Thursday, October 22, 2020

Three lakes deep in the Indian Peaks Wilderness

Isabelle's near shore

The road snakes out of Boulder’s north end through a canyon before rising into Ward, which felt like a mining town that gradually transformed into a roadside hippie village – if you looked closely enough, there were coffee shops and businesses among the crumbling buildings and rows of cars that had not moved in years. 

We had to reach the Brainerd Lake Recreation Area early - 7 a.m. early, and with cash for the admission fee. The area reduced its capacity to 75 percent thanks to the pandemic, so an early start guaranteed a parking spot. Stunningly cold winds pushed at us, and immediately I felt underdressed for this hike. I was certainly not prepared for the scenery.

From Brainerd Lake

This might have been the most scenic hike of the summer. From the time we left the car, the jagged ridges sprouted from the treeline and seemed to rise directly from the lakes. By the time we entered the Indian Peaks Wilderness and reached the shores of Lake Isabelle, they would. 

Stepping out of the woods on the trail to Lake Isabelle, we ran into Brainerd Lake. It’s a stunning vista, and many casual visitors don’t go far past this point. South St. Vrain Creek flows into and out of all three lakes, and cuts close to the trail in many places.

Long Lake lookout

Long Lake doesn’t lie too far up the trail, and it isn’t a challenging span outside of the elevation. The wide path moved quickly to Long Lake and its shores before it moved deeper into the woods and away from water for the first time. We passed a handful of early morning hikers and plenty of dog owners going illegally off-leash, making me wish the Forest Service would deputize me to write tickets. Snow began to deepen as we started gaining elevation toward Lake Isabelle.

South St. Vrain Creek
I had to watch my step to avoid slipping although the shores of Lake Isabelle were not far off. We dubbed the point at which people broke off for their pictures “Douchebag Rock.” But the trail was not done, just less traveled. The trail quieted after Douchebag Rock, but grew increasingly technical as it pass through fields of scree and boulders, with stands of pine hanging on at the treeline.

My footwear and the indiscriminate path became an issue on the far side of Lake Isabelle. We were maybe a half-mile from Isabelle Glacier but I had no stomach for an attempt with snow rapidly turning to slush on the path. I knew my shoes would make it a rough ascent. The glacier would hold for another season. 

We moved down quickly through the rocks, roots slush until Long Lake, at which point the path stayed damp and muddy back to Brainerd Lake. The day warmed considerably from our initial steps and the crowds thickened around Brainer Lake, mostly for quick pictures. The glacier would hold for another year, I had to hope, even if the ring of majestic peaks around the three lakes wasn’t going anywhere for millennia. 

Mountains ringing the lakes
Picturesque Lake Isabelle
From Isabelle's far shore

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