Get Outside! Hiking to Mitchell & Blue Lakes

Well-Maintained Trail To Two Forest Lakes

The basics: Mitchell Lake, 2 miles RT, Blue Lakes 6 miles RT Elevation gain: to Mitchell: 200 feet. To Blue: 800 feet. Fee: $8 per car unless you have the new National Parks pass that includes Forest areas Trailhead: From Nederland, head North on Highway 72. After 13 miles, turn west onto the Brainard Lake Road (County Road 102 or National Forest System Road 112). That’s just north of the town of Ward. You’ll drive another 5 miles on the paved road Brainard Lake. Go past the lake and follow the signs to the Mitchell Lake Trailhead.

The good: Not much elevation gain Beautiful lakes Good trail

The bad: Expect crowds Arrive early or you might have to park more than 1 mile from the trailhead.

I rarely hike the same trail more than once, but I made an exception in this case. The last time I went to Blue Lake was early in the season, so early that we post holed between Mitchell Lake and Blue Lake-- and Blue Lake was still 95 percent frozen. I wanted to see it melted, so I decided this would be a good jaunt for a weekend in August.

Blue, Mitchell, Isabelle, Long and Brainard lakes are in the Indian Peaks Wilderness area, but the parking area is in the Brainard Lake Recreation Area, so you'll need to bring money to get into this area from about mid-June to mid-October. Before I headed out, I checked the price. This year, it’s $8 for a car pass that’s good for 5 days, or $35 for a season pass. Fortunately, I had exactly $8 in my wallet so off I went. Turns out I didn’t need the $8; I could’ve used my new National Park Pass. Since the National Parks Pass went from $50 to $80 a year, it now includes forest service areas like Brainard Lake. I didn’t bring my parks pass, so I ended up donating $8 to the government. Maybe my loss will save you some money. At the entrance station, get a map. It’s nothing fancy, but it has good information about the trails in case you see a sign and want to consider changing to a different hike/trail.Blue Lake in late spring.

I can’t stress enough that you need to arrive early. I got the Mitchell & Blue Lake trailhead at 8:15 a.m. The upper part of the parking lot was full, but I fuond a space in the lower part of the lot. By the time I left the parking lot at noon, I drove more than 1 mile before I found an open parking spot along the side of the road.

The trailhead has a pit toilet, your typical signs and even a little cabin of sorts with a ranger to answer questions. Then you’re off and hiking on the trail. Dogs are allowed on this trail, but they’re supposed to be kept on a leash. At one point, I counted more than a dozen dogs on the trail the Saturday I made this hike.

The trail to Mitchell and then to Blue Lake is easy to moderate. There are some sections with a bit of climbing, and there are sections that are relatively flat. There are a couple sections with some pretty decent rock stairs that’ll take your breath away. Just remember, it’s always good to take a “water break” or a “picture stop.” And remember, everyone has a different fitness level on the trail. I made it to Blue Lake in 65 minutes, but I saw other people resting on the trail between the trailhead and Mitchell Lake. There were also plenty of people who only hiked to Mitchell Lake then laid out their blankets and brought out their picnic gear to hang out there all day-- they weren’t going any further.

Mitchell Lake is a great destination itself. It has a pretty view and plenty of places to sit and enjoy the water, and I even saw a couple fishing—one in the water, the other from the bank. Mitchell Lake in the Brainard Lake Recreation Area.

After a stop at Mitchell, I decided to continue on. This is where the going gets tough occasionally-- expect two to three moderate climbs. The trail can be quite rocky at times, even when it’s flat, so take your time and watch your footing. I took a fall at one point because I was looking at the scenery and not my feet.

Blue Lake is in a cirque at tree line below Mount Toll (elevation 12,979'). Make sure you watch the weather in this area. The first time we did this hike, some hikers coming down from the lake asked us if we were watching the clouds. We weren’t. We looked up and saw the black clouds moving quickly. We ended up taking refuge in the willows just off the trail as the rain and hail storm moved through. Fortunately, 15 minutes later, the storm had passed and there were blue clouds over the lake.

On this day, the weather stayed clear, maybe because it was so early in the morning and I arrived at the lake to find it melted and beautiful. I saw another hiker lying down on a rock and I decided to do the same. I found a spot and enjoyed a snack and the view for more than an hour. I really liked that while it was 95+ degrees in the metro area, I was sitting at a lake putting my coat on because the wind coming off the lake was so nice and chilly. Bring breakfast, bring lunch or bring a snack, but plan to spend some time enjoying the views in each direction at Blue Lake. It’s a great place to pass some time. The trail over Mitchell Creek.

You may also want to spend some time contemplating the mountains above Blue Lake and deciding if you want to come back and climb Mount Audubon, a 13er above the lake. While some head up from Blue Lake, there is a trail to the summit from the Mitchell Lake trailhead, for more information, click here. Some folks also climb nearby Paiute Peak.

  • For more information about the Mitchell Lake trail, click here for information about Mitchell Lake on the Forest Service web site.
  • For more information about the Blue Lake trail, click here for information about Blue Lake on the Forest Service web site.

    I enjoy hearing from readers of my hiking reports, please e-mail me with questions, comments or hiking trail suggestions, deb_stanley@kmgh.com.

    Previous hiking reports:(lower elevation hikes have a star) Boulder: Caribou Ranch*, Mallory Cave*, Marshall Mesa,Heil Valley Ranch* Forsythe Canyon*, South Boulder Peak*, The Boulder Flatirons*, Walker Ranch*, Bear Peak*, Rabbit Mountain*, Bald Mountain*, Betasso Preserve*, Wonderland Lake* Golden area: Forgotten Valley, Chimney Gulch*, Apex Park* Jefferson County: Mt. Falcon*, Elk Meadow* I-70 area: Herman Gulch, Chicago Lakes, Chief Mountain Rocky Mountain National Park: Granite Falls, Twin Sisters, Bierstadt Lake, Chasm Lake, Lulu City & Little Yellowstone, The Loch, Andrew's Glacier, Sandbeach Lake Indian Peaks/James Peak Wilderness: King, Bob & Betty Lakes, Forest Lakes, Arapaho Lakes, James Peak Area, Heart Lake Northern Colorado: Homestead Meadows, Devil's Backbone*, Lake Agnes Summit & Eagle Counties: Booth Falls, Missouri Lakes, Mohawk Lakes & Continental Falls Grand County: St Louis Lake, Waterfall At Snow Mountain Ranch, Granby Ranch Other: Exploring Fulford Cave, Our Favorite Hikes, Our Favorite Bike Rides