Blue Lake, Colorado

Location:  Indian Peaks Wilderness, Colorado
Access: From Boulder, drive north on CO36 / Foothills Pkwy six miles to Left Hand Canyon Rd (a sign will point to Ward). Turn west onto Left Hand Canyon Rd and watch for another left turn a few miles up that will point to Ward. Follow Left Hand Canyon Road through Ward to Highway 72. Go north on Highway 72 about 100 feet and turn west on Brainard Lake Road. Follow this road past Brainard Lake to the Mitchell Lake TH.
Maps: USGS 1:24K Ward; 1:41K Trails Illustrated #102 Indian Peaks/Gold Hill
Trail: Easy 3 miles one way to Blue Lake, with 900 ft elevation gain. Trail is well-marked. Note that the Mt Audubon trail leads off from the same parking lot.
Fees: $7/car (up to 6 people) entrance fee
Dogs: Handheld leash
Info: USFS Indian Peaks Page
Indian Peaks Wilderness Alliance (they are not armed)
Weather: Current and recent conditions from the NOAA

July 8, 2006
Anytime Dave visits from Hawaii, we try to work in a nice forest hike in the mountains. When he visited in early July 2006, we naturally planned an ambitious trek up to the summit of Mt Audubon, one of seven 13,000 ft peaks in the Indian Peaks Wilderness outside of Boulder. He was staying in Denver and we could come down from Cheyenne and meet in Boulder, then pool up to the parking lot and hike. His girlfriend, Malia, and her sister, Eily, planned to come along and Andra decided to come down with me. Great. All set. What could be better than a beautiful, sunny July morning hiking in the wilderness? Well, the forecast of all-day rain for once wasnít wrong, and we surveyed the steel-grey sky through the windows of Moeís Bagels in Boulder. An unseasonably cool spell had set in over Colorado for over a week, and consisted of cool, cloudy mornings with rainy afternoons and evenings. This was not at all what one thinks of for July in Colorado, unless youíve been staying in Seattle for too long. 

We drove two cars north of town, and then cut west up Left Hand Canyon. It began to rain in the canyon, slicking the road and providing, Iím guessing, miserable conditions for the numerous cyclists huffing and puffing their way up to Ward. I felt all the more cozy in my heated and dry car. I kept thinking, "Iím going to go hiking in this crap?" We reached the lovely town of Ward in 25 minutes, a tiny shanty town off Highway 72 where the speed limit is 15 mph and dirt roads outnumber paved roads about 4 to 1, there being 1 paved road in town and 4 dirt roads. Just past Ward, we jogged a little to the north and resumed our westward voyage through increasing rain on Brainard Lake Road. We literally drove in the clouds. Ragged waifs of cloud slipped quickly overhead, alternately revealing and hiding dark conifers. At a fee booth we paid our $7/car payment to enter the Brainard Lake Recreation Area, which as far as I can tell means that they have RV spots and flush toilets. Glad I can subsidize that with my hiking fee. We resumed uphill, to the Mitchell Lake trailhead, which is just past Brainard Lake at the end of the road. While we had originally planned on trying Mt Audubon, the rain convinced us that the gentler, lower-elevation route to Blue Lake was a better choice. Both trails leave from the same spot, so we delayed a decision as long as possible. 

Malia and Dave had brought no raingear, but we had a spare jacket for Malia. Dave threw on a couple of layers of t-shirts and was good to go. I threw on my rain jacket, as did Andra. After several recent days of hiking in the rain, I was getting accustomed to my noisy, plastic shell. The rain came down steadily, but lightly, and I was impressed with how many cars were nevertheless in the parking lot. I was also impressed that not only was the parking lot pavedÖthe roads to it had curbs. I canít recall being to a trailhead parking lot with curbs. This was clearly upscale. The Indian Peaks Wilderness, at roughly 77,000 acres, was established in 1978 and is one of the busiest wilderness areas in the US, being so close to Boulder, Denver metro, Loveland, Longmont, etc. The number of cars, and for that matter, the size of the paved parking lot, reinforced the high-use status of the area. We encountered lots of folks milling about, zipping up raingear and gaiters, some taking refuge in the shelter of the privy overhang. I looked for the hot dog cart, but apparently had just missed his round.

We got going up the trail around 9:00, Andra in front, then Eily, Malia, myself, and Dave. Rain pattered down on my hood and the bill of my ball cap, making conversation difficult. Nevertheless, we chatted back and forth about a variety of topics, tromping along the muddy, puddle-strewn trail on a slight grade. The trail was more water than soil, and I was thankful for my water-resistent boots that allowed me to splash through puddles and deep mud without thinking twice. Viva la GoreTex! Not so for our friends in sneakers, which got soaked quickly despite valiant efforts at walking on exposed rocks and high points in the trail. We crossed over a wide and shallow stream that coursed through jagged rocks and little islands of mountain bluebells, globeflower and northern paintbrush. Very beautiful. Every plant was covered in large drops of water, fed by the fine drizzle that fell perpetually. 

