Around Estes: Brainard Lake Rec Area

We continue to enjoy our stay in the Rocky Mountains, even more than we could have imagined! We certainly keep busy, between working our camp host or camp store shifts, socializing with co-workers at the campground, checking out Estes Park, hiking, biking, and getting out there to see more of Colorado in our free time.

We recently went into Denver for a concert in late June and spent the night in a suburb before heading back to Estes Park the long, scenic way. On our return trip, we realized that the Brainard Lake Recreation Area access road was open, after a months-long closure for road resurfacing. Brainard Lake is located south of Estes Park by about 30 miles, off the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway, which is a must-see for anyone visiting this area.

This post is a compilation of two visits to Brainard, the first one just to check things out, and the second two days later to do a serious hike to the famed Lake Isabelle. Fellow camp hosts Lisa and Mark had recommended Lake Isabelle, and they are always spot on about great hikes! Note that at Brainard Lake, you are already at about 10,000 feet in elevation, so plan your hiking accordingly. Most trails ascend even higher to more distant lakes and even glaciers!

Our first visit involved “city” clothes and sandals, so our plan was not to do any serious hiking. We parked at the day use area since even on the first day open, all parking at the trailheads beyond the day use area was already full. All the informational signs discussed the abundance of moose, how to interact with wildlife, etc., but alas, no Moose sightings for us. Boo! Then we walked over to Brainard Lake and it was so beautiful! Construction was underway on the bridge to the north side of the lake, but the views were unobstructed.


Panorama of Brainard Lake looking west

We caught sight of what we thought might be two collapsible kayaks on the far side of the lake and zoomed in for a closer look.


Yes, they look like the ‘Origami’ kayaks we had read about!

So we followed a small trail around the south side of the lake and met the owners of the kayaks, which are actually called Oru Kayaks and are indeed based on the concept of Origami. We have an inflatable kayak by Sea Eagle, but it is a little slow to paddle and cumbersome, especially since we have the two-man style. The Oru is much more nimble, but we confirmed that they are just as pricey as we had heard. 🙂 Anyway, we had a great conversation with this adventurous couple from Boulder and got to see the Orus up close.

We decided to walk around the lake on the trailhead access road on the way back to the car, but then saw the Niwot Cutoff Trailhead, and decided to walk the half mile to Long Lake. From the Long Lake loop, you have choices of trails to several other lakes as well as access to the Indian Peaks Wilderness. Long Lake is stunning and hints at the wonders of a longer hike as well!


First glimpse of Long Lake and the Indian Peaks from the Niwot Cutoff Trail


I couldn’t resist…they call it special effects for a reason!


The South St Vrain Creek flows out of Long Lake on the eastern end in spectacular fashion

We ended up walking the full loop around Long Lake and back to the day use area, the long way, of course! We reviewed the trail maps and vowed to come back soon to hike to Lake Isabelle.

Just before getting into the car, we stopped at the Brainard Lake overlook and took in this view:


Wow, what a panorama!

And one last stop before leaving the recreation area, at Red Rocks Lake. Beautiful, and uncrowded, we thought for sure we would see a moose. 😦


Red Rocks panorama

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All in all, it was a wonderful visit to a magical place, and it left us wanting more!

We returned two days later to hike about 5 miles to Lake Isabelle, with the potential to continue on another 1.7 to Isabelle Glacier, if we were feeling sprightly. 😉 We left early (for us) at 8, but were delayed by a major bicycle ride on the Peak to Peak Byway, and got to the entrance of Brainard Lake Rec area only to find a line to get in before 9 AM. It didn’t take long, as cars left, others were allowed to enter, however, all parking was full beyond the day use area. Sound familiar? The outdoor spaces in Colorado get a lot of use, especially on the weekends. Normally, we try to plan to hike on the weekdays, but sometimes you just have to heed the call on a Sunday!

Anyway, we parked and headed off towards the Long Lake trailhead, jumping off point for Lake Isabelle. We knew the parking situation would add to our mileage, we just didn’t realize how much until we returned! We hiked around the north side of Brainard Lake this time, since the construction was on hold for the weekend, arriving at Long Lake and then taking the Pawnee Pass Trail toward Lake Isabelle. I didn’t really take any photos until we passed Long Lake, and then WOW!


Wetlands along the Pawnee Pass Trail

The trail was not difficult, but it consistently ascended, and there was a new surprise around every turn! We were excited to see so much snow still, given the warm temperatures we have been having in Estes. 11,000 feet in elevation makes a difference!


It was lovely to see the snow melt waterfalls and streams again!

And then as we approached Lake Isabelle, we were hiking through deep snow again!



Lake Isabelle wreathed in mountain peaks! Wow!

We rested on a small peninsula, and this was our picnic lunch view. 🙂


We continued hiking on the north side of the lake, after having spied a waterfall on the far western end to investigate. This portion of the hike involved squeezing through brush along the lakeshore and then rock-hopping over a boulder avalanche from who-knows-how-long-ago.

This is a brief video view from the north shore of the lake.

The waterfall was definitely worth the effort!


Jerry at the waterfall on the western end of Lake Isabelle

Here is a video panorama of the waterfall, creek, and Lake Isabelle…with sound! :-O



Still panorama from the waterfall


Just breathtaking!

We decided to forgo the additional mile or so to the Isabelle Glacier. Call us wimps, but we chose to enjoy the peace and solitude at the western end of Lake Isabelle, and then head back to the car.

But I couldn’t close out a post about Colorado’s spectacular beauty without some wildflower photos, now could I???


My favorite, the Colorado State flower, Columbine ❤

It was an incredible day, gorgeous weather, amazing scenery and a great hike. We ended up with just over 8 miles, extended since we parked in the day use area rather than the Long Lake Trailhead parking. My advice to you: don’t miss Brainard Lake Recreation Area, and go early! There are many other trails to choose from, but Lake Isabelle is a “don’t miss” in our book! You can see a trail map here.

Please join me again soon for more of Wild, Wonderful, Colorado!

If you’d like to read more about the special places “Around Estes” that are NOT in Rocky Mountain National Park, go here.

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