Imagine my surprise when I was heading towards the Long Lake trailhead, only to find the entire area was closed a the Brainard Lake entrance station. While I’d known the permit system ended October 15 (yay!!!) I’d not heard they planned to lock the gate as well. Have I mentioned I’m not a fan of the permit system? In any event, I parked in the winter lot, and was on my way at 5:15am.
I walked for 3.1 miles west, on a snow-free, dry, and clear paved road, to the Long Lake trailhead.
Now on the trail, I followed it west. This is a very well-marked, class 1 trail, all the way to Pawnee Pass.
There are several junctions. I went right at each one. First to follow the Pawnee Pass trail.
The second to also keep following the Pawnee Pass Trail
And the third time, just before making it to Lake Isabelle, to also keep following the Pawnee Pass Trail.
I followed the Pawnee Pass Trail almost all the way to Pawnee Pass
At 12530’ I left the Pawnee Pass trail, and headed southwest towards the saddle of Shoshoni and Paswhoni
This was straightforward, class 2 rock hopping.
When I made it to the saddle I turned left, and followed the ridge south towards Shoshoni Peak
When I got to what I thought was the peak, I saw this
Not sure which was the actual peak, where I was standing or the outcropping in front of me, I decided to climb up the rocks, just to be sure. This was class 3 climbing. I ascended on the left
At the summit, the views of Navajo and Apache were amazing
I summited Shoshoni Peak at 9:45am
I climbed back down, and retraced my steps to the Shoshoni/Pawshoni saddle on class 2 terrain
I followed the class 2 ridge northwest and then northeast all the way to Pawshoni
I summited Pawshoni at 10:30am
Next up was Pawnee Peak, to the northeast
I continued to follow the ridge down to Pawnee Pass, and the up to Pawnee Peak. Once at the pass, there was a game trail I could follow to the summit.
I summited Pawnee Peak at 11am
There were some amazing views of the peaks I’d just summited, as well as other 13ers
I turned and headed back towards Pawnee Pass, following faint trails along the way
Back on the trail, I followed it as it wound its way and switchbacked east towards Lake Isabelle
Then I followed the trail east back to the trailhead
From the trailhead it was a 3.1 mile walk along the paved road back to my truck
I made it back to my truck at 2:15pm, making this a 19.63 mile hike with 3728’ of elevation gain in 9 hours.
I’m not a fan of the timed permit system, and once again, I was reminded why (feel free to scroll down to avoid the drama/whining, just be sure you have ALL the correct passes you need when you purchase online).
The night before this hike I was able to secure a dropped permit. I was looking up available permits on my phone, saw one for tomorrow, and snatched it up. It was an overnight parking permit that started the day of the hike. Usually I start hikes around 3-4am, and this permit started later, but at least I’d get into the park. Since it was an overnight permit it would give me a long time to hike, and I figured I’d just end my hike later than normal. With any luck, no one would be at the gate that early and I’d sail on by.
No such luck. The attendant checked my paperwork and told me I had to wait until 8am to check in. So, at 8am I was back at the gate, checking in. The attendant looked at my overnight pass and asked me where I was spending the night? I said I was just day hiking, but it was the only parking permit I could get. She got upset with me, and told me I ‘stole’ this permit from someone else who already had an overnight camping permit, and I needed an overnight camping permit to use this pass.
Wait, you need 2 separate permits to be here? “Yes”, she replied, “sometimes 3, and you made it difficult for someone else to stay that already has one of the other two permits, which they needed to order moths ago.”
I refrained from letting her know I’d picked up a permit at the last minute, so I hadn’t ‘stolen’ it, and how crazy it was to need multiple permits to hike in one area, and asked her what my options were? She was ready for this question, as she gets it All. THE. TIME. In fact, she already had permits printed and marked up for this exact purpose. The website verbiage creates a lot of inconsistencies, so most people she talked to had the ‘wrong’ permit when they arrived at the Brainard Lakes entrance. The website also gives out passes with similar names to other parks (such as Maroon Bells), but the permit names mean different things to different parks. She gave me a day permit and told me I needed to be out by 5pm. This wasn’t ideal, but I was getting in, so I took it, thanked her, and was on my way.
Once they let me in, I had to park in the specific lot they gave me a pass for. I parked in the Long Lake parking area. The parking spaces were further labeled according to pass (overnight versus day), and there were rangers stationed at the trailheads, checking permits on vehicles. This means no parking at the Brainard Lake area if you have a Long Lake Trailhead permit. Plan on hiking (not driving) if you want to see other areas of the park.
