The hike to Pawnee Pass traverses vibrant, varied terrain en route to spectacular views atop the Continental Divide. Two lakes, innumerable streams, abundant wildflowers and extended alpine-tundra travel make this one of the Indian Peak’s most interesting and enjoyable day hike destinations. Get an early start, as you may find yourself tempted to fully explore the Long Lake, Lake Isabelle and Pawnee Pass areas.
The trail begins on a flat, well-groomed path through stately spruce forest. The trail bypasses the Jean Lunning Trail – the first of several easy access points to Long Lake – after just .2 miles. Continue straight towards Lake Isabelle and Pawnee Pass. The damp lake basin and its many tributaries make this first mile especially verdant.
The trail remains flat until reaching a second connection with the Jean Lunning Trail (1.2 miles), beyond which it climbs steadily through a progressively thinning forest to Lake Isabelle (2.1 miles : 10,868′). The Lake Isabelle vicinity is simply stunning, highlighted by terrific views of Navajo (13,409′), Apache (13,441′), and Shoshoni (12,967′) peaks, Isabelle Glacier (12,025′) and several nearby streams that make possible a brilliant wildflower display.
The trail splits at the lake’s east end for Pawnee Pass, beginning a moderately steep climb through the upper-reaches of the subalpine. Aerial views of Lake Isabelle and a network of tumbling tributaries accompany you on this notably more challenging section. Take note of pronounced ecological changes on the rapid transition through and above treeline.
The trail flattens considerably, if only briefly, once above treeline on a broad tundra bench overlooking the Lake Isabelle valley. This welcomed reprieve yields excellent views of several nearby peaks, and an opportunity to closely examine unique tundra ecology while observing the marmot, pika and ptarmigan that subsist on it.
The trail soon begins a steep, methodical climb up a south-facing ridge over lengthy switchbacks. On the return you’ll appreciate looking down at the exaggerated zig-zag route this trail takes up the ridge.
The strenuous climb meets the ridgeline (4.45 miles) and spills into a flat, expansive tundra saddle tucked neatly between Shoshoni (12,967′) and Pawnee (12,943′) peaks. An easy jaunt leads to a large sign identifying Pawnee Pass and the Continental Divide (4.6 miles : 12,541′).
From here well-worn social trails branch off and lead up the respective summits; continuing west for a short time yields sweeping views down the western slope of the Divide, and a glimpse of Pawnee Lake.