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Brainard Lake Recreation Area – Niwot Ridge Trail

Distance11.72 mi
Elevation Gain2221 feet
My Time5 hr 5 min
Closest TownNederland
Food NearbyCovered Wagon

Brainard Lake Recreation Area

Brainard Lake Recreation Area has so many different trails and they are all pretty amazing. I decided to try one that isn’t marked but is on the map that gets you birds eye view of the park.

Before We Begin

Brainard is sort of known for having some moose that are around. Well this morning before I even got to the trailhead I saw these three eating some breakfast.

There are some more pictures of the moose below in the gallery as well. They actually didn’t move far as they were just across the street from this spot as I was leaving and I got some pictures of that as well.

Niwot Cutoff

The Niwot cutoff trail takes you from the Niwot picnic area towards Long Lake and the Jean Dunning Trail. This is the trail that you can take to get to the ridge trail if you get there early enough to grab that parking area.

The cutoff trail is a nice forested trail that doesn’t have too much of an incline to it. It takes you towards a boardwalk on the Jean Dunning trail and along the way there are some pretty nice view of the park.

The view of the Indian Peaks from the Niwot Cutoff trail.  There are pine trees in the foreground with huge mountains in the background.

The Niwot ridge trail is a little tricky to find. It is on the park map if you are good at things like that or you can look for the big boulder and the unmarked trail and that will put you on the right path.

The Niwot Ridge trail cutting off to the left of the main trail.

Niwot Ridge Trail

The Niwot Ridge trail starts a lot like the cutoff trail through a forested section of the park. There are some really long meandering switchbacks that keep the steep elevation gains to a minimum. While the beginning of the trail is really narrow it opens up as you get into the woods a bit more and is a very well defined trail.

You will switchback a couple of times as you climb and cover about a mile of distance. You will also gain about 500 feet of elevation but the length of the trail makes it a tolerable climb for most. The higher you go up the hill the better and better the views get. Here is a look at Long Lake from the trail.

A view of Long Lake  from about halfway up the Niwot Ridge trail.  There are pine trees surrounding the lake with the lake in the center and mountain peaks in the background.

Niwot Ridge Biosphere Reserve

The next stage of the hike is as the trees are replaced by the small bushes. The trail gets a lot rockier and you are surrounded by tundra. This is actually a research area that is a combined effort of Colorado University and the US Forest Service. Please stay on the trail from here on!

The tundra setting surrounds you with big views of the surrounding area and little in the way of cover so make sure you bring your sunscreen. I had heard that it is also really windy up here but when I went the wind wasn’t blowing at all. It was almost scary how calm and quiet it was.

You will circle around a hill and walk over a sadle for a bit and eventually come to the side of the park where you get to see the peaks from a different perspective.

The backside of the peaks that are so popular at Brainard Lake Rec Area.

After you circle around the hill you will find yourself on a dirt road that takes you past some research buildings and equipment and the Boulder County Watershed (No Trespassing). The dirt road does continue and is marked with about 8 foot poles in the ground that takes you to the top of the ridge.

The Ridge

One bit of warning on the ridge is that it is a lot longer than it looks. I kept thinking that the next little hill will be the last and then I just kept walking. It is sort of like in Vegas when it looks like a hotel down the strip is close but you just keep walking and it never gets closer.

That was how it was on the ridge. I just kept walking towards the peaks thinking they were getting closer but they never seemed too. I think it ended up being another mile and half to finally get to the last research building and the end of the road.

a small mountain like surrounded by peaks in the distance at the end of the service road.

There is a rumor that if you keep walking on the ridge you will actually end up at the top of Navajo Peak but I didn’t want to find out today. Maybe for another day. Here is a look at the stats from today’s hike.

Distance and Elevation

If you don’t have the AllTrails app you might want to check it out, I really love mine. It records your progress and is a great way to search for hikes that are nearby and gives you difficulty measurements. According to AllTrails today’s hike was around 11.72 miles and had a total elevation gain of about 2,221 feet including undulations. That put the high point at around 12,288 feet. I was also moving for a total of 5 hours and 05 minutes.

I am a Pro member of AllTrails and love it. If you are interested in the platform, please consider using my affiliate link for AllTrails. It gives me a small commission with no extra cost to you.


Even though this is a long hike there aren’t any extreme elevation gains. The terrain does get a little rocky so that slowed me down a bit but overall a challenging hike but not overwhelming. Here are my step stats from Fitbit.

Step count from today's hike. 29993 steps for this hike.


The first half of this hike is in the forest with a well defined trail and a softer trail with some large rocks in-bedded. Once you clear the tree line the trail gets more rocky and marked mostly by cairns but it is still pretty easy to follow though there is some overgrowth that will hit you in the ankles and arms. To get to the top of the ridge you will walk on a dirt/rock road that gets less and less defined the farther you go. I would suggest a good pair of hiking shoes and poles.


The Brainard Lake Recreation Area is located near Ward, Colorado on the Peak to Peak highway. (Rte 72) It has several hiking trails, the Pawnee Campground, several lakes and is part of the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area and the Roosevelt National Forest. There is a $12 day pass rate to get a vehicle in. Other prices for buses and some yearly passes available on their website. There is an OK amount of parking but it does fill up quick. Restrooms (pit toilets) are located near the parking and some picnic area’s spread out as well. This trail starts at the Niwot picnic area.

Wrap up

I really enjoyed this hike. Brainard has some really popular hikes like Blue Lake and Lake Isabelle and even some peaks that you can climb. What I found with those other hikes is that they are really rocky. While Niwot Ridge was rocky it didn’t have near the amount of loose rock as some of those other trails.

I also like that, at least when I hiked it, it was not nearly as busy as the other trails. I only saw a total of 3 people on the hike which was a nice change. It is also nice to see the park and the peaks from a different perspective. You will end up over 12,000 feet but it doesn’t really feel like it due to the gradual ascent that make it a little bit easier to handle. It doesn’t quite have the views of the lake hikes but as a change-up to get a different perspective it was a really enjoyable hike.

I have added this hike and all of my hikes on the interactive map section of my website which you can find here. If you have any questions or comments feel free to email me at or you can follow me on any of the below social media platforms. Happy Hiking!

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