Pawnee Lake may not get as much attention as Pawnee Pass, but Pawnee Lake is a strikingly, beautiful place. However, it is not easy to reach this lake. It is nine miles via the trail from Monarch Lake. It is only 6.6 (check Pawnee Pass distance, then add 2.1 miles) miles via Long Lake & Lake Isabelle. However, many people hiking via Long Lake and Lake Isabelle get to the top of Pawnee Pass, look at the steep trail down to the lake, take a picture and turn around without hiking down the 2.1 miles and 1,700 feet of elevation loss to the lake.
We decided to tackle the trek from Monarch Lake between Granby and Grand Lake, a drive of about 2 and a half hours from Denver (directions below). Find a parking space, hike past the closed gate and down a road to a small cabin on the lake. The cabin has a sign in sheet and sometimes, a volunteer to answer questions. There’s also a bathroom.
While you may be anxious to go, take the time to walk a few steps over to Monarch Lake for a photo. The lake, with the peaks to the east, is very scenic. If you’re lucky, you may even spot a moose. Then it’s time to hit the trail.
The Cascade Creek Trail starts on the north side of the lake and follows the shoreline for about 0.8 miles. The lake is large, calm and serene. As you walk, look for people and waterfowl trying to catch fish.
As the lake ends, the trail continues along a stream. Here hikers will pass through a couple boulder fields. No worries, the trail goes through the boulders, not over them, so the footing is fine.
At 1.25 miles, you may see a sign in the trees that says you're are entering the Indian Peaks Wilderness. This area was protected as wilderness in 1978. It's 76,586 acres on the south side of Rocky Mountain National Park. It got its name because many of the peaks in the area are named after American Indian tribes of the west.
At 1.6 miles, you'll pass the trail split for the Monarch Lake loop. Now the trail begins to climb slightly. You may notice a lot of dead trees and fallen trees. This area has been hit hard by the bark beetle infestation. One warning, if it's windy, don't hike here, this trail can be dangerous.
If you hike this path in late spring/early summer, your ears will often be filled with the sounds of crashing water before you see the next stream. Let those sounds take over your senses as you climb the switchbacks.
At about 2.3 miles, the trail suddenly comes to a small canyon carved by a creek. Here two creeks merge putting on a quite a show. Turn left and follow the trail to find the bridge over the creek.
As you hike along, there are more switchbacks, small cascades and meadows. You'll pass the Buchanan Pass Trail, then come to a second bridge at 3.3 miles. There's a treat coming. Cross the bridge and start up the switchbacks. But at the first turn, go off trail a few feet and look into the nearby canyon. In the spring, the water creates a wonderful unnamed waterfall here. But anytime of year, it's worth seeing this drop. You may spy more cascade above this, go back to the trail, continue up the switchbacks until you see a social trail back over to the falls. Do a little exploring, take pictures and then return to the main trail.
After you cross a third bridge, Cascade Falls is a short distance away. It features two major drops. A somewhat narrow drop at the top and a fan drop at the bottom. You can sit just off trail and enjoy this show. Many people turn around here, but you’ll be glad you’re continuing on. Just a short distance up the trail, you’ll get a closer look at one of the drops for the first Cascade Falls. Just behind the trees, water pours over a cliff and creates a gushing waterfall in a small alcove of sorts. This is another great spot for photographs.
Then it’s back to the trail for two more cascades! Each one about 0.2-0.35 miles away. After the last waterfall – number 5 by my count – it’s back into the forest for the last 2.6 miles. Here the trail gets a bit skinnier as it climbs up a valley. Listen as you hike, you may hear Cascade Creek below you.
About 6.9 miles from the trailhead, you’ll come to a split. While the sign simply tells hikers going to Crater Lake to turn right and that the Cascade Creek Trail goes both directions, this is an important landmark. From this spot, it’s just 1.75 more miles to Pawnee Lake. While you may want to take a break here, I suggest hiking up the trail just another tenth of a mile to a nice cascade. While this waterfall may not be as good as the first five, it’s a nice spot to take a break instead of the trail split.
After the cascade, get ready to climb again. The trail switchbacks steeply up to another valley. Expect to gain about 300 feet in the next 0.3 miles. The trail is also a bit overgrown in places so you may feel like you’re bushwhacking through the vegetation. When trees open up, enjoy theviews around you. You may even spot Lone Eagle Peak to the south. (That valley holds Mirror and Crater lakes.)
When you reach the valley shelf, the trail alternates between sections of forest and sections of meadows. In the meadow sections, the peak you see in the ridge to the east is Mount Toll. At 12,979 feet, it’s an almost 13er.
The trail winds east through the meadow, then turns to the north. You may see an area that looks like it should hold a lake below Mount Toll, but it was dry when we were there. After a couple switchbacks, we came to a sign that said “No camping within 100’, 140 paces of lakes, streams or trails.”
That signs means you’re close to the lake. As you walk here, look for the lake in the trees. When you get a glimpse of the lake, take a social trail to the shore line. There is no sign for the lake turnoff and if you stay on the main trail, it begins to climb and turn away from the lake. (I don’t know if is eventually comes back to the shore line, but I didn’t wait to find out. I got off the trail and ended up walking through a marshy area. I found the other trail on the way out.)
Pawnee Lake is a large lake in an amazing cirque. Find a place to sit and enjoy the amazing views. If you look closely to the east and north, you may even spot some people in the distance, climbing Pawnee Pass. If you’re interested, it’s about 2.1 miles and 1700 feet of elevation gain to the top. I’m told there are more than 40 switchbacks to the top. (My friends stopped counting at 42.)
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Details: The hike to Pawnee Lake is 8.75 miles with about 2,500 feet of elevation gain.
Directions: From Interstate 70 in Denver, go west to the Winter Park/Highway 40 turnoff. Take Highway 40 through Winter Park and Fraser to Granby. In Granby, turn right on Highway 34 toward Grand Lake. Drive about 5.4 miles and turn right at the entrance to the Arapaho National Recreation Area. Travel east on Forest Road 125 for about 10 miles to the Monarch Lake Trailhead.