Last Updated on January 10, 2024 by foxintheforest
If rugged mountain vistas and pristine alpine lakes is what you seek, then look no further than the Brainard Lake Recreation Area. A far cry from the over-crowded nearby Rocky Mountain National Park, you’ll find that the Brainard Lake Recreation hiking trails give you a touch more solitude without sacrificing on scenery.
This incredible recreational area is an absolute must-see in Colorado. Loved by locals, the Brainard Lake Recreation Area is a great way to get into the mountains year-round.
Colorado has been my home for over 13 years. I make regular trips to the Brainard Lake Recreation Area and know how to beat the crowds at the top Colorado destinations. So if you’re looking to explore Colorado like a local, not a tourist, then you’re in the right place.
About this Guide to the Brainard Lake Recreation Area
Inside this expert’s guide to the Brainard Lake Recreation Area hiking trails and activities you’ll find:
- Practical info about planning a visit to Brainard Lake including location, directions, cost and the best time to visit
- Up-to-date info about the advanced timed entry requirements for the Brainard Lake Recreation Area
- Permit information for Brainard Lake
- Top activities at the Brainard Lake Recreation Area
- All the juicy info you need to enjoy the Brainard Lake hiking trails
- Nearby attractions
- Additional local Colorado resources
Where is the Brainard Lake Recreation Area?
Brainard Lake is a special district within the Indian Peaks Wilderness, a stunning area that’s situated just south of Rocky Mountain National Park (as the crow flies).
At about 1 hour and 20 minutes from Denver (or 45 minutes from Boulder) the Brainard Lake Recreation Area is home to some of the best hikes near Denver. It’s a popular weekend destination for locals who live along the Front Range.
Ward – a small town – is about 5 miles from the entrance, while Nederland – a popular mountain town in Colorado – is just 15 miles away.
How to Get There
From Denver take I-25 North to Highway 36 and turn left on Lee Hill Dr in Boulder. From here follow Lee Hill Dr and Lefthand Canyon Dr until you bump into Brainard Lake Road.
Local Tip: The main entry into Brainard Lake Recreation Area closes seasonally in winter (snow depending). Usually, the gate closes around November 15th and won’t open again until June. You can park just outside of the gate, but you’ll have to walk the Brainard Lake Rd (around 5 miles round-trip) to access most trailheads and Brainard Lake.
When is the Best Time to Visit Brainard Lake Recreation Area?
The best time to visit the Brainard Lake Recreation Area is early in the morning (the earliest available time) on a weekday from June through October.
Despite the timed entry requirements to access Brainard Lake, this area does get extremely crowded on weekends. Parking can be almost impossible to find and the Brainard Lake Recreation Area hiking trails get super crowded. It may not be the conga line of people you’ll see at nearby Rocky Mountain National Park, but it’s enough to feel claustrophobic.
September and July are particularly beautiful times. Mid to late September marks the changing of the aspen leaves and the nearby Peak to Peak Scenic Byway is one of the most stunning fall drives in Colorado. July is also Colorado wildflower season and the alpine blooms make Brainard Lake home to some of the best wildflower hikes in Colorado.
Winter is another great time since a few of the trails are safe from avalanche danger and the park sees a lot fewer visitors because of the 5-mile round-trip road walk.
Mornings are best if you want to spot a moose – which are quite common in the Indian Peaks Wilderness.
Do I Need a Permit for Brainard Lake Recreation Area?
You do not need a permit to visit the Brainard Lake Recreation Area, but you do need a timed entry pass during the busier months. From June 10 through October 16 you’ll need a timed-entry permit for a specific parking area to visit Brainard Lake.
And…drum roll…this is one the most confusing permit systems in all of Colorado (second to the Maroon Bells Wilderness Area).
You’re not allowed to park where you do not have a permit. There is no shuttle so you will need to plan accordingly.
Local Tip: Long Lake, Mitche Lake, and Niwot upper parking area will not open until July 1.
Day-use parking for all areas is $16 and non-refundable. Tickets open up on May 26th at 8 am MST on a 15-day rolling basis. Meaning, whatever date it is today, you can get tickets 15 days in advance. Weekend slots fill up almost immediately so be sure to plan your permit reservation accordingly.
The parking areas include:
- Long Lake
- Niwot Picnic Area and Trailhead
- Brainard Lake Picnic Site
- Red Rock Lake PIcnic Site
- Mitchel Lake Trailhead
You can only visit one of these parking areas per timed entry ticket. And you are only allowed one timed entry ticket per day, per person.
