by the bark beetle.  Eventually, I reach an intersection and turn back up toward the divide along Cascade  Creek.  It’s a good climb, with many beautiful waterfalls to tempt me.  I succumb to each one and spend lots of time exploring them.  In the harsh afternoon light of a cloudless sky, it’s foolish to try to photograph them but I try anyway.  All attempts end in failure.


The high peaks near the divide come into view and I know I’m getting nearer to my destination.

DSCF1347The wall on this side of the divide is very rugged.

It’s close to seven when I finally reach Pawnee Lake. I’m tired and hungry.  Much to my surprise, I find a hammock by the shore of the lake. I hike further up the trail looking for a flat spot where I can sleep.  Returning to the lake for water,  I notice that the hammock is a Hennessy.  Curious about it,  I talk to the owner who introduces himself as Larry.  In our conversation, I’m getting the impression that Larry is a serious gear geek.  It turns out that he is a fellow member of Backpacking Light (BPL), an online community of backpackers who are attempting to go lighter.  This could make for some interesting conversation but mindful that I have about an hour of daylight left, I get water and go back up the trail to set up camp.


There’s little time or space to set up my poncho tarp, so I decide to sleep under the stars.  After dinner, I go to my sleeping bag and spend time gazing at the clear night sky.  There are still a few mosquitoes left buzzing around,  so I pull out my A-16 bug bivy.  When the bugs go away I push aside the netting to get an unobstructed view of stars in the night sky.  It’s intoxicating.  Billions and billions….I doze off dreaming of the vastness of space.  At 6:30 A.M. ,  I’m awaken by a scolding squirrel in a tree nearby.  After breakfast, I head back to photograph Pawnee Lake .

DSCF1356Sunrise at Pawnee Lake

DSCF1359Backcountry fashionistas pose for the cover of GQ.  From left to right, David, Dondo, Dick and Larry.  I don’t know about you but Larry gets my vote for the most outre outdoor emsemble.

While I’m setting up my tripod on a rock beside the lake, Dick, one of Larry’s hiking partners, comes over and we start to chat.  Before long Larry is out of his hammock and David, the other partner, joins us.  It turns out that the trio is doing the same loop as I but in the opposite direction. They are taking four  days, instead of three, and have lots of time for hanging out and taking side trips to Crater Lake and possibly Gourd Lake.   David, Dick and Larry are all fit, experienced outdoorsmen.  We joke around and trade stories of the  trips we’ve done.  Dick graciously offers me a cup of Earl Grey.  It’s a nice touch, the cup of tea.  I’m seriously considering adding a small plastic cup, extra tea bags, and a bit more fuel for occasions such as these.

About the gear:  Gear provides an endless topic of conversation for this group.  Dick is a world traveler with a keen interest in photography.  We discuss the coming of the new crop of compact, large-sensor cameras. David and Larry and I are members of Backpacking Light.  Larry and I are impressed with the kinds of trips Ryan Jordan has done.  David and I agree that Will Reitveld’s reviews are one of the best things about BPL. Larry carries a Granite Gear Virga; David, a Golite Jam.  I notice two tiny canister stoves with a pair of 100g  Snowpeak canisters.  David has his home made penny stove.  Larry is unhappy with the reflective insulation he tried under his hammock last night.  We discuss Jacks R Better underquilts.  David lets me try out his Big Agnes Clearview pad.  Larry has used a Neoair all summer and really likes it.

Before I know it, two and an half hours have passed.  I’ve missed my chance to climb up to Pawnee Pass in the cool of the morning but don’t really mind.  Saying goodbye,  I shoulder my pack and head up to the pass.

DSCF1362High above me, two backpackers with big packs move slowly toward Pawnee Pass.

DSCF1365Looking back at  Pawnee Lake

DSCF1367Rock formations near the top of the passDSCF1373It’s all downhill now.  At the top of the pass I meet a trio of day hikers with a young black lab.  Suddenly, the lab breaks free to chase  a pair of ptarmigan which were hidden  in the rocks ahead.  They fly off, narrowly missing either side of my head.


