Standing at 10,735′, just below Mt Audubon (at 13,223′), Mitchell Lake is ridiculously beautiful. While there are lots of trails in Indian Peaks Wilderness Area, the trail to Mitchell lake is less than 1 mile – perfect for my 3-year old daughter’s first hike sans child carrying backpack. It’s also short enough that my 22-week pregnant wife will join us.
I have fond memories of camping in this area as a kid. For example, there was the time when, directly after making camp and bringing water to boil for dinner, my brother promptly announced he “missed mommy” and I chimed in with a sentiment of missing my favorite stuffed animal – we both started balling and my father winds up, according to family lore, packing up camp and carrying us down in the dark and driving home. Dinner left uneaten. While we had a few unexpected twists this time, overall the trip was a total success.
A foot jags into my ribs. An elbow into my ear. A fist into my gut. It’s my daughter. Jumping into bed. Before I have a chance to grumble that there’s a better way to enter a room, she begins a soliloquy about having to crawl over me in order to avoid the frightening whole house fan on the opposite side of the bed.
We finish a leisurely breakfast. My wife begins to shower. I begin to pack. I’m trying to relax and ease into the pace of my wife joining us on an adventure. We end up having a long discussion about the merits of bringing a ground cloth for our lunch. I’m taken with the romantic idea of roughing it – we can sit on rocks or dirt – and push hard to leave that item behind.
We hit the road. We head North up Broadway, taking Lee Hill Drive West and veering onto Old Stage Road. Soon we come to Left Hand Canyon, which runs up through Ward. We cross over the Peak-to-Peak Highway following the signage up to Brainard Lake.
We skirt around Brainard lake, make a right up Mitchell Lake Road, and arrive at the Mitchell Lake Trail Head. The parking lot is full. Ug. That seems wrong, spiritually. I park temporarily. We unload our gear. It is warm (hot?) so we decide to leave the fleece jackets, backup clothes, and backpack to carry them with the car. We put sunscreen on. Then I leave my wife and daughter and drive back down the road to park by Brainard Lake.
This is the consequence of leaving late. Apparently the parking lot at Mitchell Lake Trail Head filled up just after 8 AM. Total bummer. I decide to try to run back up to the Trail Head. I wear down quickly and oscillate between running and fast walking. It’s only 0.6 of a mile so I make it fairly quickly.
I arrive, breathing heavily, and we’re all set to begin.
As we step into the forest, the trail is surrounded by wild flowers – it’s really quite a sight. Bluebells in a dizzying spectrum of blue and violet, fields of red, white, and yellow flowers, sprawling across the feet of pine trees and the backs of granite rocks.
We come to a wooden bridge that crosses over Mitchell Creek. The trail to Mitchell Lake is very well maintained with many wooden walkways and logs used to stabilize the earth. While there are a lot of rocks littering the trail, the footing is for the most part stable and clear of obstacles.
My daughter is doing really great – she’s taken the lead and hasn’t noticed that this is the first time hiking without the child carrying backpack. In previous efforts, she’s only lasted a couple hundred yards before launching into a ballad of her hardship. Is she just a naturally gifted adventurer?
No. She’s not. Moments later she proclaims she needs a rest, an immediate rest, and lays down on the nearest rock to take a nap in the middle of the trail.
We get going again. We discover what appears to be a Carpenter Ant lumbering along a fallen log. My wife springs into an ad hoc lesson on symbiotic relationships in the forest ecosystem. A beautiful opportunity for learning in the field.
By ten we arrive to the lake. Access to the East end of Mitchell Lake is across a narrow wooden walkway.
With each step the shoreline expands and Mt. Audubon seems to surge up to the blue sky, filling our whole peripheral.
The lake is cool to the touch. I take off my shoes. My daughter, wearing water shoes, immediately jumps in. I quickly join her, in an effort to ensure that she doesn’t accidentally take a bath in the frigid water. We have left our backup clothing miles away in the car (good spot for it!). A few heartbeats in the icy lake and our feet start to throb with numbness. We climb back up the bank.
The banks are soggy and nearby land marked off for restoration. It would have been nice to have that ground cloth now as we have no place to sit to eat our lunch. Damn those romantic ideals of roughing it! As we muck around a bit and enjoy the scenery we suddenly become aware that we’re getting covered with mosquitoes. After sweeping a trio of those blood suckers off my shoulder and splatting one on my arm, we decide to leave the shoreline.
Without finding a suitable spot to eat our sandwiches, we decide to hit the trail again. Before we do I want to introduce my daughter to using a compass and map.
The compass I have is old (from Poppy), fashioned from bomb-proof metal. Like my entrenching tool, it has a tone of war to it that gives adventures a Welcome-to-the-Thunderdome kinda feel. A beautiful tactile feeling and weight. We unfold the map, unfold the compass, and place the compass on the map. Keeping one eye on the compass needle and one on the map, I work to position the map to North. Once positioned correctly, I point out a few real world features that can be shown on the map. My daughter is engaged – she loves maps and seems intrigued by the combination of this compass tool and the map. But we are swarmed by mosquitoes, again. It quickly becomes too much and we leave.
The hike back is challenging – lots of stopping to rest and lolly gagging. At one point we need a longer rest and decide to eat our sandwiches by Mitchell Creek.
My daughter is out of steam. I give her a piggyback ride for the last 10 minutes of the hike.
We arrive back at the Trail Head. I run the 0.6 miles to my parking spot at Brainard Lake, then drive around the lake again and back up to Mitchell Lake Trail Head. I think my new rule of thumb is early adventures: pack the night before, leave before 6:30 AM, eat breakfast in transit. Want to minimize fighting the crowds. Meanwhile, back at the Trail Head, my wife and daughter watch a moose trample through the woods. That’s pretty epic, considering our wildlife highlight of the hike was, err.. Carpenter Ants?
We arrive home. My daughter has fallen asleep. We carry her in. Awesome first hike sans child carrying backpack!
- Directions (Google maps)
- Downloadable trail map
- Printed Topo map (I bought mine at Boulder Army Store)
I was winded from running from my parking place at Brainard Lake to the Mitchell Lake Trail Head and forgot to start tracking our route until nearly a 1/3 of the ascent was complete. You’ll notice a discrepancy between the start and finish in this route.
- Back up clothes for my daughter (pants, underwear, long sleeve shirt, runners, socks) and t-shirt for me
- Flip flops for my wife and I (comfort for the drive home)
- Fleece jackets (in case it’s cold at high altitude)
- Coffee (for the drive up)
- Water bottles (for the trail x 2)
- Water bottles (for the drive x2)
- Camera bag
- Toilet paper in ziplock
- Trail map
- Suntan lotion
- Granola bars
- Soft cooler (for the drive)
- Sandwiches in french roll (good for packing)
- Grapes (in Tupperware to keep from getting squished)
- Backpack (in case we need to carry warm clothes on trail)
- Trail runners
- Wish I had: mosquito repellant, bear repellant, lightweight ground cloth or chairs, more snacks
- Pick a date and location
- Get maps
- Get gear
- Pack the night before
- Set alarm clocks, have a plan for breakfast in the car