The fee breaks down to a $14 reservation fee and a $2 processing fee. You will still need a timed entry pass to enter the Brainard Lake Recreation Area.
Local Tip: Overnite permit holders ALSO need a proper parking permit. You must apply for this permit for the appropriate number of nights you’ll be out when you apply for your Indian Peaks Backcountry Permit.
How Many Parking Permits Can I Reserve?
You can only hold 2 timed entry permits per day – meaning you can have one for you and one for a friend or additional vehicle. Only one-timed ticket per vehicle.
Can I Use My America the Beautiful Parks Pass?
Yes, you can get in with your America the Beautiful Annual Pass. However, you’ll still need a timed entry pass.
Simply select “add a pass” at checkout and input your pass info to get $14 off of your reservation price.
What if I’m Camping at the Pawnee Campground?
People camped at the Pawnee Campground are allowed to access the park freely and do NOT need a timed entry permit. However, their vehicles must stay at the campground and they are not allowed to park anywhere else.
If you purchase a timed entry ticket, you can park at the specific timed entry parking permit you applied for.
How Much Does Brainard Lake Cost?
The Brainard Lake Recreation Area is completely run on an advanced, online-only timed entry system. The cost of entry is $14 plus a $2 processing fee. If you’ve got an America the Beautiful Park’s Pass, the fee is just the $2 processing fee.
Backcountry and Camping Permits
If you want to spend the night in the Brainard Lake Recreation Area, you’ll need an advanced permit. Keep in mind that permits sell out almost immediately over the weekends, so put a calendar reminder to get your permit filled out in time.
Backpacking in the Brainard Lake Recreation Area
To backpack in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, you’ll need an advanced permit from June 1 through September 15th. This includes all backpacking at Brainard Lake. Permits for backpacking open Feb 1st for the entire season. There are a few overnight permits that open 3 days prior to the start of your trip.
In addition, if you do not park in the free parking area (located outside of the Brainard Lake Recreation Area gate, you’ll need to reserve a parking permit too ($16). You can reserve these when you submit for your permit.
As a result, you’ll be able to park in the designated overnight parking spots, but you must return to your car by 11 am on the final day of your permit.
Pawnee Campground at Brainard Lake
The Pawnee Campground at Brainard Lake contains 47 sites that are suitable for tents and RVs. Advanced reservations are required and if you plan on parking elsewhere in the Brainard Lake Recreation Area, you’ll need a separate timed-entry permit.
Each site costs $25 per night plus the additional cost of the timed entry. Facilities include:
- Vault toilets
- Bear Vault for food storage
- Picnic table
Availability starts on February 1 at 8 am MST and is available on a 6-month rolling basis. The Pawnee Campground is open from July 1 through September 10th and sites fill up almost immediately.
Are Dogs Allowed at Brainard Lake Recreation Area?
Yes. You can bring your four-legged friend as long as they are on a hand leash at all times. Don’t forget to pick up after your pet and carry pet waste with you on all trails, roadways, and camping areas.
Brainard Lake Recreation Area Activities
Phew, now that we’ve got the complicated logistics out of the way, it’s time for the fun stuff! There are plenty of things to do at the Brainard Lake Recreation area throughout the year. A few top activities will have you reveling in this gorgeous glacier valley.
Brainard Lake (one of the many amazing Colorado lakes in the area) allows for recreational fishing. You’ll need a Colorado fishing license and be able to follow all laws related to catch and release in the area. Non-motorized watercraft are allowed on Brainard Lake.
Arguably the top activity in the area is to enjoy one of the many Brainard Lake Recreation Area hikes. In fact, this is the best way to get up close and personal with the gorgeous alpine scenes.
Some of the best lake hikes in Colorado can be found here, so be sure. to put a few on your list. I’ve got loads of hiking info down below, so if that’s your jam, keep on reading.
For a truly immersive experience, plan a backpacking trip in the Brainard Lake Recreation Area. There are countless routes to choose from. Backcountry camping is only allowed in designated sites and zones.
The best way to find a route that works for you is to pick up a map of the area and choose your own adventure. More advanced backpackers can trapeze from one end of the park to the other, crossing stunning alpine passes and peaks. But you’ll want to arrange rides unless you plan on doing an out and back.
There is one campground at the Brainard Lake Recreation Area – the Pawnee Campground. Spend the night under the stars and amongst lush waterways. You’ll need advanced reservations, but the effort of snagging a permit is well worth it.
