Within the first few weeks of our arrival in Colorado, we learned that if you want to find a place to park at any of the trailheads within about a 2-hour radius of Denver, you have to be willing to get there early. And by early, I mean 6:00am.
It’s a multifactorial issue. Coloradans are super outdoorsy, so on weekends everyone wants to get out and explore. When you compare the ever-growing number of eager explorers to the number of parking spaces at trailheads, the math really doesn’t add up. But it’s also an issue of weather. As I’ve mentioned in my previous two posts, afternoon thunderstorms are the norm in the Rockies, and you really don’t want to be at elevation when they roll in. The general rule of thumb is to be back down below tree line by noon.
(And if you think 6:00am is ridiculously early, try the trailheads for the 14ers. People arrive there as early as 2:00am to ensure they have enough time to get up and down before the weather comes in.)
Long story short, you have to wake up absurdly early.
So we did. We rolled out of bed at 4:00am and were on the road by 4:30 for our 1.5 hour drive to Brainard Lake Recreation Area. This is an extremely popular place due to its proximity to Denver, relatively short and easy hikes, and six beautiful lakes.
When we arrived at the entrance gate at 6:05am, the Long Lake Trailhead lot was already full. We parked at the Mitchell Lake Trailhead at 6:15am, but by the time we ate breakfast and got on the trail at 6:40am it was pretty close to full. I’m guessing it filled by 7:00am.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, because on the way to the parking lot we made an unexpected stop at Brainard Lake because there were 7 moose standing in the lake. With the sunrise painting the mountains pink, it was quite the amazing start to our day and made our 4:00am wakeup call 100% worth it!
We were on the Mitchell Lake trail by 6:40am, which – at the time – was probably the earliest I’d ever been on a trail in my life. The trail leads through the forest, past small flower-filled clearings, and across a stream before entering the Indian Peaks Wilderness and arriving at Mitchell Lake just 1 mile (1.6 km) from the trailhead.
Beyond Mitchell Lake, the trail climbs above timberline on the way to Blue Lake, an additional 2 miles (3.2 km) ahead. This section of the hike is utterly beautiful as it winds through alpine meadows. Wildflowers were peaking (this was July 20), the sky was impossibly blue, and Mitchell Creek alternates between tumbling cascades and small, calm ponds as it flows down the valley.
Alongside two of these ponds, munching on willows, were 4 more moose! And on the way back down, we saw another moose in a different area, bringing our total for the day to 12! I only had my iPhone with me, though, so I unfortunately don’t have any good photos.
After multiple stops to take photos of moose and flowers and the expansive views, we reached Blue Lake. The lake sits in a small cirque at about 11,500 feet (3500 m), surrounded by beautiful mountains that rise 1,000-2,000 feet (305-610 m) above. There were only a few other people there, so we had no trouble finding our own spot to sit and enjoy the view.
We headed back down the trail by about 8:30am, at which point more people were beginning to arrive. Starting early is definitely the way to go if you’re hoping to find parking, avoid crowds, and see moose.
Once back at the Mitchell trailhead, we left the car where it was and took the 0.8 mile (1.3 km) connector trail to the Long Lake trailhead (this trail isn’t shown on most maps, but the parking attendant can point you in the right direction).
Long Lake is aptly named, and the trail parallels the lake for a full mile (1.6 km) before climbing up toward what would be our fifth lake of the day: Lake Isabelle.
The elevation gain for this hike is only about 400 feet (120 m) but most of it is in the last half mile. Unlike the hike to Blue Lake, this trail is entirely below timberline and doesn’t offer the same expansive views until the very end. Because of this, in my opinion, Blue Lake is the prettier hike but Isabelle is the prettier lake.
It was just after 11:00am at this point so this area was much more crowded than the other trail had been. But we were still able to follow the trail around and find a quiet spot on the lakeshore to have some lunch and watch as the first clouds began to roll in. They weren’t ominous but were nevertheless a reminder of the unpredictable weather at this elevation.
We made it back to our car by about 1:00pm, exhausted from our 12 miles (19.3 km) of hiking. This was the highest elevation we’d reached in our first month in Colorado, and though our ears were unhappy when we first arrived (and again when we dropped back down into the valley), we did it!
On the way out of the area, we stopped for a few minutes at Brainard Lake itself and then at Red Rock Lake before heading down out of the mountains, very much ready for a beer, a shower, and a nice long nap.
I returned to Lake Isabelle a couple months later with a friend, and what a difference two months makes! The water levels were much lower, the snowfields on the surrounding mountains had melted, and most leaves had fallen.
I’ve since returned to Brainard Lake three additional times: once in early fall with my family, once in the winter on a snowshoe trip with the local chapter of Women Who Hike, and once with Pat on cross country skis. Unfortunately, it was so windy that many of my winter photos just look like a frozen lake shrouded in white. This entire area is obscenely windy, but especially in the winter this is something to plan for. However, when you get out of your car at the winter parking lot and the wind gusts blow you off balance, don’t be discouraged; the trails are in the trees and much more sheltered. It’s just the parking lot and the lakes that are extremely gusty.
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: Located on Brainard Lake Road 50 mins west of Boulder, just a few miles outside the tiny town of Ward. The road is steep and curvy but paved and well-maintained. The rec area is closed to cars in the winter, but you can park outside the gates at the winter lot and enter on foot.
- Fees and passes: Brainard Lake Rec Area is administered by the Forest Service and there is an $11/day entrance fee during peak season (there’s no fee in the winter); interagency annual passes accepted
- Hiking: Mitchell trailhead – Mitchell Lake (1 mi/1.6 km round-trip) and Blue Lake (additional 2 miles/3.2 km each way); Long Lake trailhead – Long Lake (0.25 mi/0.3 km round-trip) and Lake Isabelle (additional 2 miles/3.2 km each way)
- Where to stay: Pawnee Campground has a few sites available; reserve in advance, it fills up very quickly. For non-camping options, Boulder is the closest city and has many lodging opportunities
- Other: Parking here is a disaster. Arrive by 7:00am on summer weekends, or plan to park back at Brainard Lake and add at least 1 mile (1.6 km) each way to your hike. If you arrive after ~10:00am, you can expect to wait in a long line at the entrance station, as parking is monitored and they’ll restrict entry until spaces are available