Coming down the eastern slope, I meet Robert relaxing and taking in the scene of the lakes below.  Robert was ultralight before ultralight was cool.  Thirty years ago,  he was taking five day trips into the Sierra with a total pack weight of 23 lbs.  He considers the Rockies to be dryer and more rugged than the Sierra but loves both areas.

About the gear:   Note the low-cut shoes.  Robert and I and the three amigos of Pawnee Lake all wear trail runners or approach shoes. Like David, Robert uses a frameless Golite pack.  In his case,  it’s the Pinnacle, a larger version of the Jam. Robert shows me his REI Lite-Core pad.  If I decide to stay with a self-inflator, this one is a strong contender.DSCF1375More rugged country

DSCF1377Looking down at Lake Isabel

I hike down past Lake Isabel and start to meet a steady stream of day hikers.  There is a good reason this lake is so popular.  It’s an easy two mile hike from the trailhead to Lake Isabel which sits at the foot of a glacier in a spectacular setting.  The afternoon light was too harsh so I take no picture facing west.  So you’ll really have to come and see Lake Isabel for yourself.


13 thoughts on “Indian Peaks Northern Loop: Summer

  1. Dondo, a great post, I like the way you have intertwined gear comments within the report. Your photos are excellent, as always, which reminds me I must go back to your tripod design and make one myself. I also like the simplicity of your sleeping set up and yes the Gorilla is worth a close look.

    • Hi Roger,

      Thanks for your comments. I’m having a lot of fun with this. The tripod is very useful, especially in the mornings and evenings in low light conditions. I’ll be tweaking the design a bit and will post on BPL when I do.

  2. Don,
    It was great to meet you. Great Blog! You have some wonderful photos with great variety.
    Keep up the good work!
    Happy Trails, Dick

    • Hi Dick,
      It’s great to hear from you. I hope the rest of your trip went well. Thanks for your comments on the blog. They are appreciated.

  3. Hi Don … This is the David in this trip blog. I enjoyed reading your well written blog and revisiting this hike in reverse. Your photos are wonderful and Im reminded how one sees more wildlife when hiking solo. I looked at your other trip in the Lost Creek Wilderness and remember doing a couple of nights there two years ago. Ever since then Ive wanted to do that as a loop over three days. It seems like its better to go there in early summer or in the fall as its a bit lower and warmer. This is a nice option while waiting for the snow to clear out of the higher country. Cheers David

    • Hi David,
      Thanks for visiting my blog. It’s nice to hear from you. I would agree that Lost Creek makes a great early and late season destination. Thanks again for showing me some new trips in Indian Peaks and letting me try your Big Agnes Clearview pad.

  4. Hi Don,

    This is Robert on your blog. Great trip blog. I sent it to all my kids in Texas and CA. I hope your great pictures cool them down as it has really been hot there. I loved the trip myself.


    • Hi Robert,
      It was great to meet you up at Pawnee Pass. I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog. It sounds as if your family is as well, especially seeing their dad in his natural element.

  5. Hi Don – You’re such an artful photographer….Loved seeing Dad (Robert) in his element. Grew up with Dad taking us all hiking, biking and simply enjoying the outdoors, but still ended up the one of the kids that prefers a resort with a pool and a cushy bed….go figure…….Happy trails! Sharon

    • Hi Sharon,
      Thanks for your comments on the blog. My wife can relate to your kind of vacation. She feels that anything less than a eight-pillow hotel room is roughing it.

  6. Hi,
    Cool blog. My father Robert who you met above told me about your website. I agree about him being ultra light before it’s time. Back in early 70’s, backpacking was all we did. I hesitate sometimes to say backpacking because sometimes it was just what you could fit in all your pockets. Definitely challenging! Take care.–Geri

  7. Ha ha – I didn’t know we were supposed to have backpacks! I might have liked the outdoors better if I could have brought my makeup and Seventeen Magazines and casette tapes! At least we can tell which sister took after her father…… 🙂

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