Indian Peaks Wilderness – Brainard Lake Showshoe Trail

Snowshoeing at Brainard Lake Snowshoe Trail

One of the most popular trails for snowshoeing withing driving distance of Boulder (1 hour) and Denver (2 hours) is the Brainard Lake Snowshoe Trail. This trail can be found in the Brainard Lake Recreation Area. It is a 4.8-mile snowshoe trek back and forth to Brainard Lake from the parking lot at Brainard Gateway Trailhead. The Brainard Lake Snowshoe Trail is only open for use in the wintertime under snowy conditions. There are no fees for entering the area during winter, but there are fees in the area for summer (late June to mid-October).

This was the first snowshoeing adventure for me and my husband. We had researched what to wear and what to bring, and surprisingly didn’t have to invest in much more than we already had for winter hiking. We already had winter hiking boots, winter mittens, heavy wool socks, mid-layers, waterproof windbreak jackets, rain pants, and Merino Wool 250 top and bottom base layers. All we needed to buy was snowshoes, gaiters, and snow baskets for our hiking poles.

We decided upon the MSR Revo Trail Hiking Snowshoes because their price was on the low end, but are marketed as durable and able to withstand varied conditions. More expensive snowshoes feature more bindings, better bindings, and heel lifts for climbing hills.

The Parking Lot

The parking lot is as it is marked on the Hiking Project website. Not having properly researched winter closures prior to visiting, we originally planned to go to a different trail in the area. There was only one parking lot open — this one. The lot is large and can probably fit 100 cars or more. When we arrived around 9 AM it was already busy. When we returned from our snowshoe adventure around 1 PM it was packed full. There are 4 outhouse-style bathrooms at this parking lot that have toilet paper.

The Hike

Starting Out Snowshoeing

The Brainard Lake Snowshoe Trail is a great place to try out snowshoeing. The trail isn’t too long or too difficult. As a result, there were a couple groups that were there to learn about snowshoeing. One group came from the local REI. You can find such events on the REI website events search.

It didn’t take long to learn to snowshoe. At least for a basic trail such as the Brainard Lake Snowshoe Trail, where the terrain is either flat or has small rolling hills, all you have to do is walk with a bit of a wider gait than normal hiking. This way, your snowshoes don’t hit each other.

Forest Trail

The Brainard Lake Snowshoe Trail passes through a considerable amount of forest. The pine forest and snowy scenery was stark and beautiful.

The dusting of fresh powdery snow of the pine trees adds to a winter wonderland experience. The snow stays in places like Brainard Lake Recreation Area, which is about 10,000 ft in altitude, because of the cold, shade, and it snows more often at the higher altitudes.

Beautiful Alpine Scenery

This is a frozen and snowed over lake along the trail – Red Rock Lake. The pristine snow stretching into the distance is something to behold.

Red Rock Lake

Along the edge of the lake are the tracks made by visitors.

Continuing along the Trail

The Brainard Lake Snowshoe Trail rolled along through the wintry forest.

At times, the snowy mist created by the wind highlighted the sun’s spiky rays.

We came to a fork in the trail that connects with a cross-country skiing only trail. The Brainard Lake area is great for cross-county skiing because it is relatively flat. We saw visitors using backcountry skis and Nordic skis.

One important thing I learned about winter trail etiquette is that snowshoers should yield the trail to cross-country skiers and, whenever possible, not walk on ski tracks. It’s much easier for cross country skiers to ski on already made trails vs. trails with snow made uneven by snowshoes.

Along the way we saw many rabbit tracks in the powdery snow –

Pawnee Campground

During the summer months starting late June to mid-October the Brainard Lake Recreation Area is open for various recreational use, including –

  • Picnicking
  • Cycling
  • Hiking
  • Camping
  • Fishing
  • Nature viewing

When we passed through the Pawnee Campground, it was covered in snow to the point that road signs were almost completely buried in places.

A Freezing Brainard Lake

Snowshoeing to Brainard Lake along the forest-protected snowshoeing trail was pleasant, but when we reached the lake, the weather turned. It was snowing with gusts of wind that must have been 20-30mph. With the base temperature that day being in the 20’s, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was 10 degrees Fahrenheit or less at the lake, with windchill factor.

When I took my hands out of my gloves to try to take pictures, I could only do it for about 10 seconds before stuffing my hands in my gloves again.

Due to the conditions, we could not get a good view of the mountains, and most pictures were blurry because of the wind and snow. However, we do have this selfie of us looking cold!

The Road Back

Instead of going back along the Brainard Lake Snowshoe Trail, we decided to go back along the snowed-over road back to the parking lot. This way is slightly shorter, and we wanted to see more of the area.

Squinting our eyes in the snowy wind, we pushed along for a while.

On the road back, a fellow snowshoer was kind enough to take a picture for us. You can see how wide the road is and how well-traversed the path is –

Snow Caves

The road passed by the other side of Red Rock Lake, where we found several snow caves dug out in the tall snowbanks –

Snow caves can be used for winter camping. Given how many there were, I have a feeling that these snow caves were the result of an REI snow cave building class.

Recommended as a Snowshoe Trek

Overall, the Brainard Lake Snowshoe Trail is an excellent place to visit for beginner snowshoers. The terrain is not difficult, the length of the trail enough for good exercise without getting exhausted, and the alpine scenery is beautiful. On a separate occasion we had the chance to go back to the area again for snowshoeing on a clear day and the views of the Indian Peaks mountains were spectacular (will include in upcoming post). The parking lot does get busy, so I recommend arriving by 9 AM. Happy snowshoeing!


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