Indian Peaks Wilderness
Long Lake, 10,520 Feet
Brainard Lake Road and the CMC Snowshoe Trail
March 28th, 2009
8.0 Miles Roundtrip
Long Lake is in the Indian Peaks Wilderness on the east side of the Continental Divide. Its picturesque location between Niwot Ridge and Little Pawnee Peak makes Long Lake a popular destination for hikers, snowshoers, and fishermen. The ¼- mile long trail from the parking lot to the east end of the lake is easy to find in any season. The trail around the shore of the lake, however, can be difficult to find in winter and early spring. The Long Lake Trailhead is 2.9 miles from the Brainard Lake winter closure gate. Snowshoers may choose to take the Brainard Lake Road all the way to the Long Lake parking lot, but the Colorado Mountain Club Snowshoe Trail is a scenic alternative that covers more than ⅔ of the distance.
GPS track of my route from the Brainard Lake winter closure to Long Lake.
Brainard Lake Road is usually teeming with snowshoes and skiers on the weekends. The best way to avoid the crowds is to get an early start. I was at the trailhead by 7:30, so crowds were not an issue. The area had received 18”-24” of snow just two days before, so there was no doubt that people would be up there to enjoy this early spring blessing. It was cold (about 12° F in the morning), and the wind speed stayed above 15 m.p.h. for most of the day. Peak gusts were about 38 m.p.h. There was no precipitation, but the wind was redistributing the most recent snow.
Brainard Lake Road just beyond the winter closure gate
There had obviously been plenty of snowshoe traffic on the road, so trailbreaking was not an issue for the time being. Snow cover on the road, which can be patchy at times, looked excellent. I decided to follow the road for 1.75 miles to the point where the CMC Snowshoe Trail crossed the road.
Mt. Audubon shrouded in spindrift
At about the 1.75-mile mark, I reached the intersection with the CMC Snowshoe Trail. I decided to take this trail to Brainard Lake, because the narrow trail through dense forest offered plenty of shelter from the wind.
Trail sign at the junction of the Waldrop Trail and the CMC Snowshoe Trail
There was plenty of snow on the well-packed trail. Conditions were so good that the one mile to Brainard Lake seemed to fly by.
Good snow cover on the CMC Trail
The wind drove ice particles into my face when I left the forest on the east shore of Brainard Lake. The weather forecast called for a subzero wind chill factor, so I came prepared with my best winter gear. I pulled on my balaclava and goggles and headed for the west shore of the lake.
Blowing snow on Brainard Lake with Little Pawnee Peak in the background
I followed the road around the north shore of the lake towards the Long Lake Trailhead. The snow seemed to get deeper as I approached the west end of the lake.
Picnicking was not an option at the Mitchell Creek Picnic Area
Road closure duly noted
The road to Long Lake had several snowdrifts that were probably 10-12 feet deep. There will probably be plenty of snow left when the road gets plowed in June.
Deep snowdrift on the road to Long Lake
There was plenty of snow at the Long Lake Trailhead. I’m certain that snowshoers had visited the lake on the previous day, but drifting snow had erased any evidence of their tracks. I knew that trailbreaking was about to get rough.
Winter-like conditions at the Long Lake Trailhead
The trail to Long Lake was wide, nearly straight, and was marked with blue diamonds on the trees. I didn’t sink very deeply in the dense snow, so trailbreaking was not as difficult as I had anticipated. After about ¼ of a mile, I reached the boundary of the Indian Peaks Wilderness.
I crossed the outlet stream on the east end of the lake. With the exception of a few wind-scoured spots, the creek was not even visible. Drifts were probably 8-10 feet deep near the footbridge across the creek.
Footbridge across the outlet stream at the east end of Long Lake
The wind screaming over the Continental Divide was kicking up a pretty good ground blizzard on the lake. Niwot Ridge was barely visible through the snow. None of the other peaks in the area (Shoshoni, Navaho, and Pawnee Peak) were visible in these conditions.
Niwot Ridge barely visible to the southwest of Long Lake
I still had a little gas left in my tank, so I decided to try to find the trail around the perimeter of the lake. The trail, where I could find it, was a seemingly endless series of deep drifts.
Deep drifts on the Jean Lunning Trail around Long Lake
I lost the trail and began to struggle in the deep drifts. The laborious trailbreaking, as well as the presence of a couple of avalanche chutes on the side of Niwot Ridge, made me change my goals. I decided to proceed until the odometer on my GPS read four miles, so I could at least get in an eight-mile roundtrip. I turned around about ¾ of the way to the west end of the lake.
Looking to the east from a point near the west end of Long Lake
Following my tracks back towards the trailhead
I encountered about three pairs of snowshoers and skiers on the way back to Brainard Lake. I got back on the CMC Trail and headed back towards Brainard Lake Road. The trail is not very steep, but it was a relief to be going downhill. When I reached Brainard Lake Road, I decided to cross the road and take the CMC trail all the way back to the winter closure gate. The trail is much less crowded than the road, and it covers much more interesting terrain.
Junction of the CMC Snowshoe Trail and Brainard Lake Road – two miles back to the trailhead
I thoroughly enjoyed the last two miles of the hike. I passed a few more pairs of hikers on the trail, but it was not excessively crowded. The trail snaked its way through rolling terrain, gradually working its way uphill until the last couple hundred yards.
The CMC Trail passes a small unnamed lake just before it goes by Red Rock Lake. Views of Red Rock Lake are obstructed from the trail, but it is worth going just a few feet off of the trail to get a better look at this small, shallow pond.
Small unnamed lake near Red Rock Lake. Niwot Mountain barely pokes up above the trees in the background.
Throngs of people milled around their cars back at the trailhead. Novice skiers struggled to get on the trail. The number of cars far exceeded the number of parking spaces. Parked cars blocked one lane, and rude pedestrians blocked the other lane. This is perhaps one of the most crowded trailheads on the Front Range, so it is imperative to get in and out before the freak show begins. In spite of the mob scene at the finish line, I enjoyed a spectacular day on snowshoes in some of the best snow conditions that I’ve ever experienced in the Indian Peaks Wilderness.