text and photography by Ryan Stikeleather
Mother Nature doesn’t always like my plans. Back in 2014, my family and I, were making our first epic road-trip; Colorado to Montana. I had always wanted to visit Glacier National Park, and it was finally happening. I studied maps, pondered over possible campsites, marveled at breathtaking photographs. It was going to be the best road trip...ever.
Two weeks before our planned trip, a late-season snowstorm dumped more than a foot of snow on the park. The heavy snow further delayed the opening of all 50 miles of Going-to-the-Sun Road.
This road is the only connection, inside the park, for both east and west sides. If it’s closed, the drive from one side to the other is much, much longer. So, not exactly what you want.
So, we made adjustments to our trip, postponed it by two weeks, and hoped for the best.
While most of Going-to-the-Sun Road was open, we couldn’t drive the entire length. We even had to change a planned hike due to lingering snow on the trails. Mother Nature doesn’t always take your plans into consideration.
Just The Facts
Trail: Blue Lake via Mitchell Lake Trail
Elevation Gain: 1470 ft
Distance: 6.3 mi. (out and back)
Trail Use: Hiking, Snowshoeing, Trail Running
Trail Condition: Maintained, and clearly marked
Bring Your Dog: Yes (but must be on a leash)
Access: mid-June through mid-October
Trail Map/Information: https://www.fs.usda.gov
Entrance fee: $11 Daily
Colorado is prone to changeable weather too. Shocker, I know. I’d planned an overnight hike during the week of the 4th of July. But, two days before the trip, I found out a wildfire had started near my camping spot. Sure, it was many miles away, but wildfires can change directions within minutes. Wildfires are no joke.
I’m not suggesting staying out of the mountains because it’s wildfire season. But, I’d never recommend hiking or camping near a wildfire. That's a whole different burn than my tube of Hawaiian Tropic SPF 50 can handle.
So, now what?
I ended up scrapping the overnight trip altogether. As much as I’m dying to go camping, it wasn’t going to work out. After mulling over whether I wanted to do a short or long hike, I decided to stick with a simple day hike.
But where to go?
This is when it’s nice to have an old favorite. A location you know isn’t going to disappoint. Like hanging out with an old friend you haven’t seen in a long time.
It’s Crowded At The Top
When my wife was a little girl, she spent many summer nights exploring Brainard Lake. We brought our daughter here for our first family camping trip. So many fond memories connect to Brainard Lake. Brainard Lake Recreation Area is like and old friend.
It's a noted spot for hiking, fishing, camping, snowshoeing…the list goes on and on. Popular usually means busy, and today was going to be a busy day.
Nestled in Roosevelt National Forest, some of it’s more popular trails lead into Indian Peaks Wilderness Area. Indian Peaks WA has no shortage of amazing hikes. In fact, my all-time favorite hike is in Indian Peaks.
July might seem like summertime to us, but the higher elevations kind of do whatever they want. The mountains have their own time table, and late season snow changes everything. Even though access has been available for awhile, much of the parking lot was still closed. I guess I should say, parking at the trailheads was still closed.
During peak-visiting-times, parking at Brainard Lake can be challenging at best, impossible at its worst. No big deal, it’s only an extra half-mile trek to the Mitchell Lake Trailhead.
Crisp morning air and clear blue skies. Two perfect examples of why hitting a trail early is often the best option. Plus, you can beat most of the hiking traffic. But, I wasn’t alone...not by a long shot.
Even though I was starting around 8am, there were at least four other groups ahead of me. Since I’m slow (somebody has to take the photographs) I was frequently passed by other hikers, eager to reach the lake. Yeah, It’s a busy trail.
The path is typical for a well-visited area, and suitable for your average day-hike. Wide and well maintained, twisting through spruce and fir forest. Spacious boardwalks cover boggy areas and help keep human impact to a minimum. Lingering snow, protected by deep shadows, still invaded the edges of the trail. Squish and slurp from boots in mud. Trickles of water from snowmelt...expect to get a little dirty.
On the whole, it's an easy trail, but it can be a bit challenging. Large rocks and exposed roots are common. I'd recommend sturdy boots, and trekking poles are a staple for me.
