Buchanan Pass Trail & Red Deer Lake Backpacking Trip
Buchanan Pass Trail
Buchanan Pass Trail is a 15-mile long trail in Roosevelt National Forest and the Indian Peaks Wilderness. The first 4 miles of the trail traverses through Roosevelt National Forest next to Middle Saint Vrain Creek and does not require a permit. As such, it is a great place to go backpacking if you want to go, but can’t get a permit elsewhere or don’t want to be bothered with getting a permit. At mile 4.2 the trail enters the Indian Peaks Wilderness, where it is necessary to get a backpacking permit from June 1 to September 15.
Last-Minute Planned Backpacking Trip – Where to Go?
We learned that Yoshiyuki not only had Thursday, July 4th off from work, but the Friday after as well. Because of this, we made last-minute plans to go on a backpacking trip nearby. I went to the Boulder Forest Service Ranger Station to get advice on getting a permit and where was available on Wednesday. The process was easy and the rangers at the station were very helpful.
A few factors helped me decide where to go. (1) A lot of the famous places were already booked, as they only allow a certain number of permits per section of the park per day; (2) the rangers highly recommended not going anywhere above 10,000 ft in elevation, because of snow; (3) I wanted to camp near a clear and easy water source so we could filter water.
I was told both the first 4.2 miles of the Buchanan Pass Trail and the full Ceran Saint Vrain Trail do not require permits and are next to creeks. However, I wanted for us to have some solitude and the option to go into the Indian Peaks Wilderness, so I got a backpacking permit for the Middle St Vrain Backcountry Zone for one night.
Backcountry permits cost $5 per trip.
Over 2 days we covered 14.3 miles, hiking about 9 miles the first day (including a side trip from our campsite to Red Deer Lake), and 5.3 miles on the second day from our campsite back to the trailhead.
Buchanan Pass Trailhead
In order to get to Buchanan Pass Trail from the trailhead, you have to hike about 0.2 miles down Middle St. Vrain Road, and then turn right onto Buchanan Pass Trail. There are signs with maps at the junction, you can’t miss it.
Buchanan Pass Trail
Soon after the turn-off, you cross over Middle St Vrain Creek by bridge. Due to the large amount of snow and snowmelt this year, the waters were particularly high and raging.
The trail itself mostly goes through evergreen forests at a gentle incline. We climbed 1,135 ft over 5.3 miles to the campsite.
There were lovely wild Colorado Columbines, the state flower, blooming by the side of the trail.
Several areas we saw along the way looked like good camp spots. Just before hitting the boundary with Indian Peaks Wilderness, at about mile 4, there is a particularly nice meadow that would be good for camping that does not require a backcountry permit. A bit further into the meadow you can see the tops of mountains.
Buchanan Pass Trail – Indian Peaks Wilderness
At mile 4.2 you pass the boundary for the Indian Peaks Wilderness.
We walked through a meadow that had some good views of the mountaintops and wondered if this would be the place for us to camp. In the end, we decided to push on a little further to see if there would be a spot to camp with even better views.
And indeed there was! At mile 5.3 along Buchanan Pass Trail from the trailhead, we found the perfect camp spot in a wide meadow with views of the Indian Peaks Mountains, and only 0.1 miles from the creek. We set up camp behind some evergreens to get a bit of privacy from the trail, as well as some protection from the wind and sunshine.
The rules for camping in the area are you need to camp 100 ft from the trail and 100 ft from a water source (so you don’t pollute the water). A ranger I spoke to recommended that your campsite, bathroom spot, and food storage areas each be 100 ft from each other in a triangle shape to dilute your scents from wildlife.
Behind our campsite was this impressive talus slope and cliffs. On the other side of the cliffs is Rocky Mountain National Park.
Not long after we made camp we saw two moose peacefully walking through the trees behind our campsite.
Side-Hike to Red Deer Lake
After setting up camp and eating some lunch, we had some time and energy, so we decided to go for a 3.6 mile round-trip hike from our campsite to Red Deer Lake.
Not much further along Buchanan Pass Trail was the rushing Middle St Vrain Creek.
We crossed the steady bridge and continued along Buchanan Pass Trail for about a mile until we reached the junction with Red Deer Lake Trail. Buchanan Pass Trail in this area was a mixed bag, with a lot of muddy and snowy areas.
The junction for Red Deer Lake is marked like this.
Red Deer Lake Trail itself was mostly under snow.
It was really difficult to follow and we lost the trail once along with another backpacking group that was headed up to Red Deer Lake to camp. Together, we found the key to staying on-trail was to follow yellow ribbons hanging in the trees for guidance.