Despite being located in a wilderness area, there are a few select Brainard Lake Recreation Area trails that allow mountain bikes. Most of the trails are rated from easy to moderate. Saddle up and hit the single track along the following trails:
- Waldrop Trail
- LIttle Raven Trail
- Red Rock Trail
- South Saint Vrain
- Sourdough Trails
Keep in mind, that you’ll be sharing the space with hikers, so be kind while riding.
Local Tip: If you’re finding it difficult to get a parking permit for a certain area, you’re allowed to bike along all roads and bike racks are available at popular trailheads.
Can You Kayak Brainard Lake?
Absolutely! There are no watercraft restrictions at Brainard Lake and you can even rent paddleboards and kayaks during the busy summer months.
Can You Swim in Brainard Lake?
Unfortunately, there is no swimming area at Brainard Lake. Honestly, you won’t want to swim either. The water is freezing cold and the bottom is sticky with mud and algae. Not to mention, since fishing is allowed, there are plenty of fishing lines and hooks lurking in the water.
Brainard Lake Recreation Area Hiking Trails You Can’t Miss
If you’re looking to enjoy some of the top Colorado hikes, then look no further than the Brainard Lake Recreation Area hiking trails. These top hikes are some of the best in the area, so book your parking permit and get into the wilderness.
Long Lake Trail
For a short and sweet hike featuring stunning mountain views, check out Long Lake. What makes this hike so great is that it’s really easy to reach the lake, then you travel the shoreline. One of the best hiking trails in Colorado for kids, Long Lake is a must-do!
Mileage: 1.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 88 feet
Estimated Time: 45 minutes to 1 hour
Parking area: Long Lake
Local Tip: In winter, this is an awesome easy jaunt that adds 5 miles of snowy road walking to your journey.
Waldorp Trail to Brainard Lake
More of a winter romp, you can take the clearly marked snowshoeing trail along this path to reach Brainard Lake and back. You’ll pass by Red Rock Lake if you veer off the spur just a bit. Featuring a tranquil forest and plenty of lake action, this trail delivers on mountain magic.
Keep in mind, dogs cannot use the snowshoe trail in winter, and you’ll be hiking along the road (closed to vehicles in winter) instead.
Mileage: 6.3 miles
Elevation Gain: 554 feet
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Estimated Time: 3 to 4 hours (account for more time in winter)
Parking Area: Free parking outside the gate (free)
Mitchell Lake Trail
If you don’t want to commit to Blue Lake, simply stop along the Mitchell Lake Trail for an easy mountain hike. Perfect for kids and newbie hikers alike, this verdant route takes you to the tranquil Mitchell Lake. Known for moose sightings, this lake and the surrounding ponds are a real treat.
Mileage: 1.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 223 feet
Estimated Time: 1 hour
Parking Area: Mitchell Lake
Jean Lunning Trail
Circumnavigating Long Lake, the Jean Lunning Trail offers additional lakeside action to those who are on the Long Lake Trail. As far as Brainard Lake Recreation Area hiking trails are concerned, almost everyone opts to scope out Long Lake.
Perfect for kids or as a winter adventure, be sure to put the Jean Lunning Trail on your list.
Mileage: 2.9 miles
Elevation Gain: 180 feet
Estimated Time: 1.5 hours
Parking Area: Long Lake
Blue Lake via Mitchell Lake Trail
Arguably the best Brainard Lake Recreation Area hiking trail, this top-notch route features plenty of stunning scenery, three lakes (with a 4th if you’re feeling feisty), waterfalls, and verdant alpine meadows.
Take the Mitchell Lake Trail to the signed junction for Blue Lake and keep going. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can scramble your way past Blue Lake to Little Blue Lake above, but this route isn’t very dog-friendly (big boulders).
Mileage: 6.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 995 feet
Estimated Time: 3 hours
Parking area: Mitchell Lake
Local Tip: Moose love this trail! I’ve done it multiple times and almost always see a moose. Just be sure to give them plenty of room, because they do charge.
The Lake Isabell hike brings you to a stunning alpine cirque that has all the makings of an epic trail along the way. Forested paths, a bit of a butt-busting uphill, waterfalls, and wildflowers await you along the way.
In the winter, the moderate trail becomes an 11-mile challenging objective that is one of the top winter hikes in Colorado.
Mileage: 5.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 551 feet
Estimated Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes
Parking Area: Long Lake
Local Tip: Lake Isabelle is technically privately owned as a reservoir. The lake gets drained every year in August, so check for the latest conditions.
