Brainard Lakes, Colorado, USA
Also known as: Brainard Lake, Blue Lake, Mitchell Lake, Long Lake, Lake Isabelle
The Brainard Lakes are some of the most heavily visited lakes along Colorado’s Front Range. Five small lakes lie within the Brainard Lakes Recreation Area in the east central Indian Peaks Wilderness area of the Roosevelt National Forest. Four of the five – Blue Lake, Mitchell Lake, Long Lake and Lake Isabelle – can only be reached on foot. Brainard Lake Road circles Brainard Lake and leads to Pawnee Campground. The scenic trails are very popular with day hikers. The lakes themselves are small; the largest is Long Lake covering about 40 acres. Three lakes attract anglers looking for catches of rainbow trout, brook trout and cutthroat trout, which are regularly stocked.
Brainard Lake is the first lake most people encounter. The 14-acre lake is easily accessible with non-motorized boats from the concrete public boat launch near the small dam over South St. Vrain Creek. Only eight feet deep, Brainard Lake is also the lowest of the five in elevation at 10,360 feet. Three picnic areas around the lake make it a scenic spot to spend an afternoon, particularly if trout fishing is a part of the plan. The sub-alpine forest setting against the backdrop of the jagged peaks of the Continental Divide make Brainard Lake a popular spot for less active visitors to appreciate the area’s scenic wonders. The road to Brainard Lake and its access to the trails are usually open from June to October, but weather conditions sometimes delay the opening. The gate to the area is 2.5 miles before you reach the lake and, if closed due to snow, visitors can use snowshoes to access the lake. The area around the gate is the Red Rocks Lake Trailhead and is the start of other popular trails used for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Hikers also access the Sourdough Trail and Niwot Mountain from here. A small fee is required for day use, and dispersed camping isn’t permitted along the trails.
Nearby Pawnee Campground has most amenities, including water, and can accommodate RVs to 45 foot long. Because this is a very popular campground, reservations are recommended. Bicycles are allowed on the paved roads to Brainard Lake but not on trails unless specifically designated. Brainard Lake lies between two valleys holding the four other lakes. The northern of the two valleys holds Mitchell and Blue Lakes, while the southern valley holds Long Lake and Lake Isabelle. These trail routes are the most popular trails to eight peaks in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. From Brainard Lake Road, one turn-off leads to the parking area at the head of the Mitchell Lake Trail and another to the head of the Long lake Trail. Both trailheads have small parking areas, with two lakes and multiple small ponds located up the trail.
Mitchell Lake is located less than a mile up a relatively easy trail. Located at 10,735 feet elevation, Mitchell Lake is located in a marshy meadow and surrounded by small willows. Fishing here is best accomplished with waders, since there is little firm footing along the shoreline. No information as to the size of Mitchell Lake is found, but sources say multiple undefined trails lead to a number of other small ponds across meadows filled with wildflowers. The official boundary of the Indian Peaks Wilderness is located at Mitchell Lake; great views of Mount Toll, Mount Audubon and Little Pawnee Peak are best seen from the northeast shoreline.
Blue Lake is located beyond Mitchell Lake, almost 2.5 miles from the Trailhead. A much deeper lake, Blue Lake is about 23 acres and up to 100 feet deep. Noted for cutthroat trout, about half of the shoreline is accessible for fishing. Blue Lake is the highest lake in elevation at 11,300 feet and lies in the shadow of Pawnee Peak, Mount Toll, and Paiute Peak. The trail between Mitchell Lake and Blue Lake is ablaze with flowers in early summer and creates an ideal photographic opportunity. No camping is permitted at Blue Lake, and trails to more distant peaks are located throughout the area.
From the Long Lake Trailhead, the trail leads first to Long Lake, the largest lake in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. At just over 40 acres, the long, narrow lake is a favorite for fishing. Cutthroat trout, brook trout and rainbow trout are all caught from shore. Artificial flies and lures only are allowed. Some areas of the shoreline are quite wet, requiring waders or at least waterproof boots. The lake reaches about 22 feet in depth at an elevation of 10,522 feet. Farther up the trail, Lake Isabelle receives its water from the Isabelle Glacier run-off. Located at 10,868 feet and 40 feet deep, Lake Isabelle is stocked with rainbow trout which may be caught using artificial flies and lures. Most of the shoreline is accessible for fishing and can actually get rather crowded on busy summer weekends.
The Brainard Lakes Recreation Area is only six miles west of the town of Ward and can be reached from Colorado Highway 72. Once a silver mining town, Ward was at one time the richest town in the state. Located on the 55-mile Peak to Peak Byway, Ward is only an hour from Denver and is the jumping-off location for myriad trailheads and outdoor attractions in the area. Between Ward and Nederland to the south, numerous resorts, ski locations and lodges encourage visitors to linger during winter and summer seasons. Numerous festivals highlight the outdoor activities that make this area of Colorado a vacation playground. Some are humorous and irreverent, such as Frozen Dead Guy Days, a week-long celebration of cryogenically-frozen Grandpa Bredo Morstoel. Nederland’s largest annual celebration, the Frozen Dead Guy Days offer music, food, a polar bear plunge, and competitive challenges such as the coffin races. The festival has gained worldwide notoriety over the past decade.
Other festivals celebrated near Brainard Lakes are the High Peaks Art festival, Miner’s Days, the WindFest (kite flying), Nederland 10K Race and other annual events-all drawing thousands of visitors. Local guest ranches, guest cottages and private lodgings provide comfortable space for the more luxury-minded, while multiple campgrounds and trails offer the solitude and rugged adventure so many seek. Some real estate is available for purchase outside of the Roosevelt National Forest. So, plan your trip to the Brainard Lakes to experience the breath-taking scenery with majestic peaks.
*Statistics listed are for Brainard Lake only.
Things to do at Brainard Lakes
- Vacation Rentals
- Cross-Country Skiing
- Wildlife Viewing
- National Forest
Fish species found at Brainard Lakes
- Brook Trout
- Cutthroat Trout
- Rainbow Trout
Brainard Lakes Photo Gallery
Brainard Lakes Statistics & Helpful Links
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