The snow runoff keeps Mitchell Creek active. The cold, clear water dashes against boulders, pours over and around fallen trees, and provides a constant liquid-rumble to forest. Little birds dart tree-to-tree. Their merry tunes adding music to the sounds of nature. An attentive family of deer, all twitching ears and swishing tails, graze in the warm sunlight. It’s a good time to be in the mountains of Colorado.
About a half-mile along the trail, I leave the Roosevelt National Forest and cross the boundary into Indian Peaks Wilderness Area. More snow covers the trail before reaching Mitchell Lake, but not so much I couldn’t get down to the lake. The crystal water shimmers and sparkles below the mountain peaks.
After a quick snack, I was ready to tackle the next two miles to Blue Lake.
Water, Water, Everywhere
Creek crossings are always exciting. Sometimes, it’s a well constructed bridge. Other times, it’s a smooth log lying over the creek. This trail gives you both. The “log over the creek” version is pretty awesome.
The excitement level will, more or less, relate to the amount of water rushing by—or your fear of getting wet. The snowmelt feed current bubbles and rolls as it courses to Mitchell Lake. I’m making it sound very dramatic and hazardous, it's not. It’s an easy creek to cross. The logs are large and close together. But, I do have terrible balance. So, if anyone was going to get wet, it’d be me. Well, I’m proud to say I made it over without any issues.
After the creek crossing, there are more wide planks to traverse. The marshy meadows surrounding the wooden walkway are starting to bloom with wildflowers. Fireweed, Parry Primrose, and one of my favorites; pink elephants. Wildflower season isn’t very long, but the delayed effect in the high-country helps extend the viewing times later into July and August.
As I make my way out of the forests and into more open space, the scenery fades from subalpine to alpine tundra. The rising sun pushes the temperatures higher warming everything up.
I started out with a fleece jacket, but the switch to short-sleeves didn’t take long. It’s important to remember sunscreen and proper headwear while hiking. Be sure to bring water too. Nobody wants to get a sunburn or end up dehydrated.
Where The Earth Meets The Sky
The rocky trail guides me past open valleys with small pools glistening in the abundant sunlight. Rocky slabs morph into stepping stones, urging me to climb up to the next vista.
I’m always astounded by how much water flows from Colorado. Being a headwater state, Colorado’s mountains supply water to 18 state and Mexico. Watching snowpack turn into water.
The lake is surrounded by peaks. Pawnee Peak on the left, triangular-shaped Mt Toll—jutting upward into the cloudless sky, Pauite Peak, and Mt Aududon complete the ring. It does feel like I could reach up, and touch the sky.
Blue Lake is all that remains of an old glacier. A reminder of what once was, the lake is still covered by a massive cap of snow. It'll take a few more weeks before the lake is free. The edges have melted and retreated enough to view the blue water. It's deep, almost 100’ in some spots.
When I arrived, there several groups lounging on the rocky shore. Soaking up the scenery, having a snack, or daring to take a polar bear plunge. Sure, that might sound crazy, but the air temperature was pretty warm. The abundant sunshine, a gentle breeze...summer is on its way, even way up here.
I know it might seem like a little thing, but always practice Pack It In, Pack It Out. I don’t want to sound like some old stick-in-the-mud, but it’s important. Blue Lake (and the Mitchell Lake hiking trail) are busy spots. It’s important to always pick up any trash you might see, and not leave any behind. I’m sure the person who left the pile of orange peel didn’t think it was such a big deal. Its biodegradable, right? Well, it is a big deal. If it doesn’t grow there naturally, don’t leave it behind.
Time To Go
Like all good things, my time at Blue Lake had to end. The mid-day hikers streaming in and the area was getting a little too crowded for my taste. But, I knew I wanted to stop at some other spots on the way back down.
I know the lakes are getting all the attention, but there are several ponds along the trail. Later in the summer, Mitchell Lake will have frequent visits from moose and elk. The ponds are no different. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of something other than fellow hikers. I didn’t see any big game, but I did see a few marmots. Also, listen for the tiny, barking of Pika.
Every trail has its own rewards. Mitchell Lake and Blue Lake turned out to be a fantastic back-up plan. An easy hike, stunning views, lakes and ponds…this hike has it all. Even though Mother Nature forced me to switch plans, I got to reconnect with an old favorite. I couldn’t have planned it better it I tried.