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Route beta || Pfiffner Traverse: Thunderbolt Creek & Paiute Pass

Pawnee Lake (and Apache Peak, on the far skyline), as seen from Paiute Pass at the head of Thunderbolt Creek. The Pawnee Pass Trail crosses the Continental Divide in the upper-left corner of the image.

To connect Buchanan Creek with Cascade Creek in Colorado’s Indian Peaks Wilderness, the Pfiffner Traverse ascends a knife-edge pass at the head of trail-less Thunderbolt Creek that offers sweeping views of the Pawnee Lake basin and the Continental Divide. The alternative to this route is an ordinary and relatively view-less all-trail route around the west side of Thunderbolt Peak that exits the high country.

In addition to being a highlight of the Pfiffner Traverse, this route can be used by backpackers on the Pawnee-Buchanan Loop who have the prerequisite skills and who wish to inject more adventure into a classic itinerary.

As I did with the Northeast Gully, which is the crux feature on a route between the Lone Eagle Cirque (Crater Lake) with Lost Tribe Lakes and upper Arapaho Creek, I have decided to share a route description and topographic map for this section of the Pfiffner Traverse. If you have experience with or questions about this route, please leave a comment. I’m hoping that public discussion will help improve expectations and decision-making.

This is an advanced route that requires off-trail navigation skills, above-average physical fitness, and comfort with steep terrain and scrambling. It is not recommended for dogs.

Field resources

This page includes an in-depth route description. You can: print it, using the print button on the left-side of your screen; or reformat it, by copying & pasting it into a new document. Distribution is permitted for non-commercial use only, and credit is requested.

To download the topographic map for this route, click here. The map has been annotated with my route notes, and will have a scale of 1:24,000 when printed on standard 8.5 x 11 letter paper. As an overview map for this area, consult the National Geographic Trails Illustrated #102 for the Indian Peaks and Gold Hill.

Intentionally, I am not offering a GPX file, because I don’t want to directly enable hiking from waypoint to waypoint. The route demands more backcountry skills than that.

If you benefit from these free resources and wish to do more of the Pfiffner Traverse — either as a thru-hike or in sections — then consider purchasing the Pfiffner Traverse Guide. It includes route descriptions, datasheets, and topographic maps for the entire 77-mile Primary Route, multiple alternate routes, and recommended section-hikes.

Thunderbolt Meadow

The Pfiffner Traverse Guide assumes a southbound itinerary, from Milner Pass to Berthoud Pass. This route description is consistent with that direction.

The route starts on the Buchanan Pass Trail, immediately east of the confluence of Buchanan Creek and Thunderbolt Creek. The exact spot is three-fourths of a mile east of the junction between Buchanan Pass Trail and Gourd Lake Trail, and just downstream of the switchbacks between Fox Park and the Buchanan/Thunderbolt confluence, shortly after the trail fords to the north side of Buchanan Creek.

Here, an unmarked side trail departs southward, crosses Buchanan Creek (which may have multiple shallow braids during periods of higher runoff), and enters Thunderbolt Meadow, the edge of which hosts several established campsites. The view up-valley is grand but not instructive: Paiute Pass can be seen at the head of this U-shaped valley, but the route to it is unclear.

From the large established camp on the very edge of the meadow, follow a use trail just inside the treeline until it disappears in a slide path. Beyond the slide, travel in the timber is hindered by blowdowns. Instead, follow the eastern edge of the meadow, hopping into the woods when necessary to avoid standing water (assuming your shoes aren’t soaked already from dew or precip). At the meadow’s southeastern edge, follow a faint trail through the forest for several minutes, until arriving at the first avalanche runout zone, which originates on the east wall above the head of the meadow.

Thunderbolt Meadows, just south of the Buchanan Pass Trail. Paiute Pass is 2,000 vertical feet away. It’s just above the snow patch near the low spot on the skyline, to the right of the outcrop.

Runouts and bluffs

The trail exits the timber and steps over two logs, one with an upstream arrow engraved on it, then and veers towards the creek. After stumbling across the toe of a rock slide, the trail disappears in meadow grasses. Enter a flood zone with riparian vegetation that will be waist-high in July, shoulder-high in August and frost-killed in September. Beware of rocks, blowdowns, and avy debris lurking below the surface, and then in plain sight during the final stretch across the runout zone.

Aim for the treeline about 50 yards east/left of the cascading waterfall, and just left of a very tall snag (if it’s still standing), at the base of a ledgy cliff system. A faint game trail enters the timber, scrambles through the first cliff band, and climbs diagonally towards the creek. Ascend through another cliff band, and perhaps one more, always jogging towards the creek between breaks. It’s light bushwhacking with Class 2 scrambles.