Niwot Ridge Trail
Alright, this route is super-local and definitely requires a little bit of navigation since it’s not a named Brainard Lake hike. The reward of catching a bird’s eye view of the area is well worth the effort.
Start at the Long Lake trail until you reach a three-way split – you want the furthest left spur onto an unmarked trail. Make your way up the narrow trail until you reach a 4×4 road (Mount Audobon Trail). Continue upwards along Niwot Ridge until you reach the top for views on all sides.
Local Tip: This trail will go above the trees, so only attempt it early in the morning (6:30 timeslot or earlier) in order to avoid dangerous afternoon thunderstorms.
Mileage: 11.4 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,148 feet
Difficulty: Moderate to difficult
Estimated Time: 5 hours
Parking Area: Long Lake
Isabelle Glacier Trail
Although it’s technically a permanent snowfield (and not a glacier), this hike sneaks past the Isabelle Lake hike to reach the snow-filled gully beyond the lake.
You’ll take the same route as you would to Lake Isabelle, but afterwards plan on plodding your way through a boulder field to reach the snow beyond.
Mileage: 8.4 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,660 feet
Difficulty: Moderate to difficult depending on your alpine hiking experience
Estimated Time: 4.5 hours
Parking Area: Long Lake
Mount Audobon Trail
At 13,229 feet above sea level, Mount Audobon is one of the most sought-after Colorado 13ers. Largely thanks to its easy access and straightforward trail, this mountain gets a lot of attention. Just be aware that nothing about this hike is easy.
The trail peters out towards the top and you’ll be doing plenty of class 2 boulder hoping to reach the 360-degree views on the summit.
Local Tip: Afternoon thunderstorms in the summer make this trail exceptionally dangerous, do not attempt in bad weather and start before 7 am to avoid getting caught in a lightning storm.
Mileage: 7.4 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,670 feet
Difficulty: Very difficult
Estimated Time: 5 hours 15 minutes
Parking Area: Mitchell Lake
Pawnee Pass Trail
For a burly day out, you can catch a glimpse over the Divide along the Pawness Pass Trail. Head to Lake Isabelle, but right as you reach the lake, take the north junction at the marked split towards Pawnee Pass.
If you still haven’t had enough butt-busting action, continue upwards at the saddle to the north and summit Pawnee Peak (class 2, no technical gear required). From here you can catch a glimpse of the famous Lone Eagle Peak to the southeast, Colorado’s prettiest mountain.
Local Tip: Avid backpackers will definitely want to check out backcountry camping options in this area.
Mileage: 10.7 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,480 feet
Estimated Time: 5 hours 20 minutes
Parking Area: Long Lake
Winter Activities at Brainard Lake
The Brainard Lake Recreation Area closes to vehicle traffic in the winter. Roads are not maintained and a gate stops you from entering. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of wintery activities to be head.
Simply park at the winter lot (free), hike the 5 miles (round trip) on the unmaintained road, and enjoy wintery activities without the crowds and restrictions of summer.
Local Tip: In the winter, dogs are only allowed on the Brainard Lake and Lefthand Park Reservoir Roads or the Sourdough Trail.
A popular choice for winter, snowshoeing in the Brainard Lake Recreation Area is a popular choice. As one of the top things to do in Colorado in winter besides skiing. A few of the best snowshoeing trails include:
- Lake Isabelle
- Long Lake Trail
- Jean Lunning Trail
- Mitchell Lake Trail
Local Tip: Avalanche conditions are serious in Colorado. Never snowshoe on trails that cross through or under avalanche terrain.
For the brave, no-frills ice fisher, you can still fish on Brainard Lake during the winter. Just keep in mind you’ll have to lug all of your gear on foot. It’s a 5-mile round-trip journey from the winter parking lot.
Many people opt to go cross-country skiing along the unmaintained winter roads around Brainard Lake. So pack up your poles and skis to hit the trail. Just be sure to research what is the best month to ski in Colorado first.
There are. a few options for backcountry skiers at Brainard Lake. The CMC maintains its own ski trail in the winter that many backcountry skiers and riders use. And if you want to do even more skiing then you can always check out some of the best ski towns in Colorado too.
With a wide variety of nearby things to explore, you can spend an entire summer just in and around Brainard Lake. A few noteworthy areas to check out include:
- Hikes along the 4th of July Trailhead
- Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park
- Eat in Nederland
- Go for a hike near Boulder
Additional Local Colorado Travel Resources
Looking to explore Colorado like a local, not a tourist? I’ve got you covered with these local resources: