Brainard Lake Peak Bagging: An Insider's Guide

Brainard Lake is a peak bagger's paradise.
Brainard Lake is a peak bagger's paradise. James Dziezynski
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Brainard Lake Recreation Area is less than an hour’s drive from Boulder, making it one of the area's most popular destinations for outdoors athletes. Many visitors make the trek to see the sparkling alpine lakes or to marvel at the 13,000-foot peaks that rise above the namesake lake.

This collection of mountains is part of the Indian Peaks Wilderness, a 76,711-acre wilderness that is home to seven 13ers, four of which can be reached from Brainard Lake trailheads. Despite being geographically close, reaching the tops of these peaks requires traveling over a variety of terrain, from on-trail walk-ups to off-trail glacier climbs and scree scrambles. There are alpine creeks to cross, airplane wreckage strewn in the rocks to be discovered, and incredible views waiting to be seen. These bonafide rocky mountains offer a diversity of adventure close to home. Here are some of the best ways to top out at Brainard Lake, broken down by difficulty.

Easy Summit Routes

Headed up Pawnee Pass with Pawnee Peak looming in the distance.
Headed up Pawnee Pass with Pawnee Peak looming in the distance. James Dziezynski

A caveat here: The designation “easy” is a relative term. These are summits that are reached via established trails with brief sections of off-trail navigation. The hiking here is over 10,000 feet and some light scrambling is required to reach the top, so good fitness, nutrition, and hydration are must-haves. As with all mountain adventures, start as early as possible (6 am on the trail is a good rule), and bring warm, wicking layers and plenty of sunscreen.

Mount Audubon (13,233’) via Mount Audubon Trail
This 8-mile out-and-back starts at the Mitchell Lake Trailhead. The hike spends a mile wandering through vanilla-scented pine forests before climbing out of treeline along a solid but rocky trail. Views slowly open up, including some of the best perspectives of Longs Peak and Rocky Mountain National Forest to the north. Winds can be notoriously fierce, especially at the 12,590-foot saddle where the formal trail ends and a patchwork of hikers’ trails continue up the boulder-strewn upper slopes to the summit. The summit itself is graciously broad and flat with several wind shelters offering momentary reprieve from the ceaseless gusts.  

Pawnee Peak (12,943’) via Pawnee Pass
Pawnee Peak is a nice complementary hike to Mount Audubon. This 9-mile out-and-back starts from the Long Lake Trailhead. The first mile passes Long Lake on flat, easy trails. The real begins en route to the Lake Isabelle / Isabelle Glacier trail, where the route abruptly climbs and pass through a tumbling waterfall before reaching Lake Isabelle. From there, signage leads the sustained hike up to Pawnee Pass at 12,541’. To reach Pawnee Peak, go north (right) up the south slopes of Pawnee Peak, where a few faint trails will lead to the rounded summit. Return the way you came—or tack on the next option below.

Shoshoni Peak (12,967’) via Pawnee Pass
The way to Shoshoni follows the Pawnee Peak route all the way up to the top of Pawnee Pass, but rather than go north, head south 0.8 miles to the summit block of Shoshoni Peak. Much like Pawnee Peak, there is no formal trail. There is an initial push up to a 12,878’ sub-peak before you enjoy a nice walk to Shoshoni. If you’re going to pair up both Pawnee and Shoshoni Peaks, do Shoshoni first, then trek over to Pawnee and head back down the way you came.

Moderate Summit Routes

Working around the notch on Mount Audubon's southeast ridge.
Working around the notch on Mount Audubon's southeast ridge. James Dziezynski

These routes focus on off-trail exploration along with non-technical scrambling—as long as your navigational skills are on point. Expect some airy exposure, loose rock, and steep terrain as you challenge yourself on these classic climbs. Note that there are often nice walk-offs on standard trails for more difficult routes in the Indian Peaks and these hikes have the same option.

Paiute Peak (13,088’) via Mount Audubon
Adding Paiute Peak after a summit of Mount Audubon is a fun way for strong hikers to get two 13ers in an single outing. From the top of Audubon, continue west 0.9 miles along a rocky ridge towards the castle-like summit of Paiute Peak. There are no formal trails here and the last push to the top of Paiute will require a bit of scrambling to top out, but the route is pretty straightforward—stay on the ridge. Return the way you came or continue on to Mount Toll (see below).

