One of my favorite places to hike in Colorado is in the Brainard Lake Recreation Area. I was flipping through our family hiking journal and came across what is best described as a love note about a hike we took to Blue Lake a few years ago. Despite the cold and rainy weather, I left enamored with the beauty we enjoyed along the trail. I’m surprised I haven’t written about this hike until now.
Brainard Lake Recreation Area
The hike to Blue Lake begins in the Brainard Lake Recreation Area, a popular hiking destination in Colorado. It is located approximately 1 hr 20 minutes from Denver, 50 minutes from Boulder, and 50 minutes from Estes Park. If you buy a pass to get into Rocky Mountain National Park, it’s good to know that there is a separate fee to get in to this National Wilderness Area. There is a lot of great hiking here for both humans and their pets. (dogs are allowed to hike on leash.)
The best way to get to Blue Lake is to begin at the Mitchell Lake trail head, but because of this destination’s popularity, we had to park a little further away near Brainard Lake.
Our hike was 6.2 miles round trip and gained 1,250 feet in elevation. Brainard Lake Recreation Area starts at a high elevation so snow typically sticks around longer in the season. Ideal hiking is late July through August.
Once past Mitchell Lake, the trail climbed up through rocky terrain with expansive views of the surrounding mountains.
We took this hike back in August 2016. It felt like an accomplishment for all of us because our toddler endured the rainy, cold weather. My husband carried our daughter the longer distance and greater elevation gain on his back. I was carrying a little one too because I was pregnant with our second daughter who is now 2!
Time flies, but it’s great to look back at all of the memories we have made along the way.
Additional Information About Blue Lake and Brainard Lake Recreation Area:
Through all the things my eyes have seen The best by far is you
Tomorrow is my daughter’s 2nd birthday, so I’m feeling extra sentimental about everything… even this post about hikes with amazing views. I asked my husband which hikes near Estes Park, Colorado he thinks of when I say, ‘wide open views’ and he responded, ‘with kids, or without?’ I attempted to break them into two categories, but as you can see there are several hikes that overlap.
Kid-Friendly Hikes with A+ Views
Lily Lake Ridge
Lily Lake is approximately six miles south of Estes Park on Highway 7. (Lily Ridge shouldn’t be confused with Lily Mountain which can be accessed a quarter mile closer to town.) We hiked up Lily Ridge in late November when Lily Lake was covered in ice. The ridge provided views of the surrounding snow covered mountains including Longs Peak. The hike around the lake is .8 miles. The ridge adds another .4 miles and 100 feet of elevation.
The hike to Gem Lake starts at the Lumpy Ridge trailhead and goes through unique rock formations like Paul Bunyan’s boot. This is a moderately strenuous hike because of the steep steps that lead up to the lake. Gem Lake is small and shallow. It is framed by a rocky, sand beach on one side and sheer rock formations on the other side. The views you see along the way are expansive. The hike is 1.8 miles each way. You can read more here, Rocky Mountain Tot Goes to Gem Lake.
There is something very rewarding about making it to the summit of a mountain. The trailhead for this summit hike is located off of Deer Ridge Junction, a few miles west of Rocky Mountain National Park’s Beaver Meadows entrance. The summit is at 10,013 ft. of elevation. The hike is 3 miles each way.
Warning – I think Eric considered this hike harder than his 17 mile trek over the Continental Divide because he was carrying a preschooler on his back. A lot of this hike was uphill, so it was a good challenge for us. The Wild Basin area of Rocky Mountain National Park is located 19 miles south of Estes Park. Most hikes we enjoy in this area begin at the Wild Basin trailhead. We wanted to try something new, so we began at the Finch Lake trailhead and we were rewarded with panoramic views. Instead of going up further to Finch Lake we headed downhill towards the Wild Basin trailhead and got to stop at some of our favorite waterfalls along the way. I wrote all about it here, Sweeping Mountain Views and Waterfalls – Our New Favorite Hike in Rocky Mountain National Park’s Wild Basin.
Advanced Level Hiking with Inspiring Views
Lily Mountain is a fun, quick summit hike with excellent 360 degree views from the top. Dogs are allowed on the trail because it is part of the Roosevelt National Forest. The trail begins relatively flat. You cross through a landside area at approximately .3 miles. After you cross, the trail climbs up steadily with a few good lookouts of the Estes Valley. The last couple hundred feet are a class 2 scramble to the summit. When Cecy was a baby we took her on this hike, but Eric generously offered to stay back with her while I hiked up the last portion. The hike is 1.8 miles each way.
