I have a new favorite hike! Honestly, I feel like I could do this hike every week and never get sick of the views. Jaw-dropping views of a pristine glacial lake surrounded by mountains! Plus, the wildflowers were some of the brightest and most vibrant I’ve seen in Colorado AND I saw a moose! Don’t be intimidated by the milage, it’s approachable enough for families to make it easily to the lake, but also has a lot of options to add a little extra challenge to your hike (we ended up clocking 9 miles.)
First – this is a very busy hike so plan ahead! I went on a weekday, arriving at Indian Peaks around 8:00am (it’s about an hour and a half from Denver) and the trailhead was full at Long Lake, but we were able to park at the Brainard Lake Day Use Area – perfect because then you get a bonus lake and it only adds about a mile of flat trails!
(From reading the other reviews on Alltrails, if you’re going to try this on a weekend get there very early and plan to wait. I even saw some had to walk an extra couple miles from a different parking lot. If you can take the weekday off, it’s worth it!)
The Ranger at the gate ($12 cash only fee) was incredibly helpful, drawing on a map to show us the best routes to see Moose & wildflowers – and she delivered! (Stick to the south side of Long Lake, or left side from the Trailheads) The trail starts off shaded through forest then right as you hit Long Lake – which is perfectly named because it’s about a mile long – the wildflowers are everywhere! They’re nestled along small streams that head toward the lake.
We stopped to take a picture of wildflowers only about a half hour in and looked up just in time to see a Bull Moose run onto the trail in front of us! He was gone before we even had time to register that he was there, Moose are incredibly fast. Luckily he didn’t go too far, so we got to safely watch him graze near the lake from the trail.
Most of the trail along Long Lake is pretty flat, in fact it doesn’t really get steep until you’re headed up to Lake Isabelle and you definitely gain elevation fast! This trail starts at 10,300 ft so if you’re anything like me you’ll be breathing hard. Thankfully it’s mostly shaded and other hikers will reassure you the hike is worth it.
And then you’re at Lake Isabelle!
Just take a look…
Seriously, can you believe this view? Only about 3.5 miles from Brainard Lake, 900ft in elevation gain (mostly right before Lake Isabelle.) It’s busy when you get to the start of the lake, so we wandered a bit farther to find a secluded spot to enjoy lunch with a view. If this is the end of your hike and you’re headed back, I recommend sticking to the south side of Long Lake, the north trail had far less flowers & views, but it was slightly less crowded.
If you’re looking for more exploring, continue on along Lake Isabelle. For us, this was the trickiest part of the hike along a narrow trail with a quick drop off into the lake. Then you’re crossing large boulders and muddy fields. There’s also an option to climb another 1,000 or so feet up to Pawnee Pass, but with early afternoon storms in the forecast we opted to head back after exploring the west side of the lake.
We almost made it back to our car when we heard the rumbles of thunder. I didn’t have cell service to check radar but could see the clouds approaching. I have a splint on my hand (took a fall last weekend) so we threw a freezer bag over it and secured it with hair ties just in time for the downpour to start. Man, that rain is cold in mountain storms! Thankfully we got to the Long Lake trailhead right as the hail started. We waited out the storm (they typically are fast movers in the high country) then enjoyed blue skies as we made the last little stretch back to the car.
I’m already thinking about when I can go back & do this hike again!