Head to the Brainard Lake Recreation Area to make the trek to Lake Isabelle, and get a front-row view of one of the most iconic ridgelines in Colorado along the way.
Length: 4.5 miles, out-and-back
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Why We Love It: The view of a sparkling Lake Isabelle framed by jagged granite peaks is the kind of picture-perfect scene that nature lovers pine for.
Pre-hike Buzz: Whether you’re about to begin your hike, or just hopping off of the trail, Salto Coffee Works in nearby Nederland is an excellent place to fuel up pre-hike, or to grab a rewarding post-hike adult beverage.
When to go: June through October; summer for wildflowers and fall for autumn hues
Restrooms: Yes. You’ll find well-maintained restrooms at both the Brainard Lake Recreation Area Trailhead and the Long Lake Trailhead
Dogs: Yes, on leash
Fee: Don’t forget cash or a check: There is an $11 service fee to enter the Brainard Lake Recreation Area.
Distance from Denver: About 50 miles
No matter the season, the outline of Niwot Ridge is breathtaking. The view of this foursome of jagged granite peaks is humbling and rewarding—especially during the last half-mile of this moderate trail, which is the steepest part of the whole trek. Niwot Ridge—which is made up of Navajo Peak (13,409 feet), Navajo Glacier, Apache Peak (13,441 feet), and Shoshoni Peak (12,967)—is probably a big reason why, despite the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area boasting more than 76,000 designated acres, the hike from Long Lake to Lake Isabelle remains one of its most popular. This trail is a good option from spring to fall, as long as it’s not icy; in the summertime, it boasts a variety of wildflowers of all different shapes and sizes. Even though you’ll inevitably be passed by a handful of hardcore runners chugging along the trail, it’s best to slow down and stop and smell the flowers on this hike.
Photograph by Tyra Sutak
Accessing the Long Lake Trailhead is easy once you pass through the Brainard Lake Recreation Area entry station, where you’ll fork over the $11 service fee for the day (cash or check only!). You can likely find space in the smaller Long Lake Trailhead parking lot if it’s before 8 a.m.; otherwise, park in the Brainard Lake parking lot. If you’re doing the latter, follow the trail that leads around the north side of the lake to the Long Lake Trailhead, where you’ll start your journey to Lake Isabelle. The series of signs for the “Isabelle Glacier Trail” along the hike are your guide. The wide trail is a steady incline that leads past small creeks and ponds, through dense patches of towering pine and spruce trees before emerging into a vibrant valley surrounded by rising peaks and covered in colorful wildflowers of all sorts, including sparse patches of columbines. While the majority of the trail is a slow and steady climb, the elevation gain picks up roughly 1.5 miles into the hike, and turns into a series of switchbacks that empty out over a trickling waterfall. Views of the peaks of Niwot Ridge pop out over the hillsides at this point. After crossing over the trickling waterfall, just a few more steps are all it takes to crest the last hill and get your first full glimpse of the sparkling waters of Lake Isabelle framed by the jagged peaks and the Isabelle Glacier. Here you’ll find a few benches and plenty of places to sit along edge of the water, enjoy a snack, and soak in the breathtaking scene before you.
Photograph by Tyra Sutak
Follow a narrow footpath to the left around the lake if you’re looking to grab the shot for your social media posts. Your journey could end here, or, if you follow the path to the right roughly 2.1 miles you’ll reach the Isabelle Glacier and another waterfall. The trail also connects to the Pawnee Pass Trail which leads to the top of Pawnee Pass, a strenuous 9.4 mile round-trip hike from the Long Lake Trailhead.
While this trail is dog-friendly, be sure to keep your pup on a leash to avoid any too-close encounters with the many roaming moose.
Getting There: Take Highway 36 through Boulder to Nederland. From Nederland, drive 13 miles north on Highway 72 to the town of Ward. Turn west onto County Road 102 towards the Brainard Lake Recreation Area. The Long Lake trailhead is located on the west side of the Brainard Lake Recreation Area, past the main entrance, and past the Brainard Lake Trailhead.