We hiked to Estes Cone from the Longs Peak trailhead. It can be difficult to find parking spots during the summer, but in early October we had no issues. This was another hike that we brought our daughter on in her baby carrier, but Eric let me hike the last .7 miles on my own because we felt the trail was becoming too steep. The summit is rewarding with amazing views of Longs Peak and surrounding mountains. The hike is 3.3 miles each way. Read more about it here, Hike to Estes Cone.
Twin Sisters Peaks
Climbing up Twin Sisters Peaks was my very first hike in Rocky Mountain National Park. My husband took me on an adventurous long-weekend trip a few months after we got married. Three years later we hiked the same trail with our baby. It’s amazing how a few years can change things! Part of the trail was wiped out from a large landslide and we learned carrying a baby up to 11,413 feet of elevation was much harder than we expected. I wouldn’t recommend bringing little ones on this hike. For us, it’s a special hike that we get to do when we have kind family members willing to babysit. This hike is 7 miles round trip. I give more details here, Twin Sisters Peaks.
Standing at Bear Lake, I point up to Hallett Peak and I tell my girls, ‘Your mommy has climbed that.’ This year I’m going to climb it again, it’s on my list!
Evelyn Lily, we love you so much! Happy birthday to our sweet, tough, funny and smart little girl! I wish you a life time of reaching high and enjoying all of the amazing views.
I can’t see a hawk without saying ‘5 points!’ out loud. When I was a kid we took long family road trips from Kansas City, Missouri to Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and California. We filled the hours in the car by playing games. My favorite was the ‘animal game’ where we would spot animals and get points. Now that I’m a parent, I’ve adopted the game for all the animals we might see during our trips to the Rocky Mountains.
Animal Game Rules:
1. The first person who says the name of the animal they see out loud claims the points. 2. You can’t multiply your points when you see a herd, but for animals with antlers such as deer, elk or moose you can say both ‘male moose’ and ‘female moose’ which doubles your points. 3. You can get points for the same type of animal, but it has to be a newly spotted animal not belonging to the same herd.
We’ve assigned points based on how often we’ve seen animals in the Rocky Mountains.
Mountain Lions – 100 Points
We’ve never seen a mountain lion on our trips to Rocky Mountain National Park, but we have seen signage to be aware that they can be in the area.
Bear – 50
My husband is the only one in our family who has seen a bear (or two). He heard loud rummaging noises around the garbage near our old condo and spotted two large bears looking for late-night snacks. The complex immediately put in better bear-proof trash receptacles to make sure the bears weren’t drawn back to the area.
Male Moose – 25 & Female Moose – 25
We’ve spotted moose in several locations in Rocky Mountain National Park including Sprague Lake, the Cub Lake trail, Kawuneeche Valley and in the Wild Basin. We’ve also seen a herd near Brainard Lake Recreation Area. It seems like the easiest way to spot a moose is to watch for large groups of cars pulled over on the West Side of the park. A male moose is called a bull. This name serves as an appropriate reminder to give them space when you see them.
Male Bighorn Sheep – 25 & Female Sheep – 25
Sheep Lakes is located near the Fall River Entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. It is the only spot where we have seen a bighorn sheep inside the park. We have also spotted them driving down Fall River Road and along scenic Highway 34 on the route to Fort Collins, Colorado from Estes Park. We have never seen rams dueling and think that should be worth an extra 50 points if you want a bonus opportunity.
Coyote – 25
We’ve spotted coyotes a couple of times during the winter months in Rocky Mountain National Park. We watched a handsome coyote prowling for its food near the Beaver Meadows Entrance. We saw another sitting proudly looking over the valley near the Moraine Park Discovery Center which was closed for the season.
Fox – 20
One snowy morning, we hiked around Lily Lake and spotted a fox in the woods. I didn’t get a picture, but the image stands out in my mind as a special moment.
Marmot – 20
We spotted this marmot on a hike up Twin Sisters Peaks. We’ve also seen marmots basking near Timberline Falls, in the Alpine Tundra on the Ute Trail and even at Emerald Lake (which surprised me).
Pika – 20
Pikas also live in higher elevation. You can see them running around busily collecting food. I usually hear a pika call out before I see them because they are small and blend in well with rocks.
Eagle – 20
It’s always exciting to see our nation’s bird. We spotted this eagle near Lake Estes.
Owl – 20
If you want to spot an owl, a good place to look is right behind the library in downtown Estes Park, CO. Even with this clue, you will have to search hard because the family of owls that live here blend in so well to the rocky surroundings.
Snake – 10
To be honest, I’m scared of snakes and I don’t care to see them on our hikes. It makes me feel better knowing that snakes in Rocky Mountain National Park are not poisonous. We’ve spotted them near Lily Lake and on our hike through the meadow towards Cub Lake.
