Brainard Lake recreation area is one of Colorado’s best natural winter playgrounds. About an hour’s drive from Boulder, the namesake lake sits at 10,000 ft. and is just one of many features that make this a great place for a snowy outing. A healthy network of intentional snowshoe trails accommodate all levels of snowshoers and the views of the towering 13,000 ft. Indian Peaks to the west are beyond gorgeous -- especially when dressed in their winter palette.
What Makes It Great
The winter closure gate features an expanded parking area that is maintained throughout the year. For those looking for a casual day out, simply walking the closed road to Brainard Lake (about two miles) is a worthy adventure (try it on a clear, cold night for incredible star-gazing). The more adventurous can continue on to several frozen alpine lakes or even trek about treeline to the shoulder of 13,233 ft. Mount Audubon. A trip to the summit is an epic winter adventure but be warned, the wind above treeline can be ferocious.
Diving into the forest offers the best powdery snowshoeing. Rugged pine trees filter the low sunlight onto glimmering patches of pristine powder; the peaceful ambiance is truly enchanting. The Waldrop and CMC trails are made specifically with snowshoeing in mind and present a longer, more adventurous way to reach the Brainard Lake. Looping back along the road is always an option as well. And as an added bonus, the Colorado Mountain Club operates a modest winter cabin that is known to hand out free cookies and hot chocolate on weekends!Finally, if you are aiming to link trails together, the Sourdough Trail connects to the Beaver Reservoir to the north and the Rainbow Lakes Trail to the south -- nice point-to-points if you have two vehicles (and are ready for good, long day out). If you plan on bringing along your pups, please stick to the dog-friendly trails (namely the access roads and the Sourdough Trail segments). The extended trails that head west towards Long Lake and Lake Isabelle are also dog friendly, though conditions can get burly as you ascend above tree line. When your day is done, the Millsite Inn is about a mile north from the access road to Brainard Lake along Peak-to-Peak highway. It’s a great place to grab a warm meal in a cozy atmosphere. Wild Mountain BBQ and Salto Coffee Works are only about 20 minutes away in Nederland and are also great apres snowshoeing destinations.
Who is Going to Love It
The main road to Brainard Lake is a great place to romp with your dogs. Conversely, the side trails are (mostly) used exclusively for snowshoeing and cross country skiing. They will be signed according to usage. Because of the great access, this is a fine place for a casual winter outing with big rewards but also a good, long day on the trails. Beyond Brainard Lake, the trails continue to several frozen lakes and up to Mount Audubon. These trails beyond the lake are all dog friendly.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
From the intersection of Broadway and Highway 36 in north Boulder, north on 36 6.0 miles to Left Hand Canyon. Turn left (west) on Left Hand Canyon Drive and follow it all the way up through the little town of Ward to its terminus at Peak-to-Peak Highway (Hwy 72). Take a right and a quick left to well-signed Brainard Lake Recreation area access road. There is a large parking area at the end of this road. The entire drive takes about an hour under normal conditions. Alternately, you can reach the access road via Boulder Canyon to Nederland and Hwy 72 from there. There are no fees to snowshoe, ski or hike this area. Dogs are allowed on specific trails only. Please consult this excellent CMC Map of the area for detailed on trails and dog-accessible terrain.