Hiking Brainard Lake

Mountains and Trails an Hour From Boulder
By Ruth Carol Cushman & Glenn Cushman
Mount Audobon looms above Brainard Lake.
Mount Audobon looms above Brainard Lake.

Brainard Lake, about an hour outside of Boulder, is the hub for many trails leading into the Indian Peaks Wilderness and up to the tundra. The area west of Brainard Lake is managed for day use only. Permits from the Forest Service are required for overnight backpacking trips into other parts of this heavily used wilderness. The entire area is superb for wildflowers and alpine scenery. To reach Brainard Lake, take CR 102, which heads west off the Peak to Peak Highway just above Ward. Here are some of our favorite trails originating near Brainard Lake, probably named for Colonel Wesley Brainard who prospected in the area for twenty years in the late 1800s, developing many claims.


Distance: 4 miles one way
Elevation: 10,480 to 13,223 feet
Highlights: Dramatic views of peaks and plains, alpine wildflowers
Difficulty: Strenuous
Topo map: Ward

This prominent mountain, which can be seen from many points in Boulder County, looks like a dish of ice cream with one spoonful taken from the side. Because it is one of the many Indian Peaks, the views from the summit are especially dramatic. Imagine looking down on Mount Toll! Two-thirds of the trail lies above timberline so the views and the alpine wildflowers en route are also magnificent.

Starting at the Beaver Creek Trailhead on the north side of the Mitchell Lake parking area (see map), climb gently through coniferous forest and krummholz to emerge above timberline in 1.5 miles at a junction. The Beaver Creek Trail continues another 3.7 miles to Coney Flats. Take the left fork, which climbs steeply for another 2 miles to the summit of Mount Audubon. Cairns mark the trail above timberline and are very helpful when snowfields cover parts of the trail early in the season. The final scramble to the top involves some talus, but the route is well marked by cairns. The summit is flat and fairly large with several waist-high stone windbreaks. This is one of the easier 13,000-foot peaks to climb, and the rewards are well worth the effort. Plan to get to the top before noon to avoid afternoon thunderstorms.

Botanist C. C. Parry and zoologist J. W. Velie climbed the mountain in 1864 and named it for the famous naturalist and painter, who never visited Colorado. In 1914, Ellsworth Bethel drew a sketch map of the Indian Peaks for the U.S. Board of Geographic Names. He suggested naming the peaks for Western American Indian tribes. Eleven of his proposed names were accepted, including Apache, Arikaree, Navajo, Ogalalla, Pawnee, Paiute, and Shoshone.

At the junction of the Mount Audubon and Beaver Creek Trails, you can take the right fork for another 3.7 miles to Coney Flats. From Coney Flats you can climb another 1.7 miles to the Buchanan Pass Trail. From the Mitchell Lake parking area, another trail leads to Mitchell and Blue Lakes.

Take CR 102 west from the Peak-to-Peak Highway (SR 72). At the end of CR 102, circle Brainard Lake to the junction for the Long and the Mitchell Lake parking areas. Turn right and continue past the Long Lake turnoff to the Mitchell Lake parking area.

Article copyright Pruett Publishing

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 3 Nov 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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