I thought I had outsmarted the tourists. Everyone else would have arrived early in the morning and would now be leaving Brainard Lake. I would sneak in around 1 p.m. on this clear sunny day and snag a parking spot. How wrong I was.
As I neared the entrance gate on Sunday, a line of at least thirty cars stretched out on the road in front of me. Oh, well, the line will probably go fast. Thirty minutes later, and I had edged up maybe three car lengths.
Brainard Lake has become an extension of Rocky Mountain National Park and is in danger of being loved to death. Because it is not a through road, the entrance gate actually has to stop people from entering when parking becomes maxed out, which is happening quite frequently this summer.
Since I live a mere 20 minutes from Brainard, I felt unwilling to give any more of my precious time waiting in line. Because I’m local, I knew of another trailhead on my way home that I felt certain would be a lot less crowded — Rainbow Lakes.
Off the Beaten Path
The Rainbow Lakes road is only a few miles north of Nederland on the west side of the road. The road also provides access to a University of Colorado research facility and Niwot Ridge. But if you head straight up the dirt road, you’ll come to the Rainbow Lakes trail head and campground. The road is packed dirt and bumpy at times, but perfectly doable for a 2-wheel drive car.
There were still about fifty cars parked at the parking area and along the road, but that seemed positively calm compared to the madness of Brainard. After a 1/4-mile walk up the main trail, you are faced with a decision. Head straight ahead to the lovely chain of Rainbow Lakes and beaver ponds, about 2.5 miles one way.
Or head right up through the forest along the 8-mile trail to Arapaho Glacier Overlook, eventually intersecting with the Arapaho Pass trail. The first 3.5 miles take you through a spruce and fir forest. The walking is easy enough with a gradual ascent switch backing through the trees. NOTE: there is no water at all on this trail, so if you are bringing dogs, you will need to carry extra water for them.
Earning the Views
As you near timberline, the tundra opens up before you. You’ll head west, and receive a glorious view of the Indian Peaks and some alpine lakes. This view is as breathtaking and panoramic as any view out of either Hessie or Brainard Lake. You’ll just have to work a little harder to get to it — over 2,000 feet of climbing to be exact.
You can go on for another two miles to get to the overlook of Arapaho Glacier or turn around here, having enjoyed the magnificence of the Rocky Mountains. If you have two cars and are willing to set up a shuttle, you can hike straight through to the Arapaho Pass Trail and head out via Fourth of July Trailhead.
The Indian Peaks Wilderness is one of the most visited wilderness areas in the country. But if you are willing to consider some lesser known trail heads like Rainbow Lakes, you can still find a sense of solitude in the wilderness.