You know how sometimes you set out for a hike and get a bit too ambitious and then spend the last few miles regretting your ambition? This was one of those hikes.
It was a 70°F/21°C day in Denver in early March, which meant it was also an unseasonably warm day up in the mountains. So rather than flock to the local destinations in shorts and tank tops as so many others did, we headed to the high country to avoid the crowds and do some snowshoeing on a beautiful bluebird day!
Brainard Lake Recreation Area is a major gateway to the Indian Peaks Wilderness, an expansive area that protects the land immediately south of Rocky Mountain National Park and not too far west of Boulder. This is an extremely popular location, and with good reason; it’s gorgeous! It’s also easily accessible most of the year and therefore very crowded. But it’s a little calmer in the winter so we decided to take advantage of that.
This wasn’t our first time at Brainard, and I’ve already written about our previous outings. In the winter, the gate to the Rec Area is closed and you have to park at the winter lot and travel just over 2 miles (3.2 km) up the road on skis, snowshoes, or your own two feet to reach Brainard Lake. This is where the majority of people stop. This is also as far as we had ever gone before.
But beyond Brainard Lake are four more lakes; two up each of the valleys in the photo above. Our destination of the day was the valley on the far left, and the plan was to make it at least as far as the first lake – Long Lake – and possibly all the way back to the second – Lake Isabelle.
From Brainard Lake, we followed the road around to the Niwot Cutoff Trail, the shortest and most direct route to Long Lake in the winter. Just before reaching the lake, we entered the Indian Peaks Wilderness.
The lake was frozen solid and partially covered in windblown snow – it’s typically exceptionally windy up here and we were very fortunate to have a relatively calm day – so we just walked all the way across it rather than sticking to the trail. On a windy day, we would have stayed on the trail in the shelter of the trees. This probably goes without saying, but we also would have stayed on the trail if there was any question as to the stability of the ice.
From the end of Long Lake, it’s about another 1.5 miles (2.4 km) and 450 vertical feet (135 m) to Lake Isabelle. The sky was blue, the sun was warm, and we were feeling good, so we decided to go for it. There were multiple trails through the snow and we made the mistake of picking the one that looked right instead of double checking with my GPS app. As a result, we added some unnecessary elevation gain and wound up climbing straight up a very steep hill. In retrospect, I think this was when my muscles started to regret our decision to make it all the way to Isabelle.
But we did it! We climbed the hill and there it was, the frozen, snow-covered Lake Isabelle in all its glory. In the summer, the highlight of Isabelle is the color; the surrounding mountains are streaked with various shades of white and red and brown and the beautiful blue of the lake is encircled by lush green vegetation. In the winter, it’s all about the crisp white snow and jagged mountains outlined by the bright blue sky.
We made our way out to a cluster of boulders that formed a nice wind block and spent some time relaxing in the sunshine in the middle of the frozen lake. We saw one person at the lake and only five others between Long Lake and Lake Isabelle. In Colorado, that’s about as much solitude as we could ever hope for.
Eventually it was time to head back, so we sat on our butts and sledded our way down that steep hill and then followed the creek bed back to Long Lake, which was a much more straightforward route. Even so, by the time we reached the lake my legs were beginning to protest, and the remaining 2.5 miles (4 km) back to the car was brutal. I was at the point where I just had to put one foot in front of the other and not stop.
But despite our exhaustion and sore legs the next day, we felt very accomplished. We’d snowshoed 10.5 miles (16.9 km) and made it all the way to a place we weren’t sure we’d ever reach in the winter.
And in the end, isn’t that part of the reason we all go on adventures? If we never pushed ourselves outside of our comfort zones, we’d never realize what we’re truly capable of and there would be so much in this beautiful world that we’d never get to experience.
The Important Stuff
- Getting there: the winter parking lot for Brainard is on Brainard Lake Road just outside the rec area entrance station, near the town of Ward, Colorado
- Fees and passes: none in the winter because you park outside the gates
- Hiking: round trip winter distances are: Brainard Lake (4 miles/6.4 km), Long Lake (6 miles/9.6 km), Lake Isabelle (10.5 miles/16.9 km); elevation gain is relatively minimal, though most of it is in the last 0.5 mile (0.8 km) before Lake Isabelle
- Where to stay: there is a campground in the Rec Area and other Forest Service campgrounds in the general vicinity, but they’re closed in winter; your best bet this time of year is lodging in Boulder or Denver
- Other: Wind, wind, and more wind. I can’t emphasize that enough. Something about this location makes it so windy all the time, so be sure to plan for that when deciding what to wear and how many layers to pack