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Hiking Colorado: Mount Elbert & Indian Peaks Wilderness

Updated on March 20, 2011

If you make the hike on the weekend the summit of Mount Elbert will be easy to spot with several other hikers waiting at the top to greet you. A pile of rocks just to the north of the trail marks the highest spot in the Rocky Mountain Range. Take a moment to study Mount Massive to the north. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Utah in the west, however thick clouds usually obscure the horizon. Return the way you came being particularly careful of the first 1,400 feet of the descent as you make your way back through the loose rock.

Indian Peaks Wilderness

Beautiful things can become wondrous with just the right touch of fatigue.

A circle tour of the northern Indian Peaks Wilderness offers rough terrain above tree line, soothing shaded stops along cool cascades and green meadows just right for letting your mind wander. Put a pass over the Continental Divide on either end of the trip and suddenly everything is even more spectacular.

Given the mileage, this hike is best suited as an overnighter - or two. It is a hike of extremes. Buchanan leads up a bowl into a vast meadow. Pawnee is a sculptural feat, unimaginable switchbacks built up the side of a rock cirque. The late afternoon sun is relentless when you're ascending Pawnee Pass from the west. Cascade Creek at the western base of Indian Peaks is as cool as the Pawnee climb is hot, with falls marked by little pools begging for quiet contemplation.

The hike breaks down into four big legs. Gerry Roach's "Colorado's Indian Peaks" puts the total mileage at 26.4.

Mitchell Creek to Buchanan Pass: 9 miles. Hiking the flank of Mount Audubon is gentle, open and pleasant; the descent to Coney Flats is in a scrubby forest. The roughly 1,800-foot haul west up Buchanan Pass is straightforward.

Buchanan Pass to Cascade Creek Trail: 5.9 miles. The gentle descent off the pass into the western slope winds through meadows and along a pleasant creek through pine forest. Be aware: Make sure you plan your hiking trip around Archery and Rifle season when the hunters are out.

Cascade Creek Trail to Pawnee Lake: 5.2 miles. The trail turns back uphill, retracing the flow of Cascade Creek. Slightly steep at times, the trail passes through pine forest with some scrambling over ancient river rock. It heads straight into some severe mountain views, bringing the jagged Indian Peaks closer with every step. Pawnee Lake is a cool jewel tucked in a hot cirque just west of the Divide; surrounding rocks look almost sculpted and add an air of mystery.

Pawnee Lake to Long Lake Trailhead: 6.25 miles. From Pawnee Lake, the greatest mystery is how in the world the hike is going to rise 1,750 feet over the walls of mountains that lie ahead. You can get vertigo from straining to see the route. It goes right behind the jagged rock face profile to the east.

Thanks to endless switchbacks, the ascent up the pass is not really as steep as it is relentless. The descent is yet more switchbacks down and an easy walk along Lake Isabelle and Long Lake to the trailhead. The cruelest stretch of all is the paved half-mile or so back to the car.

Directions to trailhead (from Denver): Take Peak to Peak Highway to the Brainard Lake Recreation Area. Follow signs to the Mitchell Creek Trailhead. Start the hike on the Beaver Creek Trail.

Continued In Hiking Colorado: Gore Range

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