Ok. Rant over. The weather was scheduled to be perfect today, and I was ready to hike!
I was on the trail at 8:15am. The trail starts at the west end of the parking area.
This is a well-marked, class 1 trail
After about a quarter mile of hiking I came to a junction and followed it to the right, following the Pawnee Pass Trail
At the next junction I once again went right
And continued following the class 1 trail
At the third junction I went left, following the Isabelle Glacier Trail
This part of the trail had me skirting the north side of Lake Isabelle
From here you have a good view of Navajo and Apache Peaks
I continued following the trail west
After hiking for 3.5 miles the trail headed south/southwest, through the willows.
The trail here was muddy, and full of bugs. I choked on a gnat.
After about 4 miles of hiking, I continued west. Here’s a visual of how I made it to the last little lake (unnamed). The rock crossing would be slippery if wet.
Here’s a visual of the route to the upper basin. I skirted the lake to the right, crossed South St Vrain Creek, and ascended the scree into the upper basin.
Here are some step by step pictures. The creek was flowing, but I was able to cross without getting my shoes wet.
I then headed south to the ridge
Once I reached the tundra, I followed it west into the basin
This is where I had a decision to make. I’d initially wanted to hike both Navajo and Apache Peaks today, but since I now had time constraints, I didn’t think I’d have enough time to do both. I’d wanted to start with Navajo and see the plane wreckage, then head over to Apache. But I ‘needed’ Apache before Navajo (Apache is taller, and a tricentennial, so higher on my list of peaks I want to climb). I decided to head over to the plane wreckage, then skirt the mountainside above the waterfalls and ascend Apache’s east ridge. On the way down, I took a more direct route. Here’s a visual of the loop. The plane wreckage is circled in red.
I headed south to the plane wreckage.
The C-47 went down on January 21, 1948. It was en route from Denver to Grand Junction, and crashed during bad weather. Most of the wreckage is up high on the Niwot Ridge (nicknamed “airplane gully”), but some of it can be seen in the basin as well. This site is considered a historical aviation archeology site, so the wreckage cannot be removed.
From the plane wreckage at around 12,200’ I headed southwest, aiming for the base of the snow
Once there I turned right and headed northeast on the scree. I was aiming for the green patch of tundra. When I hit that, I planed on turning and heading west to the ridge.
Getting to the tundra proved a little tricky. There was a fun slab to maneuver (there were small cairns here, circled in red)
I then aimed for the greenery, and followed it to the ridge
This is choose your own adventure. I followed the larger rocky areas up, and the scree down.
There was a wind shelter at the top of the ridge.
I turned right, and followed the ridge northwest to the summit of Apache. This was a straightforward ridge hike on large shale.
I summited Apache Peak at 11:45am
I left a summit register, and headed back down to the saddle. I could see Navajo Peak to the southeast
Once back at the saddle I looked at the time. I knew I didn’t have time to hike Navajo today, but I decided to follow the ridge for a bit and see what it (and Dicker’s Peck) looked like from the end of the ridge. So, I continued following the ridge southeast.
I climbed to the top of both highpoints along the ridge, made friends with a crow, and got a good view of Dicker’s Peck. It looks like it has a new anchor at the top.
I continued on to the edge of the ridge, got one final view of Navajo and Dicker’s Peck (the route is snow free from the ridge), and turned and headed back to the wind shelter.
I took a more direct route down this time, following the scree
I made it back to the rock slab, and navigated down.
I then followed the scree down the basin
Here’s looking back at my descent route
And some pictures of the route back to Lake Isabelle. It looked like a trail crew was putting in a new trail on the north side of the creek here.
A look at Lake Isabelle. The trail out goes to the left of the lake
From Lake Isabelle it was an easy, class 1 walk out
I made it back to the Long Lake parking area, where park employees were stationed, ready to check passes.
I hopped into my truck and turned on the air conditioner. It was 4pm, making this a 13.66 mile hike with 4127’ of elevation gain in 8 hours. I’ll be back, but I think I’ll wait until the timed entry system expires for the year…
The last time I attempted this peak (earlier this winter) I arrived in the dark while it was snowing. I was unable to find the parking area (it was covered in snow) and turned around and drove home before the hike even began. This time I decided to arrive during the day, and I was a bit embarrassed I’d turned around last time: the parking area is huge and hard to miss (unless the entrance is covered in over a foot of snow). Here’s a picture of the entrance
This is the parking area. There are bathrooms here and an information center. I’m guessing 75 vehicles can park here.
