Colorado, Colorado 13ers, Colorado Hikes, Colorado Summits

Colorado 13er #3: Mount Audubon

The day began in a fairly typical fashion when it comes to hiking in Colorado:

  1. Wake up stupidly early (4:00am) so we can find a parking spot at the trailhead
  2. Arrive at said trailhead very early and claim said parking spot
  3. Gear up and start hiking

Mount Audubon is a 13er located in the Indian Peaks Wilderness of Colorado. To reach the trailhead, one must enter through the gates of Brainard Lake Recreation Area, which is (a) gorgeous, (b) exceptionally popular and crowded, and (c) a fee area. It’s $12 per day unless you have an Interagency Pass and the trailhead parking lots typically fill by 7:00am even on weekdays. Hence our 4:00am wake-up call.

(Update: for 2021, you’ll also need a timed parking permit to be allowed entry. While permit systems can be annoying, it has eliminated the stress of wondering if there will be a place to park. For this hike, reserve a permit for Mitchell Lake.)

The upside to waking so early is being able to watch the sunrise. I didn’t notice at the time, but the moon is hiding in the upper right corner!

Brainard Lake is one of the first places we visited when we moved to Colorado; in fact, I’ve written all about it before. It was on that trip, two years earlier, that I first sat on the shore of Blue Lake and looked up at the 13,223 foot (4030 m) Mount Audubon. And it was on that day that I decided I wanted to summit it. Fast forward two years, and it was time to make that goal a reality.

The trail to Mount Audubon begins from the northwest corner of the Mitchell Lake trailhead parking lot and crosses into the Indian Peaks Wilderness just a couple minutes later. The trail climbs gradually through the forest before turning abruptly and curving out and around the lowest reaches of the southeast ridge of Mount Audubon. Then it emerges from the trees and into the tundra.

Mount Audubon Trail

It was at this point that we were greeted with the first of many views:

Looking back toward Denver
First view of the summit!
Looking north
Looking south

From here, the trail turns west and traverses a fairly straight path toward the summit. It’s steep but not prohibitively so, and we did our best to pace ourselves through the next 2 miles (3.2 km) and 1500 feet (460 m) of elevation gain.

Getting closer!

The obvious trail ends at a saddle below the summit. From here, the remainder is a steeper climb up the north ridge to the top. Oh and by the way, it’s entirely talus. There are cairns to mark the approximate best route through the jumble of rocks, but it’s largely just a matter of moving in an upward direction.

Pat approaching the summit

While wind is always to be expected at this elevation, the Indian Peaks are especially windy and this morning was no exception. Don’t be fooled by the bright blue skies in my photos; the wind whipping up from the other side of the ridge was strong and cold! We’d initially considered crossing the saddle to summit the adjacent Paiute Peak as well, but one gust of that icy wind was enough to change our minds.

From the summit, views were panoramic. To the north was Coney Lake and the rugged peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park. West was Lake Granby, way off in the distance. Southwest was more of the Indian Peaks. And down below to the southeast was Brainard Lake Rec Area. We spent about 20 minutes enjoying our vantage point and refueling while hiding behind a large rock wind block.

Coney Lake and Rocky Mountain National Park
Looking west to Lake Granby
Indian Peaks
Brainard Lake Rec Area
My hair should give you an idea of just how windy it was!

It’s when we departed the summit that our day became highly atypical. Before beginning our descent, we walked out to the south edge of the summit in search of some overhead views of Blue Lake.

Blue Lake

As we stood there gazing down at it, an idea began to form: what if, instead of hiking back down the trail, we descended to Blue Lake and hiked the Blue Lake Trail back to the car? We were staring down an extensive slope of talus, but the entire route to Blue Lake was visible and it looked doable. No cliffs, no snow, no technical climbing; just a lot of talus. For whatever reason, we both decided this was a good idea… and down we went.

I’m still not entirely sure this should be classified as a “good” idea. The rock was loose in some places, and it definitely took a lot of concentration and careful route finding. It was a relentless test of our leg strength. And it was very slow going; it took us nearly two hours to descend the 1 mile (1.6 km) and 1800 vertical feet (550 m) to Blue Lake.

That being said, I never felt unsafe. It was within our skill level. We stayed far apart – both vertically and horizontally – to avoid sending rocks tumbling into each other, but always within sight so we could keep an eye on each other. And by and large, we had judged the route correctly; no cliffs, no snow, nothing technical, and we were able to remain on our intended path. Plus, these views of Blue Lake are truly one of a kind!

Blue Lake

As I sit here writing this the morning after, a large number of my muscles are very unhappy with me. But I’m actually really proud of us. We challenged ourselves, both physically and mentally. We assessed the terrain, found our own route, kept safety at the forefront of our minds, and traversed something that – if you’d asked me even a week earlier – I would’ve snorted and said, “yeah right, we’re not climbing down that.”

That being said, would I do it again? No.

Navigating that much talus is many things, but fun isn’t one of them.

In the aftermath, I think the main lesson we’ve taken away from this is that we’re terrible judges of height. Absolutely terrible. That was the one thing we got completely wrong. We really should have looked at a topo map more closely before making this decision. Blue Lake looked far less than 1800 feet (550 m) below us. I already knew I wasn’t great at judging elevation, but this really reiterated it.

Lesson learned.

And definitely a hike we will never forget.

The Important Stuff:

  • Getting there: the Mount Audubon trail departs from the Mitchell Trailhead at the end of Brainard Lake Road, just a few miles outside the tiny town of Ward
  • Fees and passes: $12/day entrance fee from June-Sept (entrance gates are closed the rest of the year); interagency annual passes accepted. You’ll also need a timed-entry parking permit for Mitchell Lake. Permits are released on a rolling basis two weeks in advance.
  • Hiking: if you stay on the trail the whole way – unlike us – it’s about 8 miles (12.9 km) round-trip with 2600 feet (790 m) of elevation gain
  • 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. Backpacking is not allowed in this area during the summer
  • Other: If you’re unable to get a permit for Mitchell Lake, you can get one for Brainard Lake instead; add 1.4 miles (2.3 km) to the round-trip hike distance

19 thoughts on “Colorado 13er #3: Mount Audubon”

  1. The view down to Blue Lake from that talus slope is spectacular. But that sure looks like a steep pitch and such a long way down over all that loose rock. No wonder your muscles are unhappy. Congrats! It’s great to feel that sense of achievement after a demanding hike.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This looks completely worth the 4am wake up. I was smiling at your decision to navigate down to Blue Lake — this is exactly the sort of nonsense I get myself into a regular basis (though 1800ft drop over a mile of talus is a WHOLE separate thing!).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The views from that hike were incredible. So was my anxiety reading about your descent down all that loose rock. Good grief. I need a Xanax. Glad you made it down alright! We actually hiked the Blue Lake trail a couple years ago and loved it. Just beautiful scenery around there!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The views from the summit of Mount Audubon look incredible! Definitely sounds like a great adventure and I’m sure after the trip down to Blue Lake, one you won’t be likely to forget!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Always good to start early because the mid-day weather can bring some surprises. I hiked Audubon in the 70s, one of the first when I came to Colorado; it’s a great hike. I wouldn’t have scrambled down the talus route, but glad it worked out for you!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I can easily see why the parking lot fills up so quickly, even on weekdays. That’s crazy! The views look incredible. Glad your detour to Blue Lake worked out and you didn’t have to backtrack and climb back up. Hiking through scree is always such a slog.

    Liked by 1 person

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