Within a relatively short distance from Boulder and Denver, the Indian Peaks Wilderness offers opportunities to hike through subalpine forests and experience the seemingly alien tundra environment above the tree line. The trail to Mitchell Lake and Blue Lake, just over 6 miles round-trip with some 1,200 feet of elevation gain, makes for an easy to moderate day hike with beautiful scenery and abundant wildlife.
The trail starts at Brainard Lake Recreation Area, which is located in a glacial valley approximately an hour away from Boulder. The trail then enters the Indian Peaks Wilderness, which is one of the most visited wilderness areas in the country and is located largely in the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests. It was established in 1978, and there are numerous hiking options throughout its 70,000 acres.
The Mitchell Lake Trailhead parking lot is very small and fills up quickly on summer weekends. It is best to get there early in the morning well before 7 a.m., which is also ideal for avoiding afternoon thunderstorms. If the trailhead parking lot is full, there is usually plenty of parking space in the Brainard Lake day use area, though that adds approximately a mile each way to the hike.
There are usually hosts at the Mitchell Lake Trailhead who can answer any questions hikers may have. From there, the mile-long hike through subalpine forest is very pleasant. The trail crosses beautiful mountain streams along the way, including Mitchell Creek. With all that water, summer wildflowers are plentiful both in quantity and variety, and they add color to the already beautiful scenery. Certain sections of the trail do get waterlogged in early summer, however.
Moose are often seen in or around the ponds that form along the trail beyond Mitchell Lake. The rest of the 2-mile trail to Blue Lake is generally steeper as it passes the tree line. The view of the beautiful alpine lake, which is indeed blue, is quite rewarding. It is also a great place to stop for a snack and to take in the view. While most people turn around at that point, the hike around and above the lake offers wonderful views. If you are more ambitious, Upper Blue Lake is a mile farther and is another alpine jewel, though the hike through the moraine is a bit more challenging.
Note that the gate at the fee station is generally open from Memorial Day until sometime in October, depending on weather conditions. If the gate is closed, it is possible to hike and bike 2.5 miles to Brainard Lake. Also, while the trail to Blue Lake is very busy on summer weekends, there is not nearly as much traffic beyond Blue Lake.