Reservoir Road from the Brainard Lake Winter Closure Gate (10,114 Feet)
December 9th, 2007
3.6 Miles Roundtrip
Left Hand Park Reservoir is a Boulder County Open Space Park that is located within the Roosevelt National Forest near Ward, CO. It was named for the peaceful Southern Arapaho Indian Chief Left Hand, who was known to the Indians as Niwot. Niwot Mountain and Niwot Ridge are immediately south of the reservoir. In the warmer months, it is possible to drive a 4WD all the way to the reservoir on the rocky Left Hand Reservoir Road. By the first or second week of November, snowfall usually makes this road impassable to vehicles and the gate across the road is locked.
A view of Left Hand Park Reservoir and the surrounding area from Mt. Audubon (taken 09 September 2007)
Topographic map of the area around Left Hand Park Reservoir. The route that I took is shown in red.
Three solid days of heavy snowfall had left the Brainard Lake Recreation Area in an ideal state for snowshoeing. The forecast for Sunday looked pretty good, so I got an early start in order to beat the masses to the deep, unpacked powder. Boulder Canyon and the Peak-to-Peak Highway were perilously slick, so I rarely exceeded 35 m.p.h. There were only three or four cars in the parking area at the Brainard Lake Winter Closure area when I arrived. A trio of men with rental shoes and rambunctious dogs were just starting on the trail. I recognized a pair of ladies that I met on the trail twice last year. They wasted no time and hit the trail before I could finish gearing up.
The trailhead offered access to several trails. The Colorado Mountain Club Snowshoe Trail and the CMC Ski Trail started there, and the Little Raven Ski Trail crossed the road about 1.25 miles ahead. This was also the starting point for hikes to Brainard Lake, Long Lake, Blue Lake, and several other popular hiking/skiing destinations.
The trailhead sign
The Fir and Spruce trees were loaded with snow, and would occasionally dump copious amounts when they reached their load capacity. I followed in the tracks of the five people who started just a few minutes ahead of me. The powder was loose, and I sank past my ankles even with the 8” flotation tails on my MSR Denali Classics.
The lower part of the Left Hand Reservoir Road
Further up the road
The two ladies turned off of the trail towards Brainard Lake and I passed the three guys with the goofy dogs. I wasn’t quite as happy as the Golden Retriever, but it was pretty sweet to have this perfect untracked powder for my first snowshoe hike of the season. About halfway up to the reservoir, the Little Raven Extension Trail crossed the road. This trail connects with the Sourdough Trail, which is popular with the cross-country skiers.
Trail junction sign
When I looked behind me, all I could see was my own prints and some faint tracks from the previous day. Overnight snowfall and blowing snow had nearly erased these marks.
Looking back at my tracks
About ¼ of a mile from the reservoir, the Little Raven Ski Trail crossed the road. This is a ski-only trail; skiers can use this trail to go to Left Hand Reservoir Brainard Lake, and Long Lake. That would be a great loop hike for snowshoers!
Junction with the Little Raven Ski Trail
The last quarter mile of the trail was windy. It was not snowing, but the wind was picking up the snow and blowing it horizontally. Drifting snow had covered up any tracks, and it was covering my tracks rapidly. I zipped up my coat, pulled up my hood, and put my goggles on. I had handwarmers stuffed in the toes of my socks. With several layers of winter gear, I didn’t suffer much.
Blowing snow on the upper part of the road
The road got wider as I approached the reservoir, and the wind absolutely roared. When it gusted, it created near whiteout conditions. It was kind of fun struggling against the elements.
Visibility was poor when I reached the top of the road. I had a hard time keeping the snow off of my goggles. I could barely make out Niwot Mountain through the ground blizzard.
Niwot Mountain seen through the blowing snow
Visibility was even worse when the wind gusted.
Near whiteout conditions
I struggled through crotch-deep snowdrifts to get to the south end of the dam. Ordinarily, the scenery is spectacular from this vantage point. Most of the Indian Peaks from Mt. Audubon to Navaho Peak are usually visible from the dam. Today, I could barely see the western shore of the reservoir. This scenery was incredible in its own way.
Left Hand Park Reservoir in a ground blizzard
Some smart aleck put a Left Hand Brewery sticker on the gate at the south end of the dam. Okay, it was reasonably clever…
I was amazed at how fast my tracks were disappearing. Navigation was not a problem, though; this was probably the widest trail that I’ve ever taken. The wind abated as soon as I got back down in the trees. After about a quarter mile, I was able to get back in my own packed trench and move at a reasonable speed. It was sunny, I was sheltered from the wind, and I was moving fast enough to stay plenty warm. The near-perfect conditions in the forest sharply contrasted the arctic conditions that I encountered in the open space by the reservoir.
I passed numerous skiers and snowshoers on the lower part of the trail. The trails in the park usually fill up when the late risers start to arrive. This was a short hike, but it was perfect because I had family obligations later in the day. It was a memorable snowshoeing season-opener.