Indian Peaks Wilderness
Long Lake, 10,520 Feet
Brainard Lake Road from the Winter Closure (10,114 Feet)
Pawnee Pass Trail from the Long Lake Trailhead (10,500
December 23rd, 2007
About 6.3 Miles Roundtrip to Long Lake; about 9.6 Miles Total
Long Lake is in the Indian Peaks Wilderness near Ward, Colorado. Its name refers to its long, narrow shape. The surface area is 40.5 acres, and the deepest section is 22 feet. The lake is stocked with Rainbow Trout, Brook Trout, and Cutthroat Trout. The summer trailhead is accessible by 2WD vehicle; the trail to the lower end of the lake is only a quarter of a mile long. In the winter, access is from the Brainard Lake Winter Closure. The Long Lake Trailhead is 2.9 miles beyond the winter closure gate.
Map of the route from the Brainard Lake Winter Closure to Long Lake and beyond. The paved roads are shown in blue, and the Pawnee Pass Trail is shown in red.
I was unable to connect with a partner for this hike, so I had to go solo. The Brainard Lake Recreation Area is usually teaming with snowshoers and cross-country skiers, but people donít typically venture far from the gate. The farther reaches of the Indian Peaks Wilderness can be a fantastic place to find solitude in the winter.
This Decemberís harsh weather has kept me off of the summits, and Sundayís weather was typically ferocious. The forecast called for single-digit temperatures and gusts up to 46 m.p.h., so I decided to stay in the trees as much as possible. I questioned my sanity as I geared up in the nasty wind and blowing snow. Taking the first step is the hardest part.
Blowing snow at the Brainard Lake Winter Closure Gate
My goal of circling Long Lake and possibly pushing on to Lake Isabelle was fairly ambitious, so I needed to make good time. While there are some nice trails through the forest, the Brainard Lake Road is the shortest route to the Long Lake Trailhead. Early in the season, portions of the road can be blown clear of snow; later in the season, the road is covered with deep, hard-packed snow. I decided to stow my snowshoes and boot it as far as I could.
The first leg of the journey was the 1.75-mile trek to Brainard Lake. This was the easiest part of the trip. Less than a quarter of a mile down the road, I passed the intersection with the Waldrop Trail. This is one of the scenic trails to Brainard Lake and beyond.
Trail sign at the junction with the Waldrop Trail.
The first scenic detour was Red Rock Lake. Itís a small lake, and appears to be very shallow. Niwot Mountain was barely visible from the north shore; visibility was poor due to the blowing snow. It was windy on the road, but it was not unbearable.
Looking through blowing snow from the north shore of Red Rock Lake
Most of the snow had blown off of the road, and the remaining packed track was easily passable. I didnít need my snowshoes until I reached the Pawnee Campground near Brainard Lake.
Spotty snow on the Brainard Lake Road
The sun glowed eerily through the clouds of snow over Niwot Ridge.
Sunrise over Niwot Ridge
The Colorado Mountain Club Snowshoe Trail crosses the Brainard Lake Road about 0.75 miles from the winter closure. This is another nice route to Brainard Lake, and the narrow trail offers plenty of shelter from the wind. The mileage on the sign apparently refers to distances on the CMC Trail, not on the road.
Trail sign at the junction with the CMC Snowshoe Trail
At about the 1.6-mile mark, the road turns sharply to the south. A narrower road to the Pawnee Campground meets the road at this point. Up to this junction, the road heads primarily in an east-west direction; this allows the prevailing westerly winds to scour the snow from the road. Beyond the campground, where the road heads in a north-south direction, the snowdrifts were deep. I postholed past my knees, so I had to put my snowshoes on for a short section of the road.
Junction with the road to the Pawnee Campgound
The drifting snow looked immaculate between the campground and Brainard Lake. It was getting deeper by the minute.
Trackless snow on the Brainard Lake Road
The wind hit me like a ton of bricks when I reached the broad, open area around Brainard Lake. The weather station up on Niwot Ridge measured gusts up to 52.2 m.p.h. and temperatures as low as Ė4.9į. The wind chill factor must have been about -25į. The sustained winds were in the 20-25 m.p.h. range.
Öand in higher winds
Most of the snow appeared to have been in the air, and very little was under my feet. I stowed my snowshoes and booted it around to the west end of the lake. There was plenty of snow on the road where it passed through trees on the west end of the lake, so I had to put my snowshoes back on. While I was shoeing up, a pair of skiers zipped past me. They were the only people that I saw on the trail all day. The road to the Mitchell Lake and Long Lake trailheads branched off of the Brainard Lake Road on the west end of the lake. There is a gate across this road, possibly because it closes earlier in the season than the main road.
Gate across the road to the Mitchell Lake and Long Lake trailheads. The only tracks in the snow were from the skiers who had passed me a few minutes earlier.
