• Activities:

    Photography, Skiing, Snowshoeing, Hiking, Fitness

  • Skill Level:

    Intermediate

  • Season:

    Spring, Winter

  • Trail Type:

    Out-and-Back

  • RT Distance:

    10 Miles

Bathrooms
Easy Parking
Forest
Lake
Picnic Area
River
Scenic
Wildlife

Enjoy stunning winter scenery of Indian Peaks Wilderness on this dedicated snowshoe trail. Along the route, you'll pass four lakes and a creek and have potential for wildlife sightings.

Speechless. That’s how this hike will leave you. And not just because of its length. At over 10 miles, this snowshoe exploration is not for the faint of heart. But the language-defying beauty of this hike will make every sore muscle worth it.

The Brainard Lake Recreational Area near Ward, Colorado, is a very popular destination for outdoorsmen and women of all types. Winter is no exception—and it’s easy to see why. Because the road is closed at the pay station during winter, you must park your car in the lot off to the side of the road. (Usually $10/3-day pass, parking is FREE in winter!) This makes any hike that you may already be familiar with several miles longer. So even though Brainard Lake gets packed on a typical day, not many people will make it as far as Lake Isabelle, meaning you will have the trail virtually to yourself.

I strongly recommend getting an early start. I was there at sunrise and was the only car in the parking lot; by the time I returned to my car 5 hours later, it was full. Likewise, I had the trails completely to myself on the way up; not so much on the way back. Finally…it’s sunrise. Which is stunningly gorgeous in winter, and an active time for wildlife.

The hike starts with a dedicated and well-marked snowshoe trail, which begins just beyond the gate. If you’re a skier, there is also a dedicated ski trail. You have the option of taking Brainard Lake Road, which is shorter and more open, while the snowshoe trail is a little longer and more intimate. I took the trail up and the road down. I was worried about missing photographic opportunities on the trail, but there were some really nice open areas with great views, including a small, unnamed lake which is not accessible from the road.

The dedicated snowshoe trail ends at Brainard Lake (about 2.5 miles). From there, take the road around the north side. It will continue to the Long Lake Trailhead. It’s about one mile between the two lakes. In my opinion, Long Lake is by far the most scenic part of the trek. It opens up into an incredible vista of white, white snow, mountains, a creek, trees…it’s magical. Even if you decided to turn around here, it would be a trek very much worth your while.

The trail continues alongside the lake, but thanks to its frozen surface, you can hike right across the lake, saving yourself a little time and energy. (Use common sense and do NOT venture onto ice that is thin or unstable!) At the end of the lake, you may find yourself breaking trail, as I did. Not many people go that far; use someone else’s tracks if you can. If not, keeping more or less to the creek bed (the low spot of the valley) will get you there as well. With the lake frozen over, you may not actually see it, but the hike opens up with an excellent view of Apache and Navajo Peaks. From there you can see the shelf where Isabelle Glacier lies—another hike for another day!

According to my GPS, it was 5.75 miles to the lake (but only 700 feet elevation gain), taking the snowshoe trail and doing a little off-trail exploration. Take a good rest, because it’s a long way back! If you take the road back, it’s 5 miles from the lake to the gate.

NOTE: The trails are likely to be well packed down, and you'll be tempted to leave your snowshoes in the car. This would be fine for the first half, but you will definitely need the snowshoes if you plan to go all the way to Lake Isabelle.

Pack List

  • Snowshoe/ski gear
  • Snow pants
  • Parka or several warm, breathable layers
  • Warm gloves
  • Balaclava or hat & scarf
  • Hand and toe warmers
  • Sun protection (sunglasses, lip balm, sunscreen)
  • At least 2 liters of water
  • Sandwich and plenty of trail snacks
  • Camera
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Amy Kesic Storyteller

A mom who decided to get fit a few years ago, I took up running and hiking to keep myself moving. Since moving to the Front Range foothills a year ago, I've spent my free time discovering all the trails I possibly can. I'm in love with Colorado and the Rocky Mountains; I also like to take pictures, and I share my adventures here on The Outbound and on Instagram at @run2themountains.

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