The trail pulls next to the creek at the base of a 20-foot waterfall, which roars with spring runoff, before climbing through one more notable cliff band next to the falls. Above it, parallel the creek until reaching another avalanche runout zone.

Following the elk trail between the first and second runout zones. It’s Class 2 scrambling with light bushwhacking.

This next section is cleaner and less particular than the last — there is less vegetation and more route options. After pushing through the meadow, zig-zag upwards on grassy ramps, granite slabs, benches, and some talus — still on the east side of Thunderbolt Creek, though not necessarily as close to it — until arriving at Paiute Lake, a mid-route highlight. The lake’s outlet area has sufficient room for a shelter or two.

Paiute Lake in upper Thunderbolt Creek

Side-hill around the eastern edge of Paiute Lake, and leave it after a one-move Class 3 scramble on a short ledge. A pack-lift might be helpful for some. Climb south-ish on tundra, slabs, and talus to a small flat at treeline, which would make for a comfortable high camp. Follow the main creek to the base of Paiute Pass.

Paiute Pass

There are at least two proven routes to Paiute Pass. The direct route aims for the true pass. Later in the season, it entails a moderate slope of mostly stable scree and talus that funnels into a steeper talus-filled gully. But the route is more difficult in early-season conditions: the base is snow-covered, and the gully holds a snow tongue with a maximum angle of about 35 degrees.

The north side of Paiute Pass in September. The direct route ascends a moderate slope of mostly stable talus, scree, and tundra that funnels into a talus-filled gully. Arrive at the low spot on the ridge.

Early-season conditions, specifically mid-July after a wet winter. Notice the snow tongue that extends up into the gully. The more promising early-season route is to the right/west. Zig-zag and scramble up slabs and large cracks to gain the snow-covered slopes above the near-vertical cliff. Reach the ridge above the true pass.

From the bowl below the pass, the alternative route scrambles to the right/southwest, in order to get above a cliff. Then, it zig-zags on tundra and granite ledges to the ridge, arriving about 25 yards west of the true pass.

The alternate route melts out before the direct route — it holds less snow and receives more sunshine. But when snow-covered it’s the more hazardous of the two routes, due to the relatively worse consequences of a fall.

In a normal year, the direct route will hold snow through June and be effectively melted out by August. The alternate route is about two weeks ahead. This timeline could shift by up to a month after extremely dry or wet winters, and after extremely cool or warm springs.

Recommended gear

If the direct or alternate route to Paiute Pass is holding snow, an ice axe and crampons are strongly advised. The axe is useful for self-arrest and self-belay, and for cutting steps or blocks.

If the snow is firm, crampons will be essential. If it’s soft — which is more likely — they will improve comfort, confidence, and efficiency. I have done Paiute Pass in both directions on soft snow — an ascent of the direct route with Vargo Pocket Cleats, and a descent of the alternate without traction, although I was mostly able to avoid stepping onto the snowfields. (I had an ice axe on both occasions.)

Some may be comfortable with my equipment list. But most will want crampons with frontal spikes, such as the Kahtoola K-10 Crampons or Hillsound Trail Pro Crampon.

South side

While at the pass, be sure to locate the west ridge of the Lone Eagle Cirque and the Northeast Gully. For south-bounders on the Pfiffner Traverse, that feature (along with its approach) represents the next significant challenge. The route will look impossibly steep, which it’s not; from here, the more important takeaway is the amount of snow still lingering in the gully.

I do not recommend descending south or southeast from the true pass. Instead, if the direct route was taken to the pass, head west on the ridge for about 25 yards, contouring around an outcrop and passing by a bold ridgetop campsite along the way. Stop where krumholtz spruce grow up to the ridge. If the alternate route was taken to the pass, descend to the lowest krumholtz spruce.

When viewed from the meadow below, the south side of Paiute Pass appears impossibly steep. The recommended route starts near the low spot on the ridge, where krumholtz grow up to the ridge. It descends the avy chute nearby (not the big one on the left side of the image), then cuts right/east out of view down a tundra-filled crack system.

Drop south off the pass, veering right/west down craggy ledges, until reaching a tundra-covered avalanche chute. Descend it for about 200 vertical feet. When it becomes clear that the chute plummets over cliffs, halt. Turn left/east through krumholtz and find a tundra-filled crack system on a 175-degree bearing. Drop down it until you’re below the lowest cliff band.

To reach the Pawnee Pass Trail, hike south-southwest along the base of the wall to a large grass-covered avalanche path. (A more direct route through the timber is complicated by steep granite bluffs.) Follow it into the meadow at the base of the valley. The trail is on the south side of the meadow.

Have experience with this route? Please share. Have questions? Please ask.


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