I turned left on the road to the Long Lake Trailhead, and headed towards the parking lot. There are three small outbuildings around the parking lot; the trailhead is next to the middle building. This trailhead provides access to Long Lake, Lake Isabelle, Pawnee Pass, and Monarch Lake. Mt. Toll, Pawnee Peak, and Shoshoni Peak can be reached from this trailhead when weather conditions permit.
Long Lake Trailhead sign
The trail that encircles Long Lake is a fine trail in any season. The Pawnee Pass Trail stays on the north shore of the lake, while the Jean Lunning Trail completes the loop on the south shore. The snow on the trail was deep, and it took extra effort to churn through the powder. The fluffy snow and flocked evergreens made this trail as scenic as any that Iíve hiked.
The Pawnee Pass Trail near Long Lake
†I snowshoed on the Pawnee Pass Trail for about a quarter of a mile until I reached Long Lakeís northeast shore. The wind was ripping over the Continental Divide, and plenty of snow was airborne. During the strong gusts, I could not see the other side of the lake.
Arctic conditions on Long Lake
It was nice to be able to duck back into the trees to avoid natureís fury. A few minutes in that frigid wind would have sapped every bit of warmth from my body. The wind-whipped snow was an awesome sight!
The Jean Lunning Trail met the Pawnee Pass Trail at the northeast corner of the lake. I bore to the right to stay on the Pawnee Pass Trail. This trail junction is at the boundary of Indian Peaks Wilderness.†
I kept slogging on the Pawnee Pass Trail. It was roughly parallel to Long Lakeís northern shore, and it was fairly level. The trail was about 10 feet wide, so it was not terribly hard to follow. There were a few shreds of flagging tape in the tree branches, but not enough to help me navigate.
Drifting snow on the Pawnee Pass Trail
Stunning view of Long Lake and Niwot Ridge from the Pawnee Pass Trail
The cold was bone-chilling, but the forest offered sufficient shelter from the wind. I was startled several times by creaking trees, and a downed tree across the trail reminded me of the hiker who was killed by a falling tree in Rocky Mountain National Park a few weeks ago.
Downed tree blocking the trail
The Jean Lunning Trail joined the Pawnee Pass Trail again near Long Lakeís southwest shore. I bore to the right and headed up towards Lake Isabelle. Lake Isabelle is one of the most beautiful high-altitude lakes in Colorado. From the shores of Lake Isabelle, hikers can get some of the best views in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. Rugged Shoshoni Peak towers over the lake, which is fed by the Isabelle Glacier. Lake Isabelle was named for the wife of Boulder City Engineer Fred Fair. Fair died in 1935, and his ashes were spread over the Isabelle Glacier.
The second Jean Lunning Trail/Pawnee Pass Trail junction near Long Lakeís southwest shore
The trail became narrower, and was more difficult to follow. Navigation required nearly constant effort.
Small footbridge obscured by snow
At about the 4.4-mile mark, I entered a small clearing. I headed for a small gap in the trees, and descended into the South St. Vrain Creek drainage. This wrong turn prevented me from reaching Lake Isabelle; I should have borne to the right and switchbacked through the trees. I wandered through the drainage looking for the trail, and was unable to find it. The wetlands had few tall trees, and there was nothing to stop the incessant wind. The wind chill factor was perilously low. It was difficult to use my GPS, because the blizzard-like conditions covered my screen with snow as soon as I pulled it from the pouch. I could only glimpse at the screen for a few seconds at a time before I had to wipe off the snow. By the time I got back on the trail, I had probably wandered around for half a mile. My razor stubble was encrusted in ice, and I could only breathe through one nostril. My feet were dangerously close to freezing, so I gave up my effort to reach Lake Isabelle and headed back to the trailhead.
My face thawed out pretty quickly when I pulled my mask on, but my toes didnít thaw out until I got back to the road and took my snowshoes off. The wind died down a bit in the early afternoon, so conditions were not as miserable. A light snow continued to fall, adding some winter cheer. I saw ski tracks and boot prints on parts of the Brainard lake Road, but I didnít see any people until I got back to the winter closure gate.
ďA lake is the landscape's most beautiful and expressive feature. It is the earth's eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.Ē - Henry David Thoreau. Red Rock Lake on the return trip.
†Epilogue: Slight peripheral nerve damage in one big toe due to frostnip. Blood blister under the toenail on my other big toe from having a handwarmer jammed in the toe of my boot. I plotted my course on my mapping software and found that I had been within about one tenth of a mile of Lake Isabelle when I was wandering around in the South St. Vrain drainage. If I had stayed on the trail, I would have been about a quarter of a mile from the lake. When Iím ready for a rematch, Iíll store some more waypoints on my GPS and use the proximity alarm to find them, if necessary. It was a memorable day on the trail, and Iíll be back to enjoy the winter scenery from Lake Isabelleís shores.