Male Elk – 5 & Female Elk – 5
It feels wrong to make elk spotting worth only 5 points in this game, but they are so prolific in Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park, Colorado that you might not have to leave your vacation rental to see one. No matter how many times I see elk, I still get excited. They are beautiful, but it’s good to remember they are massive animals (often with big antlers) and you need to give them space. I used my camera’s zoom to get this picture.
Elk rut season is in October. It’s exciting to hear the distinctive elk bugle calls and see the bull elks fighting for their harem – a group of female (cow) elk. When you see a scrimmage like this, you can add 10 bonus points.
Male Deer- 5 & Female Deer – 5
Like elk, deer can be seen all over Rocky Mountain National Park and around town in Estes Park, CO.
Chipmunk – 5
Sometimes I feel like we see too many chipmunks. Just kidding cute little fellow! But for real, these guys will steal your picnic.
Hummingbird – 5
Sweet little hummingbirds are fun to watch while I’m enjoying a meal out on the patio at restaurants along the Estes Park Riverwalk. I’ve also seen them on the Homer Rouse trail and near Lily Lake.
Hawk or Turkey – 5
We’ve seen turkeys crossing the road in Estes Park and also on my horse back riding tour into Rocky Mountain National Park.
Trout – 5
Trout are good at blending into the rocks of mountain lakes like The Loch and Sprague Lake. Earn 10 bonus points if you catch one, just make sure you get a permit first.
At the end of your trip you can add up all the points each person earned by spotting wildlife in Rocky Mountain National Park. Final step: Start planning your next trip back to the mountains for a redemption round.
Do you play your own version of the animal game or have any other road trip favorites?
Government (is still) shutdown
I had so much fun writing this lighthearted article about animals that I hesitate adding to the conversation about how the government shutdown is affecting the national parks. Unfortunately, the past three weeks have taken a toll. Here is a recent article from Westworld that helped me understand some of the impacts I wouldn’t have considered. The article also has some suggestions on how people can help.
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One of our favorite afternoon activities in Estes Park, Colorado is to take relaxing drives to spot wildlife and enjoy views of the surrounding mountains. In December, we grabbed a couple of steaming lattes at the new Ziggi’s Coffee drive-thru and headed down Highway 7, which is part of the Peak to Peak National Scenic Byway.
Along the way we stopped at Saint Malo Center which is located in Allenspark, Colorado between two of our favorite destinations in Rocky Mountain National Park, Lily Lake and the Wild Basin.
Much of Saint Malo Center is undergoing needed restoration work caused by damage from fire, flooding and landslides. The scenery remains heavenly with views of Mount Meeker.
“Upon arriving in Denver I lifted my eyes toward the splendor of the Rocky Mountains, whose majesty and power recall that all our help comes from the Lord, who has made heaven and earth (cf. Ps. 121:1). He alone is the rock of our salvation. (cf. Ps. 89:26).”
Pope John Paul II
Pope St. John Paul II hiked the trails around the center and he blessed St. Catherine of Siena Chapel, also known as Chapel on the Rock, while visiting Denver for World Youth Day in 1993.
You don’t have to be a saint to visit the chapel, it’s open to the public year round from 10 am to 4 pm (except for Thanksgiving and Christmas). Mass is held each Wednesday at Noon.
More information about the history and future renovations at St. Malo Center can be found at campstmalo.org.
I am Catholic, so you would think after years of visiting this beautiful spot I would have made it to Mass there once, but unfortunately I have not.
We typically attend service at Our Lady of the Mountains in Estes Park, Colorado. Worship times are on their website. Perhaps this picture of the girls and me in our Easter dresses helps explain why I have failed to take a picture of Our Lady of the Mountains. When we make it to church these days, my hands are pretty full.
I often feel a special spiritual connection while I’m hiking in the mountains, but we are happy that there are several options to experience Catholic churches in Estes Park as well – whether it’s a quiet moment to say a prayer at the Chapel on the Rock or a full Mass at Our Lady of the Mountains.
If you make it through a special hike or an hour-long Sunday service, you can’t go wrong with Donut Haus in Estes Park to reward everyone’s good behavior. When we’ve been there, the Sunday special has been blueberry donuts. You have to get there early before they sell out, especially in the summer.
I updated this post about one of our first hikes in the Wild Basin Area of Rocky Mountain National Park. I also added a pair of fingerless gloves to Shop Our Favorite Things. I think they would help with winter picture taking. Has anyone tried wearing fingerless gloves? Do they still keep you warm?