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Brainard Lake: Lefthand Reservoir (Winter)

Distance4.08 mi
Elevation Gain600 ft
My Time2 hr 7 min
DifficultyModerate
Closest TownNederland
Food NearbyBusey Brews

Brainard Lake: Lefthand Reservoir

Brainard Lake Recreation Area is one of the most popular areas to hike in Colorado. In winter, the park gate is closed but people still use the trails to hike, snowshoe and cross country ski. The park looks very different in the winter season and so do the trails as shown below on this January hike in 2022. One popular short hike at Brainard is the Lefthand Reservoir winter hike because of its proximity to the winter parking lot.

Getting Started

The only parking lot available in winter at Brainard is the lot just outside of the main gate. The gate is closed so it is really the only option. From the winter lot a few trails split off including the Sourdough trail. You can take Sourdough to the main road or just walk from the parking lot to the road. From the main road, past the closed gate, cross the road to the south and follow the nice wide road!

Lefthand Reservoir Road

The good news is that the trail is entirely on the road. The bad news is that because the road is wide and a section of treeless ground the snow tends to drift into some odd patterns.

A curve in a snow covered road surrounded on either side by green pine trees with tall drifts lining the downhill side of the road.
The deep drifted snow and the road at Brainard for the Lefthand Reservoir Winter hike.

The first mile or so of the road is through thick woods and the snow is more consistent here than later on the trail. The wind, which is usually pretty strong at Brainard in the winter, can also funnel down this open air section to create some challenging conditions. Face coverings are recommended.

As you get further down the road the trees loosen up a little bit and that causes more drifting. The extra drifting can lead to deep spots and then other areas that are almost bare of snow. It can lead to having to take off ski’s or snowshoes for sections and then put them back on a few feet later.

The road with flat snow covering one side and a 3 to 4 foot drift on the other side cutting across at a 45 degree angle on the Lefthand Reservoir road at Brainard in Winter.
A big shelf of snow on the road at Brainard’s Lefthand Reservoir hike in winter.

Lefthand Reservoir

At just under two miles you will come to an opening at the base of a levy. The clearing gives the first really good view of the peaks as you clear the trees.

Mount Audobon standing above the treeline across from a dirt covered lot where the wind had drifted all the snow away at Brainard near the Lefthand Reservoir in winter.
The first look at the mountains near Lefthand Reservoir at Brainard in winter.

From the clearing there is a small hill to climb to get to the top of the levy that separates the reservoir. This hill is also a prime spot for snow drifting and the snow can be uneven. From the top of the hill the Indian Peaks and Lefthand Reservoir all come into view.

The snow covered Indian Peaks range in the background and a dry levy surrounding a very low and frozen lefthand reservoir at Brainard in Winter.
Lefthand Reservoir frozen and low on the left and the Indian Peaks

The levy takes you around the rim of the reservoir and is a great place to stop and take in the views. It is in the open though so the wind can be a bit aggressive in this spot. The reservoir is the end of the line for this hike, although you will pass the Niwot Mountain trail about three quarters down the road if you are looking to explore more!

Drifts

While I mentioned some drifting snow throughout this post, I thought a visual example might be good. Around the reservoir where there aren’t many trees to block the wind the drifting can get a bit extreme. Part of the road can be totally clear while the other side can look more like this…

Me standing in front of a snow drift at Brainard Lefthand reservoir in winter. I have my hand stretched above my head and it is still shorter than the drift.
This drift is about twice my size at Brainard’s Lefthand Reservoir

Now I readily admit that I am not the tallest guy in the world but this snow drift was almost double my height. This can get a bit dangerous depending on how well packed the drift is. The drifting snow can also be really beautiful too. It forms in some unique shapes and designs depending on the wind.

a wall of snow drift that is har and has lines running down horizontally from all of the snow drifting at Brainard Lefthand Reservoir in winter.
Cool shapes and lines of the snow drift coming off the lake at Brainard’s Lefthand Reservoir

If you are going to hike anywhere in the winter, make sure you know what the conditions are like and have the proper supplies and footwear to keep you safe and make the trip a success.

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 4.08 miles and had a total elevation gain of about 600 feet including undulations. That put the high point at around 10,666 feet. I was also moving for a total of 2 hours and 7 minutes.

Effort

While this hike isn’t very long, only about two miles out, and doesn’t have a lot of elevation gain it is a challenging hike. The deep snow can have different levels of firmness so you run the risk of punching through. The snow also has a tendency to drift and cause very uneven surfaces. If you have snow shoes or cross country skies it might be a little easier but some of the drifting causes bare spots which you may need to take off you footwear and put it back on.

Terrain

Snow, snow and more snow. The winter conditions at Brainard can go from several feet of snow to bare spots. The wind is also usually pretty relentless in the winter. Snow shoes, cross country skies are recommended for most of the trails although you might get away with regular traction devices in some areas. Poles are also strongly encouraged. This is also an area that you should be cautious as the snow can drift to ten feet or more in areas and the snow can be unstable if you get off a packed area. Be careful and if you aren’t comfortable in hiking in winter conditions you might want to skip this one.

Access

Brainard Lake Recreation Area is one of the more popular hiking areas in Colorado. In the winter the park is closed and all parking needs to be done at the winter lot just outside of the main gate. The main gate is located on Brainard Lake Road off of Colorado 72 near Ward. There are pit toilets that are available year round at this lot but no running water and room for about 40 cars.

Wrapping UP Brainard: Lefthand Reservoir Winter

The Brainard Lake Recreation area is one of my favorite places to hike year round. The summers have some of the most beautiful terrain in the world with mountains, lakes, streams, and waterfalls. It is also very crowded. The winter brings less crowds and harsher conditions but also a serene beauty that is expanded with the snow.

The Lefthand Reservoir hike in winter at Brainard is a nice one to do because it is close to the parking lot, it has a wide path so you can maximize your steps and it has some fantastic views. If you are comfortable with hiking in the winter and some extreme conditions this might be a good hike for you. Also, plenty of people enjoy cross country skiing and snowshoeing in the area. Whatever you enjoy this could be a good trail to get your bearings in the winter.

I have added this hike and all of my hikes to my interactive map page that you can find here. If you have a suggestion or comment you can email me at fatmanlittletrails@gmail.com. Or follow me on any of the below social media platforms. Happy Hiking!

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