Camping, hiking and redemption at Brainard Lake

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Booking the camping trip early, that is. Brainard Lake Recreation Area is a popular outdoor Mecca for locals but you will rarely find any out-of-state license plate in the parking lot–tourists congregate at nearby Rocky Mountain National Park and I’d prefer to keep it that way.

We’ve long wanted to camp at Brainard Lake but the problem is the Pawnee Campground fills up several months in advance. There are a few first-come, first-served campsites but unless you can come mid-week (we never can), you’re out of luck. So, on Dec. 31, 2014, my good husband somehow finagled us a campsite before the reservations opened for 2015. Don’t ask me how he did it; he has his ways.

Set in a glacially-carved valley, the craggy peaks of the Continental Divide are the backdrop for this azure lake that boasts a variety of year-round recreation opportunities in the Boulder Ranger District. It is open year-round but Jamie had reserved the campground’s opening day. There was still quite a bit of snow on the ground and the early-season weather was iffy. Our last several camping trips have either been rained, hailed or pooped out so I braced myself for whatever catastrophe would come our way. Though the temperatures were cooler and the sky overcast when we arrived, the weather held out.

The problem with booking something for June 26 six months in advance is he had no idea that the kids and I would leave early for Canada that year, just one day after camping. It’s rare that I have a bad attitude about getting outdoors but I had one about this trip. I was busy prepping for our month away and to throw in camping on top of it? I got over it really, really quickly.


Moose in the trees

Following our hot dogs and s’mores dinner, Jamie and I ditched the kids and went for a romantic stroll through the subalpine forest set in a glacially-carved valley.

That’s my kind of date night.

Brainard Lake at dusk

There are two things I hate about tent camping and hundreds of things I love. Hate: Sleeping on the ground in a sleeping bag and inclement weather. If we had a trailer/RV, crummy weather wouldn’t be such a big deal but I have never been able to sleep through the night in a sleeping bag. Stomach sleepers of the world can assuredly relate.

Despite a sleepless night, the next morning dawned bright, clear and beautiful as Brainard Lake looked like a completely different place.

We’ve had four attempts at hiking 6 miles round-trip to 11,355′ Blue Lake.

First Attempt

Jamie and I were newly married and we successfully hiked to this gorgeous area.

Second Attempt

Late-June 2014. There was still a fair amount of snow during our daytrip, which put a kibosh on our high-elevation hiking plans. Hadley used to throw tantrums when she wouldn’t get her way. Now, those fits are about our refusal to hike through muck and snow. We made it as far as the moderate 1-mile hike to Mitchell Lake, which occupies a broad, marshy flat at the base of Mount Audubon before we made her turn back. Cue: Bode’s relief.

Third Attempt

Our trip in June was officially Hadley’s second attempt and I prayed the trail would be more clear so as to avoid tween tantrums. It didn’t happen. Upon reaching Mitchell Lake again, snow was a concern but a ranger we met en route warned us of the dangerous, icy conditions ahead getting to Blue Lake. It was like an episode of Groundhog Day and we made her turn back.  I promised her we’d return late-July and even invited some of her friends to join us. Cue: Bode’s Relief Part II.


Mitchell Lake


Trail conditions

A girl in her element? No, a tween tantrum

Fourth Attempt

Upon returning from a road-trip to Canada, Bode stayed an extra week in Canada with Grandma. Despite the fact that Hadley bagged her first 14er on that Saturday, she practically begged me to make the 1.5 hour drive back to Brainard Lake to hike Blue a few days later. Our friends we’d originally invited just happened to be camping in the area at the same time but were non-committal about their plans so we decided to go it alone because it was too difficult to coordinate schedules.

The hike to Blue Lake is 6 miles round-trip but the problem is the Mitchell Lake Trailhead has either been closed or full every time we’ve attempt to hike it. So in keeping with our luck, the parking lot  was full so we had to park 1 mile down the mountain. Because why hike 6 miles when you can do 8?

I debated making a final outhouse stop in the parking lot but opted to wait until we reached the trailhead and wouldn’t you know it, my bladder was inspired. As I walked to the outhouse, I heard my friend Lisa call out to me–they were waiting in a wooded grove to hike Blue Lake! Finding the parking lot was full, their husbands had dropped the families off, driven back to the Brainard Lake parking lot and biked back up the road (stroke of genius).

We had such a great time hiking with friends! As soon as we passed Mitchell Lake, Hadley caught fire–we were finally going to summit! There was a profusions of wildflowers as we passed through patchy krummholz before catching our first few of Mount Toll’s conical summit.

After a series of switch backs, we cleared treeline and we were greeted with 11,355′ Blue Lake, which frames a large rocky cirque with Mount Toll, Mt Audubon and Paiute Peak standing sentry.

Hadley and I stayed for about an hour as we soaked our feet in the blue-green water while lunching and watching a lovely waterfall flowing down from the south-side cliffs.

As we hiked the four miles back to the car, I observed, “Aren’t you glad you have finally done Blue Lake?”

“Yes, but now we have to come back and do Upper Blue Lake,” she said, referring to the 0.6-mile scramble up a steep traverse through thick willows, across the snow field, and up the rocky mountainside to see the smaller hidden lake.

I started to protest that she isn’t ever satisfied until I realized she finally *gets* what mountaineering is all about: you’re never really done as there are always mountains to climb.

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