Lake Isabelle and Isabelle Glacier Trail
We’d heard that Lake Isabelle is one of the most beautiful alpine lakes in Colorado, and we were interested in trying to make it to Isabelle Glacier as well. Although we didn’t make it all the way to Isabelle Glacier due to feeling unwell, we hiked over 10 miles and got to see a lot of beautiful nature along the way.
The hike as it is described on AllTrails starts at the Long Lake Trailhead. However, when we arrived at 6:30 am on Sunday, that trailhead’s parking was already full, and we had to park at the Niwot picnic area parking and hike an extra 0.6 miles in each direction.
The elevation of this hike is quite high, starting at about 10,200 ft and climbing to over 11,400 ft. If you do hike to Isabelle Glacier, it is as 11,985 ft.
Due to the elevation and not feeling well, this hike went slower than our usual hikes, but luckily the weather held out and there were no Colorado summer afternoon thunderstorms.
We started out on Niwot Cutoff Trail for 0.6 miles, turned onto Pawnee Pass Trail for about 1.7 miles, and then along Isabelle Glacier Trail for about 3 miles before turning around. On the way back we followed the Jean Lunning Trail around the south side Long Lake instead of going back along Pawnee Pass Trail to add some variety to the hike.
Although we turned to the Pawnee Pass Trail first, I learned from a second trip to the lake that the views are much better if you take the Jean Lunning Trail on your way out.
When we were on our way to the Niwot parking area, we passed by three bull moose munching on plants next to Brainard Lake. It is relatively common to pass by moose in this part of the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests / Indian Peaks Wilderness. Indeed, when we went backpacking on Buchanan Pass Trail in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, we also saw several moose.
Niwot Cutoff Trail
Taking the Niwot Cutoff Trail from the Niwot Cutoff Trailhead, you pass through some pine forest and a few meadows with some great views of the neighboring mountains –
Pawnee Pass Trail
Pawnee Pass Trail passes through a wonderful pine forest. After the junction linking up with the Jean Lunning Trail, the scenery opens up to meadows with rock cliffs, switchbacks, and a lovely waterfall.
There is a sturdy log bridge you can use to cross this stream, but there is another stream that is currently running strong a little bit beyond that does not have a bridge. It’s helpful to have poles to cross the second stream.
When we arrived at Lake Isabelle, I was in awe. Even with the clouds obscuring some of the peaks, it was absolutely stunning. That morning was particularly windy, creating white caps and choppy waters.
When we passed by the lake in the afternoon some of the cloud cover had lifted, allowing us to see Lake Isabelle in all its glory.
If you follow the trail a bit beyond the junction of Pawnee Pass Trail and Isabelle Glacier Trail, there are a total of 3 spots next to the lake where you can hang out and enjoy the view.
Isabelle Glacier Trail
By Lake Isabelle
Continuing along the Isabelle Glacier Trail, the trail narrows and hugs the shore closely in some spots.
At one point, the trail climbs up and you get a higher view of the lake. The sparse pine trees and jutting rock formations reminded me of some pictures I’ve seen of the pacific northwest.
Not much further on, you get a full view of Lake Isabelle from the other direction –
Further Along the Trail
Climbing higher, you pass by this gorgeous waterfall –
And views of the tundra beyond the treeline –
Mountain Bluebells, Tall Fringed Bluebells, or Mertensia ciliata, is a member of the Borage Family (Boraginaceae). A native wildflower, it blooms in late spring and summer in subalpine and montane wetlands along streams and creeks in several western states. There are several types of bluebells that grow in Colorado, but I identified these because they are the tallest – growing up to 50 inches tall.
The trail technically goes through this marsh with the Mountain Bluebells, but areas of the trail were impassable at the time due to deep water. Instead, most people chose to climb over a field of rocks to connect to the trail beyond.
The Isabelle Glacier Trail requires scrambling over rocks, whether you go through the Mountain Bluebell marsh or not. This is what the mountain looks like to your side, and you see how sharp some of the rocks are. We saw two experienced hikers who fell on the rocks and had bleeding shins. You should have a first aid kit with you anyway, but I really recommend it on this trail.
The rock field continues to a steep-ish snowfield, and then more rocks you have to hike over. At this point on the trail and beyond on the way up to Isabelle Glacier, there are still several snowfields you have to cross.
Beyond the first tough climb you find an unnamed alpine lake. There is still a considerable amount of snow there, including chunks of floating snow.
The trail up to Isabelle Glacier continues up the mountain with a series of switchbacks. At times the trail is quite narrow and precarious. As you get higher, you are rewarded with a view of the alpine lake from above –
It was at this point that illness struck and we turned around. It really would have been better if we had gotten to the Long Lake trailhead at 6 am to cut down the mileage. Perhaps we could have made it all the way to the glacier.
We are planning to attempt the hike to Isabelle Glacier again in the next couple months. We’re hoping the snowfields will melt a bit more by then, clearing the path and making it easier.
Jean Lunning Trail
On the way back we took the Jean Lunning Trail around Long Lake.
Along the trail you can see portions of Long Lake –
And there are some beautiful meadows with wildflowers –
Wildflowers on the Trail
Alpine Laurel, or Kalmia microphylla, is a member of the Heath Family (Ericaceae). A native plant, it grows throughout several western U.S. states and Canada in spring and summer on stream banks, lake margins, and wet meadows.
Alpine Buttercup, or Ranunculus adoneus, is a member of the Buttercup Family (Ranunculaceae). A native wildflower, it grows in a few western states in spring and summer. You can find them in high-elevation meadows and at the edge of snowfields.
Western Indian Paintbrush
Western Indian Paintbrush, or Castilleja occidentalis, is a member of the Broomrape Family (Orobanchaceae). A native wildflower, it blooms in spring and summer in a few western states. You can find them in moist meadows, tundra, and moraine areas. There are actually 5 different yellow-colored types of Indian Paintbrush growing in Colorado. I Identified this one by the shape of the flower, it’s height, and fluffiness and color near the stem.
American Bistort, or Bistorta bistortoides, is a member of the Buckwheat Family (Polygonaceae). A native wildflower, it grows in late spring and summer in sunny damp meadows, fens at high elevations, and tundra throughout the western U.S.
Whipple’s Penstemon, or Penstemon whippleanus, is a member of the Plantain Family (Plantaginaceae). A native wildflower, it grows throughout the western mountain and desert states. These wildflowers are more commonly a dark purple color, and you can find the purple variety around Lake Isabelle, but this area featured the white variety more.
Recommended as a Strenuous Hike
Lake Isabelle is a stunning alpine lake, and any hike that includes it is bound to be amazing. Adding different views of the lake by hiking further on Isabelle Glacier Trail further enhances the experience. The wildflowers are amazing now, and should reach peak bloom in the next couple weeks.