This is an easily accessed world class 27 mile loop, leading through some absolutely stunning terrain. The closest comparison to this route is the four pass loop around Maroon Bells. I do not think this quite matches that level of scenic beauty, but it comes pretty close and is much easier to access for most of the state to give it an extra star.
There is an $11 charge to access the recreation area.
Must have an Indian Peaks Wilderness Permit to overnight in this area. The permit is only $5.00, but it is necessary. Permits can be applied for by email or in person, no over the phone or fax option. Note that permits can take up to two weeks to process, so plan ahead.
2020 COVID Update per website: "Brainard Lake Recreation Area is open with some minor changes to help facilitate social distancing in accordance with local, state and federal guidelines. This includes allowing 80% capacity in parking lots along with a scheduled entry (details below). This scheduled entry is not a reservation system. We anticipate some of the displaced visitors will take advantage of the parking available at the Gateway Trailhead parking lot immediately outside of the BLRA and opt to hike or bike into the area. . . ( fs.usda.gov/recarea/arp/rec…
I started this loop at the Long Lake
TH in the Brainard Lake Recreation Area. Take the trail from there, and follow it the .5 miles to the Mitchell Lake TH. Head out early as this area is quite popular later in the day.
From Mitchel Lake head up the Mount Audubon Trail
. This will head up above treeline quickly and you'll go around Mount Audubon
, so enjoy views of the mountain. At the junction where the trail heads up to Mount Audubon
, continue on to the Beaver Creek Trail
The Beaver Creek Trail
will take you to Coney Flats after about 3.5 miles. At Coney Flats, which is where the trail hits the 4x4 rd, take a left to head up Buchanan Pass Trail
. This trail is not wonderfully marked and I struggled a bit with feeling certain I was on the right trail. Head towards the high ground and you'll be on the right trail. It is 3.5 miles to the pass.
Enjoy the view as you climb and hit the pass.
After the pass, the trail is splendid as it drops quickly down into the trees. The trail continues through meadows and across creeks. The views and the solitude are amazing.
Continue on the Buchanan Pass Trail
west until you hit the aptly named Cascade Trail
. This will be the lowest point in your journey. The Cascades and falls along the next couple of miles are some of the best you'll find in Colorado as you follow Cascade creek higher.
Eventually, you'll separate from the creek as you climb into the basin. Enjoy the view as the jagged mountain walls encircle you and you wonder where the hell Pawnee Pass is. Around that time, you'll come across the Pawnee Pass Trail
to rise above the basin and begin a slow and painful climb up to the pass.
When you are close to losing your mind, begging for this friggin' climb to end, you'll be about 500 ft from the top.
From the pass, there is a great singletrack that drops back to into the trees, past Lake Isabelle and to the Long Lake TH.
Bugling elks, little critters, big birds trying to get the little critters and wildflowers galore can be found on this trail.