I parked at the east end of the parking lot and took a look around. Not a bad backyard view for the night.
I spent the next two hours relaxing. I love making it to the trailhead the night before and just enjoying the quiet time. I watched the birds fly up and down the trees, looking for insects. I people watched, sat and watched the clouds, admired my view of Mt Audubon, and got out some whiskey and read for a bit. I also ate 3 snack sized bags of chips. I went to bed earlier than I would have if I’d been at home, but as always when I sleep in the back of my truck, I slept soundly.
Soundly that is, until 3am. That’s when I heard a couple walk back to their vehicle, which had (unfortunately) been parked right next to mine. They started the car, and chatted for a bit before taking off. I thought it was a weird time to make it back to their car, and wondered why they’d been so loud? There were obviously several people boondocking in their vehicles, trying to sleep. I lay there for the next hour, wanting to get up to pee but not wanting to leave my nice, comfy bed until it was time to do so (we’ve all been there, right?). At 4am I was up and on the trail by 4:15am.
I started at the winter closure, marked by this gate and entrance station.
I followed the road, and a well packed trail, for 3.3 miles to the Mitchell Lake Trailhead. At times the snow on the road was well over my head, and I wondered how long it will take to melt out for summer visitors?
I made it to Brainard Lake and continued following the road
The Mitchell Lake Trailhead still had quite a bit of snow as well
Here’s where the nicely packed down trail ended, and the post-holing began. Obviously, there’s a lot of snow here.
I was happy there was a semi-noticeable trail however, as I’d expected to be trenching today. I wasn’t trenching, but I was postholing quite a bit. The temperature had only reached a low of 37 degrees last night, making the snow too firm to trench with snowshoes, but easy to post hole through without. I followed the trail as it headed northeast towards the ridge.
Just below the ridge the trail stopped near a rocky area and I had to rock-hop up to the ridge. It looked like whoever used this trail yesterday had purposely glissaded down in snowshoes, ruining any chance I had of using their tracks. I easily avoided their slide by going to the right, and then catching up with several other tracks that led to the upper basin/ridge.
This is where I encountered the most snow of the day. I continued northwest to treeline, staying just below the ridge
Here’s an overall view of the route I took to the summit of Audubon (note: in the summer there’s a trail that takes a different route more to the north, which was indistinguishable to me at this time of year due to the snow, so I followed the east ridge instead)
This was a simple ridge hike. It seemed like the ridge kept going on and on, but I was never tired/winded because it was a gentle slope, mixed with some unavoidable areas of snow, and a little bit of minor rock hopping.
Just when I thought I’d reached the summit (there was a wind break) I noticed the true summit was about 20 yards southwest.
I followed this small ridge to the summit. This is when the wind that had been nonexistent but predicted for today materialized.
I summited Mt Audubon at 8:20am. It was Easter Sunday, so I’d decided to hike wearing Easter Bunny ears. The wind was so intense it blew them off my head and I put them away right after this photo (you can see them in my hands as I’m takin the video). I didn’t attempt a second shot.
Mt Audubon Summit
Surprisingly, I didn’t get any good photos while on the summit: It was windy and cold and all I could think about was getting out of this wind and back home (it was Easter, after all, and I wanted to spend it with my kids). A balaclava would have been helpful, but putting it on at this point overkill, as I just needed to get off the summit and out of the wind. I re-traced my steps back to the false summit
And back down the ridge to treeline.
While I was on the ridge I could see someone dressed in all black, meandering in the distance. This person (and it was obviously a person) was walking without a rhyme or reason, wasn‘t carrying a pack, and eventually hiked out of my sight. Though I looked, I never came across their tracks on my way down, and wondered how they got there and what was going on with them? It was obvious they hadn’t summited Mt Audubon today, so why were they out there?
You’d think it would have been easy to just follow my tracks back down, but there were such large segments without snow I often lost my tracks and hiked down without coming across them (most of the time). I just kept aiming here. Also, the willows sucked (but were avoidable if you want to go around: I went straight through them).
Then stayed right of the ridge as I made to back to treeline, finding my old tracks in the snow.
These led me back down the ridge, to the ‘trail’
I was worried the sun would have warmed up the snow, but I was still fine in microspikes. In fact, the snow was of a similar consistency as it had been in the morning, or I would have put on my snowshoes to solidify a trench. As it was, I just stepped in my morning tracks and was fine.
Back at the trailhead I followed the road back to the winter closure
I made it back to my truck, and a trailhead full of vehicles, at 11:15am, making this a 13.07 mile hike with 3285’ of elevation gain in 7 hours.