Distance: 6 miles round trip. Elevation gain: 1000 feet. Duration: Half day. Close proximity to Denver, Boulder, or Estes Park.

Located in the Brainard Lake Recreational Area (west of Nederland, CO in the Indian Peaks Wilderness), this gem isn’t exactly a well-kept secret, but it has all the beauty that you could ask for in a relatively easy Colorado hike.

To get the full effect of the lake, you may want to plan your hike in late summer, as the lake can remain partially frozen through much of July. And while I wouldn’t characterize this as a wildflower hike, there are several pretty areas with flowers that bloom in July and August. Keep your eyes open for wildlife; this is a known area for moose sightings! A great hike for out-of-staters making an altitude adjustment or on a time crunch and close to Denver, Boulder, or Estes Park.

The hike starts at the Mitchell Lake Trailhead, where there are bathrooms, maps, and a garrulous park ranger. In the first mile you’ll hike through a forest and cross a picturesque creek twice. Continuing toward Blue Lake, the trail runs alongside a series of small lakes and ponds catching the snow melt. On a clear day, these look like brilliant sapphires in a bed of emerald green foliage. The gray Indian Peaks ahead will keep you moving on, and the terrain steepens as you near Blue Lake, but nothing that will deter any but the most unfit hikers. You can hear the rushing waters of the creek as it becomes a series of small waterfalls.

At first glance, you may think the lake doesn’t look very blue at all. This would be because as you approach from the east, the reflection of the mountains towards on the west and south sides of the lake cast their gray reflection on the water. The trail “officially” ends at the east side of the lake, but if you continue along the north side, the lake becomes bluer the further west you go.

Because of the many feet trod here, an unofficial trail does exist along the north side and west of the lake to Upper Blue Lake. Inexperienced hikers should not go further than the west point of the lake, as the terrain becomes less of a hike and more of a scramble, with many slippery spots. For the adventurous, you may continue another 0.6 miles through the thick willows, across the snow field, and up the rocky mountainside to see the smaller Upper Blue Lake.

At the west end of the lake, the water is a brilliant blue-green, with a lovely waterfall flowing down from the south-side cliffs. The most prominent peak, to the southwest of the lake, is called Mt. Toll. At 12,979 feet, it’s not as tall as some of its 13er neighbors, but it’s a scenic view to be sure. (Only experienced climbers should attempt to climb Mt. Toll, as it is a strenuous Class 2 climb.)

There are a lot of large rock outcroppings on the east end that make for good picnic spots. Relax, refuel, and take in the scenery for a while before heading back down.

Use the self-service pay station if no attendant is on duty. Continue 3 miles to the Mitchell Lake Trailhead (follow signs). The road is closed between the fee station and trailhead from late October through late June or early July (depending on snow). Parking at the trailhead is limited. Additional roadside parking is available in designated spaces only.

Tips:
  • Parking is limited and the area is popular, so arrive early to secure your parking spot
  • $10 parking fee (good for three days) upon entering Brainard Lake Recreational Area
  • For a truly "blue" lake, plan your hike on a clear day
  • Temperatures can be cool at high elevations, so pack a light jacket or long-sleeve tee
  • Moose are known to be aggressive, so if you see one, stay back

Pack List

  • Water
  • Snacks
  • Daypack
  • Camera
  • Hiking Boots or Trail Shoes
Show More
RT Distance 6 Miles
Elevation Gain 1000 Feet
Activities Photography, Hiking
Skill Level Beginner
Season Summer, Autumn
Trail Type Out-and-Back
Features
Bathrooms
Dog Friendly
Easy Parking
Family Friendly
Forest
Groups
Lake
Picnic Area
River
Scenic
Waterfall
Wildflowers
Wildlife

Reviews

Leave a Review

Overall rating: 

Awesome Hike, but Cold

This hike was fantastic, aggressive elevation gain for the first 3 miles, but the view of the lake at the top is well worth it. We went this past Saturday and it was absolutely freezing and raining at the top, so don't forget to pack a warm jacket and possibly a rain coat. Enjoy!

Lakes, Galore!

A lovely hike, moderate in difficulty and VERY popular! Got there before 9am on a Sun and still had to park in overflow parking. Overall people were very friendly and accommodating and of all ages and abilities. We needed to keep our eyes on the trail to navigate the many rocks, boulders and tree roots. Unfortunately, I didn't do a great job of that 1/2 way through the decent, for I managed to sprain my ankle pretty severely. Luckily, being able to put my foot in an icy cold lake on the way down, coupled with my husband finding me some sticks to use as support helped me slowly hobble my way down the mountain. The trees, meadows and lakes were quite scenic. It would've gotten 5 stars were there some opportunities for more expansive views. The mountains around us were mostly gravely from erosion and being that we were in narrow valleys, the mountains beyond were not in view.

Stunning

This hike is absolutely gorgeous the whole way up. It wasn't crowded at all, and even less so once we passed Mitchell Lake. Heads up, though, the entrance fee is $11 as of 2017, and parking fills quickly. We got there right at 7 am and three of the four lots were totally full.


Please respect the places you find on The Outbound Collective.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph. Learn More

Nearby Adventures

More Nearby Adventures

Hike Pawnee Pass and Pawnee Peak

114 Saves

Hike Shoshoni Peak

178 Saves

Climb Apache Peak

137 Saves