By degrees, we began to see the rocky slopes up ahead. Steep, scree-covered inclines, still masked with snow, revealed their jagged crowns through the mist. The trail led by Mitchell Lake at about mile 1, a shallow bowl just at timberline, and led on west, climbing very slightly. I read that 50 lakes preside in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, but I believe that only accounts for the officially named lakes, since we passed by about 10 lakes/ponds/tarns on this hike, whereas only 2 had names. I appreciated the gentle slope, since a big incline would make me sweat. Sweating heavily inside a plastic rainjacket leads to a miserable day, like being slow-roasted. Often when hiking you either get soaked from rain, or throw on a rainjacket and get soaked with sweat. I havenít quite decided which is worse. Thereís just no way to get around getting wet when itís raining and youríre hiking. My feet were still dry, however, and for that I was pleased. Viva la GoreTex!

The trail led us above timberline, with awesome views of the surrounding peaks: Little Pawnee Peak, Paiute Peak (there were once lots of Indians here, hence, Indian Peaks Wilderness) and Mt Toll and Mt Audubon (there were also white men). Bunches of columbines, their purple sepals gleaming in the filtered white light, dotted the alpine tundra beside the trail. Rushing water was everywhere, and for long stretches it flowed down the trail like it was a streambed. Giant snowbanks persisted all around, with water sluicing out from under them, rippling on the rocks and gravel with magnificent, soothing foaming action. I imagine this would be both a beautiful and crowded place to backpack. I met some folks while camping in Rocky Mountain (just to the north) who had made reservations to backpack in Indian Peaks. That was the first time Iíd ever heard of needing reservations to camp in National Forest Service Wilderness. Yet the traffic is understandable, given the beauty, proximity to urban hubs and easy-access to alpine environments offered by the Indian Peaks. Plus the curbs on the roads, that really draws them in.

In what seemed like less than the advertised 3-miles (or else Iím just in fabulous physical shape), we reached Blue Lake, one of the prettiest alpine lakes Iíve had the pleasure of seeing first-hand. Calendars make me suspect that Canada has some better ones, but Iím not convinced yet. It was large, and deep, situated around 11,320 at the base of Paiute Peak and Mt Toll. Large snowfields of irregular shape clung to the scree slopes opposite us, and a waterfall crashed down the steep slope and fell straight into the lake. Iím not sure if this was a phenomenon brought on by the rain or not, but it was spectacular. Tiny hikers crossed a snowfield high above, and we felt absolutely no desire to join them. The tops of the surrounding peaks were visible for moments at a time before they would again be cloaked in cloud. Blue Lake is a name given to a lake when you just canít think of anything else, I feel. There are dozens of Blue Lakes in Colorado alone. Thereís one in Kiowa County where record bass are fished, but most are alpine, such as the one in Mt Sneffels Wilderness, or the one near Breckenridge, or in Rocky Mountain National Park, or in Mesa County, or outside of Canon City, or near the city of Blue Lake, Colorado, or my personal favorite, Blue Lake in the Rawah Wilderness. I can just picture some early USGS team at the end of the day pondering what to name a lake, and giving up on a quirky, clever name and saying, "Ah, heck, itís blue aint it? Blue Lake it is." The rain was very light by that point, but the wind picked up and chilled us all. Even insanely-high-calorie snacks didnít shake the chill. We stood by the lakeside getting goosebumps, took a few photos, ate some snacks, and then headed back down. It had taken us just under 2 hours to reach the lake.

The hike down went quickly, as one would expect, and we did receive a 10-20 minute respite from the rain where I pulled my hood off and heard the birds singing in the meadows. However, even when it stops raining in the woods, the trees continue to throw down water from needle tips for another 30 minutes, so it is very hard to tell if and when it actually stops raining. Again, I was impressed by the number of people on the trail in the rain. Many were not wearing rain jackets. Not me. I bought my rainjacket for a trip to the Pacific Northwest but ended up never using it. I sure got a lot of use out of it in July 2006. I slipped once on rocks, bruised my hand, and spent a good portion of the remainder of the hike dreaming up ways to make Vibram soles grip better in rain. Sand-impregnated rubber? Screw-in studs like track cleats? The problem must have a multi-million dollar solution.

We made it back to the parking lot in about an hour, and changed quickly into drier clothes. My undershirt was still dry, as were my socks. Viva la GoreTex! We drove back down over rain-glazed pavement to Boulder for a tasty lunch at Qdoba.

Photos by Dave Burns. I was too whimpy to take my camera out in the rain.

The trail to Blue Lake
One of many stream crossings on the hike
Andra, Malia, Eily
Mt Toll above Blue Lake
Little Pawnee Peak
Outflow from Blue Lake
Blue Lake
Andra and Sam at Blue Lake
Blue Lake and Mt Toll

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