Snowshoeing Central

A Winter Trail Guide to Colorado's Popular Brainard Lake Area
Brainard Lake
Brainard Lake
Brainard Cabin
Since 1928, the Colorado Mountain Club's Boulder Group has maintained the Brainard Cabin, located at 10,425 feet near the Mitchell and Long Lake summer parking lots. Though it is quite near the trail, the cabin nestles in a discreet hollow, so look for the signs. Volunteer hosts welcome all winter backcountry users on most weekend days with a warm fire and hot chocolate. (Because they are volunteers, however, don't count on it as a certainty.) If you might be heading to the west end of Brainard Lake, why not tuck a couple of dollar bills into your pocket to drop into the donation cup to help defray the cost of cabin upkeep? It is a wonderful spot to rest, have a snack, even warm your lunch on the stove and trade tips and tales with other snowshoers and skiers. CMC members may also use the cabin for overnights. The cabin accommodates up to 12 people per night. It is stocked with basic necessities, but guests must provide their own sleeping bags, food, and flashlights. For overnight reservations (at least one CMC member per party), call (303) 441-2436.

If there's a more popular place for snowshoeing and Nordic skiing than the Brainard Lake Recreation Area, I certainly haven't found it. Located less than an hour's drive from Boulder and not much farther from Denver, this outdoor playground is virtually in the backyard of the largest metropolitan area within a 600-mile radius. On busy winter weekends, it sometimes seems as if all two million people in greater Denver converge on Brainard Lake.

In the warm months, it is possible to drive to, around, and beyond the lake, and many people do so for RV or car camping, fishing, hiking, or simply sightseeing. Although the lake and its immediate surroundings accommodate this variety of recreational activity, it is also the prime gateway to the backcountry trails that lace Indian Peaks Wilderness. In winter, Brainard Lake freezes into a thick sheet of flat, windswept ice enfolded by the Indian Peaks' panoramic embrace. This magnificent basin displays one of Colorado's most spectacular mountain vistas, with Kiowa, Niwot Ridge, Navajo, Apache, Pawnee, and Audubon splayed across the western horizon. The Indian Peaks are more than pretty, though: They form part of the Continental Divide, the spine of the North American continent, which here about reaches its easternmost point in Colorado.

Only the first 2.6 miles of Brainard Lake Road—as far as Red Rock Lake—are plowed, which effectively expands the wilderness seasonally. Most but not all the winter trails that result from this seasonal closure lead to Brainard Lake. Blue diamond blazes affixed to the trees mark many of the most popular routes, but only until these reach the wilderness boundary. Hardcore backcountry enthusiasts use Brainard Lake as a gateway to the high mountains for ski touring, winter camping, and backcountry telemarking and snowboarding. But this is not a wilderness area to be trifled with: It is avalanche territory, so good sense dictates that anyone venturing into the high country be well equipped, as well as knowledgeable about snow safety and avalanche hazards. Snowshoes, increasingly, are the device people use to reach the deep backcountry and the high peaks, although most recreational snowshoers and skiers don't go beyond the immediate Brainard Lake area, which I concentrate on here.

Depending on how one measures, there are 30 or so miles of well-marked, well-used winter trails on and around Brainard Lake. The trails starting at, or near, the road seasonal closure were laid out over the years by Colorado Mountain Club volunteers for ski touring. Many make excellent snowshoeing routes too, and snowshoers are now legion at Brainard Lake. To accommodate them as well as to give the skiers more room, two new snowshoe-specific trails were being developed at this writing. This heavy use by snowshoers and skiers requires accommodation, tolerance, and close attention to winter trail etiquette.

No snowmobiles or other vehicles are permitted beyond the Red Rock Lake closure. The barrier even makes the unplowed road into part of the trail system. Dog regulations have changed over the years. Pooches are currently prohibited on ski trails from the Red Rock Lake parking area to Brainard Lake, but are permitted on the Brainard Lake Road, Lefthand Reservoir Road and both North and South Sourdough Trails. Dogs are required to be leashed in the Indian Peaks Wilderness year-round.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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