Red Deer Lake
After getting a bit lost and then finding the trail again, it was a huge relief and pleasure to finally see Red Deer Lake.
The lake is located at approximately 10,300 ft in altitude. The round mountain to the right is Red Deer Mountain (12,391′).
There were still some chunks of ice floating in the lake.
At Red Deer Lake there is one campsite near the water. At the time we visited, the campsite was still mostly under snow, but our fellow backpacking friends that we got lost with immediately went to set up camp there.
For our short to Red Deer Lake we didn’t want to carry our large Gregory backpacking packs, so we used the removable daypacks that come inside to carry our water bladders and some snacks. We carried our cameras separately.
While exploring around the lake we came across this cute Yellow-bellied Marmot. It looked very peaceful and happy resting in the sunshine.
Settling in for the Evening
We knew that it would take time to gather water and make dinner, so we didn’t stay too long at the lake.
On our way back, we gathered water at Middle St Vrain Creek, 0.1 miles from our campsite.
While waiting for the water to filter, Yoshiyuki took this lovely photo of the Middle St Vrain Creek –
And a bull moose walked by!
We were quite tired from all the hiking that we had done during the day and ended up eating two packages of freeze-dried Mountain House meals, one at about 4 pm, and another at around 7 pm. It’s important to stock up on calories, especially when your camping outside in a place that gets cold.
If you’re not familiar with these freeze-dried foods, basically you add 2 cups of boiling water to the package, stir, wait 4 minutes, stir, wait 9 minutes, stir, and it’s ready! It’s quite simple. We’ve taken to distributing the contents of a package into our backpacking cups and then adding water, etc. It’s easier to eat that way than passing the package back and forth.
We went to sleep around 9 pm, when it got dark.
Milky Way Nightscapes
In order to take pictures of the stars, we set our alarms for 3 am
When we got out of our tent and looked up at the sky we were in awe. The conditions were perfect with no moon and no clouds. We could see what seemed like millions of stars in the sky and a very clear Milky Way.
Here are some of the pictures that Yoshiyuki took with his Sony A7ii camera and Sony FE 16-35mm F2.8 GM Wide-angle Zoom Lens.
We saw about 7 shooting stars as well as the International Space Station while we were out there for about 45 minutes. This photo has a particularly long shooting star in it –
The next two photos are with Red Deer Mountain –
It was about 32 degrees Fahrenheit., so we bundled up in all the layers that we had – merino wool base layers, long sleeved shirts, micro-puff jackets, hiking pants, rain jackets, rain pants, winter hats, winter socks, and gloves. Even so, after standing around for close to an hour, it got pretty chilly.
After we got back to the tent we tried to sleep, but due to the chill, were unable to do so.
What ended up being the trick to getting back to sleep was making a hot Mountain House breakfast and hot coffee at 5:30 am.
While we were finishing our breakfast around 5:45 am, the sun started coming over the mountains and hitting the far peaks with its glow. The mellow light was beautiful.
After we watched the sun fully hit the mountains, which didn’t take long, we went back to sleep for about 2 hours.
When we got up around 8:30 am the sun was fully up. It was warm, even hot, outside.
It was such a strange change to go from shivering in our sleeping bags a couple hours earlier to having to wear tank tops/t-shirts and slather on sunscreen. In the moment and after, I was deeply grateful for the warmth of the sun.
It was quite late already when we woke up, so we started preparing to leave the campsite and head back. Overnight our tent had gathered some condensation, so we hung it up to dry for a little bit. It didn’t take long to dry in the strong Colorado sun.
On the Way Back
The 5.3-mile trek back to the trailhead was pleasant. We were well-rested after our morning nap and the trail was easier to traverse going downhill.
About halfway back, we stopped at Timberline Falls. The falls were roaring with water. Unfortunately, there are no good direct views of the falls from Buchanan Pass Trail, even from the rock outcropping that is there. It’s still interesting to see how powerful the waterfall is from above.
Not long after, we ran out of drinking water. It was about lunchtime, so we stopped at a small clearing next to the creek to filter some water and make lunch.
It was a peaceful place to stop, refresh, and refuel before the final push to the trailhead.
Recommended Area for Backpacking
Our trip backpacking in the Indian Peaks Wilderness section of Buchanan Pass Trail was perfect in every way. We got plenty of exercise, were close to a water source, had amazing views of the mountains and sky from our meadow campsite, saw the Milky Way, and encountered wildlife. Buchanan Pass Trail is an excellent option for backpacking near Boulder.