Mount Toll (12,979’) via Blue Lakes
Start at the Mount Mitchell Trailhead and follow the marked trail pass Mitchell Lake to Blue Lake, where the trails end. Mount Toll’s impressive pyramid looms high above. The standard off-trail route goes up the southeast slopes to the moderate southeast ridge to the summit—7 miles if done as an out and back. If traversing to Mount Toll from Paiute Peak, it’s 0.8 miles of tough, class 3 (and possibly 4) scrambling that tends to be easier on the west side of the ridge. However, once you’ve topped out on Toll, you can descend via the south ridge/southeast slopes back to Blue Lake.

Mount Audubon (13,233’) via Southeast Ridge
This fun variation follows the southeast ridge of Audubon and starts at the same Mitchell Lake Trailhead as the Mount Audubon Trail. Follow the Mount Audubon Trail for 1.3 miles For the bulk of the adventure, the southeast ridge is east class 2+ scrambling—that is, until reaching a deep notch in the ridge. A direct downclimb of this notch is a class 4 (or low class 5) endeavor of 40 feet. To keep it class 3, descend a few hundred feet left, down to one of the steep but manageable chutes that drop into a broad gully. From here, cross the gully and enjoy good scrambling back up to the ridge, where class 2+ hiking will lead to the top. The best descent route is the Mount Audubon Trail.

Difficult Summit Routes

Navajo Peak's impressive summit block. Airplane Gully is the ramp just left of center, left of the rock outcrop in the middle.
Navajo Peak's impressive summit block. Airplane Gully is the ramp just left of center, left of the rock outcrop in the middle. James Dziezynski

Though these routes are still considered non-technical scrambles and snow climbs, they ramp up the challenge considerably, toeing the line between class 3 (scrambling) and class 4 (high consequence scrambling). If you’re ready to unleash your inner mountain goat and are up for a big day, these are the adventures for you.

Mount Audubon to Pawnee Pass Traverse
This route is the logical connector that starts at the Mount Audubon Trail at Mitchell Lake that ascends Mount Audubon, then scrambles to Paiute Peak (0.9 miles), to Mount Toll (0.8 miles), Pawnee Peak (0.6 miles), then to Pawnee Pass (0.4) and down the Pawnee Pass trail for a hearty 12-mile loop. The terrain between Audubon and Toll is sustained class 3 scrambling, with some tricky route finding to keep it from wandering into class 4 territory. From Toll to Pawnee Pass is a nice class 2 walk. If for some reason you want to tack on a 5th peak, Shoshoni is 0.8 miles away from Pawnee Pass. Start very easy (3am isn’t too early to be on the trail) for this route, since there’s not many options to bail out if bad weather rolls in until you reach Mount Toll’s south slopes.

Navajo Peak (13,409’) via Airplane Gully
Navajo is one of the more challenging summits in the area, mostly due to the route finding and exposed class 3 scramble to sit atop its summit block. It’s 9 miles out and back from the Long Lake Trailhead. Take the Long Lake/Lake Isabelle Trail to Isabelle Lake. Where the trail splits for Pawnee Pass, stay left on the Isabelle Glacier Trail. At mile 3.5, go off trail through a marsh and head up towards a shadowy, steep, boulder-choked gully known as Airplane Gully. There are remnants of a 1948 plane crash at the base of the gully at 12,200’. Claw up the gully to 12,900’ where the bulk of the fuselage of the wreck and several other sections of the plane are resting just below the summit ridge. The moves to the summit block are solid class 3 but are very airy in sections! Return the way you came. A GPS is very helpful on this route.

Apache Peak (13,441’) via Queen’s Way Couloir
Apache Peak’s Queen’s Way Couloir is one of the best introductory snow climbs in Colorado. Start at the Long Lake Trailhead and proceed to Isabelle Lake and Isabelle Glacier. A glowing blue-white pool of water and ice sit at the base of the couloir, which is about 35 degrees steep and requires crampons, a helmet, and an ice axe. Depending on how high up the snowfield goes, there can be as much as 2,000 vertical feet to climb. The top of Apache is flat and spacious. Descent can be back down the couloir, which provide a nice glissade if the snow is soft enough—otherwise, it can be way too easy to speed out of control. A second option is to descend the grassy ledges on the east face of Apache (class 3 with some tricky navigation) to the base of Navajo Peak and walk out from there.  

Map of Routes at Brainard Lake

Summit routes from Brainard Lake.
Summit routes from Brainard Lake. James Dziezynski

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