I’ve lived in Colorado for about seven months now, but my weekends are often booked up with work or other commitments made long in advance. With a Sunday in May completely open and the weather starting to get nicer, I hit up my friend Nick to ask if he wanted to do something. Anything.

I did want to get out in to Colorado nature, and luckily, Nick took the lead on picking a place for us. While we didn’t necessarily get to take advantage of that nicer weather I was talking about (although this hike might not have been possible under the same pretenses in the thick of the Winter,) I did get to venture past the foothills of Golden and Boulder for basically the first time.

We didn’t set out on a crazy mountain hike, just a 4.6 mile out-and-back on a paved but snow-filled road, hitting two lakes in the process, taking in gorgeous mountain views at 10,000 feet, and getting caught in some flash snow.

We accessed Brainard Lake, via Brainard Lake Road, after parking in the Winter Lot. The area is part of Roosevelt National Forest, in Ward, Colorado, less than an hour and a half from Denver.

Brainard Lake Road in Ward, Coloardo

Hiked On: May 7, 2023

Distance: 4.60 miles

Elevation Gain: 423 feet

Time: 3 hours, 5 minutes (including breaks) 1 hour, 51 minutes (moving time)

Max Elevation: 10,366 feet

The Winter Parking Lot offered bathrooms, but no garbage due to the difficulty of removing trash at this location. Pictured is the sign for the Brainard Gateway Trailhead. However, due to the snowy conditions, we stayed off this trail and took the closed, paved road from the parking lot to the lake.
Brainard Lake Road would take you straight to the lake with additional parking and a campground when open, but it remained closed in early May. As you’ll see later, snow was still present on the road, in large amounts in some places.
The hike began at just above 10,000 feet of elevation above sea level.
The snowy mountain ridges in the distance, part of Mount Audubon and Niwot Mountain, among others, came in and out of focus on this cloudy and eventually snowy day. The road also became completely covered in multiple feet of packed in snow at points, as seen here.
The first point of interest we hit was Red Rock Lake, veering left off the road/trail.
The ice cold lake at 10,000 feet, supporting forests and fauna around it. The mountain tops peek out again through the clouds.
Back on the road, more longstanding snow formed some significant slopes for us to walk up and down.
It began to flurry, some times picking up a decent amount with small flakes.
The Pawnee Campground, maintained by the USDA as part of Roosevelt National Forest, features 47 campsites and is open seasonally.
Snow was packed in high and tight at this part of the road.
The views began to open up as we approached Brainard Lake. The mountain views were tampered with by clouds, but it still made for an interesting view as the snowy mountains blended with the gray clouds.
Snow stayed significantly packed around the lake. With the road open in the Summer, there is a parking lot up here, which would allow hikers to kick start a nearby trail without traveling the 2.3 miles we did one-way to get to the lake,
As we got closer to the lake, even the clouds couldn’t hide the beauty of Mount Audubon.
Getting near the lake was a little tricky, as the snow was much softer and our steps often caused us to fall through the snow. After careful traversing, we were able to establish a dryer spot right next to the lake.
It wasn’t exactly a Summer day at Lake Brainard, but we still cracked a couple cold ones, a unique experience for me both at this elevation and with the snowy scenery.
Not long after, the snow intensified. The snow itself wasn’t super heavy, but the rate it was coming at and the wind quickly hampered visibility. The mountain views disappeared, but it was still a fun time to be caught in,
It’s usually hard to pick up snow intensity through still pictures, but you can tell here: it was really starting to come down as we walked back towards the Winter Parking Lot.
In the blink of an eye, it became pleasant and sunny again.
Looking back at the mountains once again with the newfound visibility.
Back at Red Rocks Lake.
We saw a Bald Eagle flying over, taking a glance at us, and then finding a spot to oversee the wildlife of the lake.
One last look (backwards, once again) at the trail and mountains before heading back to finish our hike.
For good measure, Mother Nature dropped a couple last snowflakes on us. After the hike, we descended in to Boulder to get some food at Khow Thai Cafe. Down there, the temperature was in the high 60’s/low 70’s, a stark contrast to the brisk and snowy conditions we experienced at 10,000 feet of elevation.

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