A New Era in Family Hiking, The Best 3 to 6 Mile Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park

This summer we reached a turning point. Gone are the days of baby packs, kid carriers, and short strolls with preschoolers. We will look back on our early years of hiking with fond memories. But let’s be real, hiking with very young children is challenging!

This summer our seven-year-old and five-year-old daughters exceeded our expectations by hiking several of our favorite three to six mile hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park on their own.

Mills Lake

A hike to Mills Lake marked the first big trek of the summer. Mills Lake is in the Bear Lake Corridor of Rocky Mountain National Park. The hike begins at Bear Lake trailhead (9,475 ft elevation). The trail passes by the iconic Alberta Falls. The total distance is 5.6 miles roundtrip.

Looking Back: 2017 post, Seeking Serenity in the Mountains

Mills Lake

EMERALD LAKE

Hiking with best friends was the secret to our successful hike to Emerald Lake. Our group hiked 3.6 miles with an elevation gain of 650 ft. The hike to Emerald Lake is one of the best hikes in RMNP because you pass by Nymph Lake and Dream Lake on your way up. Like Mills Lake, this hike also starts at the Bear Lake trailhead in Rocky Mountain National Park. We didn’t get to enjoy the views at Emerald Lake for long before a sudden hail and rainstorm had us heading down the mountain. By the time we reached the parking lot, the sky cleared, and we saw the most spectacular double rainbow.

Looking Back: 2018 post, Breathtaking Hike to Dream Lake

Young Families in Rocky Mountain National Park

gem lakE

Gem Lake is in Rocky Mountain National Park’s Lumpy Ridge area. The hike is 3.6 miles (1.8 miles each way), gains 1,000 ft of elevation, and features unique rock formations like ‘The Boot’. Rock steps lead to the small mountain lake. These steps are moderately challenging for me. For the girls and their shorter legs, the climb required an extraordinary effort.

Looking Back: 2015 post, Rocky Mountain Tot Goes to Gem Lake

Ouzel Falls

Ouzel Falls is located in the Wild Basin area of Rocky Mountain National Park where abundant wildflowers bloom beside rushing waterfalls. This area is often less crowded and is lower in elevation compared to the Bear Lake area. The hike to Ouzel Falls begins at 8,500 ft of elevation and gains 950 ft. The total distance is 5.4 miles (2.7 miles/way). Before arriving at Ouzel Falls, the trail passes Copeland Falls and the Calypso Cascades which are both beautiful destinations on their own.

Looking Back: 2015 post, Into the Wild Basin in Rocky Mountain National Park

Deer 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 10,013 ft. summit features sweeping views. The hike is 6 miles total distance (3 miles/way).

Looking Back: 2017 post, Deer Mountain – a Family-Friendly Summit Hike In Rocky Mountain National Park

Deer Mountain, good spring summit hike for families in Rocky Mountains

Blue lake in indian peaks wilderness

Unlike the other hikes in this post, Blue Lake is located in the Brainard Lake Recreation Area rather than Rocky Mountain National Park. The recreation area is located approximately 1 hour 20 minutes from Denver, 50 minutes from Boulder, and 50 minutes from Estes Park. The hike is 6.2 miles round trip and gains 1,250 feet in elevation. The trail passes several mountain lakes including Mitchell Lake. We spotted several moose along the trail.

Looking Back: Post from 2016 hike, Add This to Your Hiking Bucket List, Blue Lake in Indian Peaks Wilderness.

The fact that we were able to experience six world-class hikes as a family fills my heart with gratitude. To celebrate, we purchased the girls’ hiking badges for each destination they reached.

I can’t wait to see which badges they will add to their collections next!

Long Lake in Brainard Lake Recreation Area

On today’s hike I have the cutest little hiking buddy around. My 3-year-old daughter and I went on a .3-mile stroll to Long Lake which is located on the border of Brainard Lake Recreation Area entering into the Indian Peaks Wilderness.

Where is brainard lake recreation area?

Estes Park to Brainard Lake
From Estes Park, take Highway 7 to Highway 72 and then turn onto Brainard Lake Road. The drive takes about 50 minutes.

Brainard Lake is also 50 minutes from Boulder and an hour and a half from Denver. Nearby towns include Nederland and Ward. It’s convenient location makes this a popular destination. Plan for long lines at the entrance and limited parking at trailheads, especially on weekends and holidays.

BRAINARD LAKE RECREATION AREA Entrance Fee

A day pass to Brainard Lake typically costs $12 per vehicle during the summer season which is July through mid-October. Brainard Lake Recreation Area is managed by the US Forest Service. You can find more information about fees and guidelines here. We use our annual America the Beautiful pass which includes entry into national forest areas as well as national parks.

When we arrived late in the afternoon, no one was stationed at the entrance booth, so visitors were expected to go to a self-pay kiosk.

Indian Peaks Wilderness. Brainard Lakes Recreation Area. Long Lake trailhead. Hiking Colorado.

parking at long lake trailhead

There are thirty parking spaces at Long Lake trailhead. We were lucky to get a parking spot on this trip. On previous occasions, we’ve parked in the larger parking lot near Brainard Lake and hiked up to the trail. Because of COVID-19, the parking is further restricted to 80% capacity. Once the lots are full, no vehicles are allowed into the park until the next scheduled timed entry. The timed entries are at 6:00 am, 10:30 am, Noon, and 1:30 pm. There is additional parking at the Gateway Trailhead which is located outside of the paying station. Walking trails lead into the main park.

Indian Peaks Wilderness. Brainard Lakes Recreation Area. Long Lake trailhead. Hiking Colorado.

high elevation trails

The elevation of Long Lake is 10,521 ft. There is typically snow until July. It’s unbelievably green and there is an abundance of wildflowers. This area is breathtaking!

Indian Peaks Wilderness. Brainard Lakes Recreation Area. Long Lake trailhead. Hiking Colorado.

dog friendly hiking trails

Dogs are allowed at Brainard Lake Recreation Area if they are on leash. We featured this area in our post, Dog Friendly Hikes near Estes Park, Colorado.

Indian Peaks Wilderness. Brainard Lakes Recreation Area. Long Lake trailhead. Hiking Colorado.

Moose in brainard lake recreation area

On our drive out of the park, we spotted moose near Brainard Lake. We were able to capture these pictures from our car. It’s important to give moose a lot of space because they are fast, large, powerful animals.

Moose at Brainard Lake in Colorado

trail maps for hikes in brainard lake recreation area and indian peaks wilderness

The short walk to Long Lake and back was perfect for my daughter. It was fun to see the little boost to her self-confidence from getting my full attention and slowing the hiking pace to her level. She wanted to look at every rock and step on every tree stump. I don’t have the patience to indulge in this level of curiosity on every hike we go on. It was a special treat for us and I’m thankful for the mini-adventure.

If you want to hike further, there are plenty of options. This map shows the trailheads within Brainard Lake Recreation Area. You can access the Jean Lunning Trail and the Pawnee Pass Trail from the Long Lake trailhead. These trails will take you towards Lake Isabelle. Additional hiking information and an Indian Peaks trail map can be found here.

more posts featuring brainard lake recreation area

Add This to Your Hiking Bucket List! Blue Lake in Indian Peaks Wilderness

2 Day Itinerary with Toddlers in Estes Park

Brainard Lakes Colorado, Indian Peaks Wilderness

Wildflowers in Bloom: A Family Hike to Mitchell Lake

Wildflowers in Bloom: A Family Hike to Mitchell Lake

Recalculating. In a word that is how I can sum up what it’s like to hike with a growing family.

Earlier this year I wrote about one of our all-time favorite hikes to Blue Lake in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area. This summer, the 6.2 mile journey just wasn’t feasible with our 4.5-year-old and a 2.5-year-old. However, we didn’t want to miss an opportunity to visit one of our favorite places in Colorado, so we drove to Brainard Lake Recreation Area which is about 50 minutes from where we stay in Estes Park.

We have an America The Beautiful Pass which covers entrance into federal recreation areas including Rocky Mountain National Park and the Brainard Lake Recreation Area which is run by the U.S. Forest Service. For our family, the inclusive pass is a good annual investment.

Typically, I recommend hiking early in the morning to avoid crowds, but we took a chance and arrived at the park around 3:30 on a Friday afternoon just after a rain shower had rolled through the area. We were lucky to get into the park quickly (expect long lines on weekends/holidays). We also grabbed a parking spot at the Mitchell Lake trailhead.

Mitchell Lake Hike in Brainard Lake Recreation Area, Indian Peaks Wilderness. Features forest, lake, wildflowers, mountain views. Round trip 2 miles. Short family-friendly, dog-friendly hike. Mitchell Lake Trailhead

This is the same path you go on to get to Blue Lake, but we decided to hike to Mitchell Lake which is only 1 mile each way. My preschooler can hike this distance on her own.

This heavily wooded trail leads to Mitchell Lake
Tall pine forest

Good news for families with furry children – dogs are allowed here, but must be kept on a leash.

Dogs are allowed at Brainard Lake Recreation Area

We crossed a bridge over Mitchell Creek before officially entering into the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area.

A wooden bridge crosses over Mitchell Creek
Wooden bridge over Mitchell Creek

There is a lot of water along this trail which attracts mosquitoes. We regretted forgetting our bug spray as we were bombarded.

Mitchell Creek flows from Mitchell Lake
Mitchell Creek flows from Mitchell Lake

Most of the hike is heavily wooded, so views are limited until you arrive at Mitchell Lake which opens up to an impressive backdrop of Mount Audubon.

Mount Audubon

Even in early August, we found little patches of snow to play in.

Snow near Mitchell Lake in Indian Peaks Wilderness Area

Just seeing the stunning array of wildflowers makes this hike worth the drive from Estes Park. When you add in the lush forest and mountain views, it’s a 2 mile hike that is tough to beat! (just remember the bug spray!)

Wildflowers bloom near Mitchell Lake in Indian Peaks Wilderness Area

Add This to Your Hiking Bucket List! Blue Lake in Indian Peaks Wilderness

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.

Mitchell Lake is 10,500 ft in elevation.

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.

Mountain stream with wildflowers blooming in August

Once past Mitchell Lake, the trail climbed up through rocky terrain with expansive views of the surrounding mountains.

Enjoy expansive views

There were several pools and lakes along the trail.

Flowers adorn the mountain side

Hiking through the rain and mist.

Blue Lake sits at 11,300 ft in elevation.

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:

Blue Lake via Mitchell Lake Trail

Brainard Lake Recreation Area Summer Season Map